You might recall the scandalous behavior that led to the 18 million € ($25 million) in reparations ruled earlier this year by the European Union's highest court (The Court of Justice) to be paid by the government of France. No, it was not related to Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK). It was for the unconscionable treatment of a rare species of hamsters -- les grands hamsters d'Alsace.
Page 1 of the New York Times (10 June 2011) featured a photo of an adorable and seemingly perplexed hamster and guided the reader to the story within. The population of this already endangered species had dwindled dramatically leaving them on the precipice of extinction. Why, you ask? The indifference of civilization is the answer: after hibernating for the winter, les grands hamsters awake ready to eat and procreate, in that order; but instead of finding fields of spring alfalfa and grass as they peer out of their winter burrows there are now autobahns and towering buildings. What fields are left were given over to corn as farmers saw greater profits from this crop, not considering for a moment that corn would yield nothing edible for the ravenous hamsters until late summer -- if they had managed to escape fatality from passing high speed Peugeots and BMWs. Their libido stood little chance in the face of starvation, vehicular menace and urban sprawl.
Banding together with French nature conservationists, les grands hamsters retained lawyers and sued. They won big: eighteen million Euros is not hay. Protected environments for the victims were established, hamster châteaux if you will, where they returned to fine dining and romance and have begun to repopulate the Alsatian countryside.
I recently had occasion to visit Alsace and while there I checked in on those impacted by this suit, including our furry, and now rich, hamster friends.
First I spoke with some farmers. While suitably contrite about the devastation they almost brought down upon the animal kingdom, they lamented the sudden emergence of a powerful farming cooperative for which many of them now worked. After receiving the rather large award from the government, the victorious legal team began buying land on behalf of their clients and taking control of regional crops through a hamster owned and operated agri-business. No more corn was its first mandate. Local farmers told me that their future may be as precarious as had been that of les grands hamsters.
Dusty from my time in the countryside I headed to local towns. I arranged appointments with a number of government officials who were eager to speak, but only under the condition of anonymity. They told me that the nouveau riche rodents were unbridled in the way they used their newly won power. One longstanding mayor reported his poll numbers plummeting and his political opponent, a prominent grand hamster, pulling ahead as election day approached. One Town Hall was being retrofitted with tiny tables and chairs to accommodate the rodent denizens of Alsace.
My trip ended with an audience before the leadership council of Grands Hamsters. I arrived anxious to get their side of the story. I was ushered into a huge salon where the floor was covered with straw and the tables bountiful with nuts and dried fruits flown in that day from North Africa. Some of their chiefs were puffing on cigars and the ladies wore handmade lace. Hamster pups were running wild everywhere I looked. Their abundance was a sight to behold.
I began by sympathizing with their plight, even if no longer apparent. I think I won their amitié. But they were no longer looking back, only ahead. They sought my counsel about leveraged buy-outs and genetically engineered alfalfa. They wanted to know about windmills and other forms of alternative energy. They even asked about PACs (political action committees). My questions about the plight of the farmers and the demise of the former ruling class of Alsatians were dismissed with a Darwinian scoff. When they realized that as a psychiatrist and journalist, I had nothing tangible to offer they made quick work of me, though they did oblige a photo-op.
As I headed back to my hotel I thought about how all our destinies can precipitously change, especially in a market economy. I called my broker and asked if there were any futures to be bought in Grand Hamster enterprises. He said he would look into it.
Dr. Sederer is medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health and Adjunct Professor at the Columbia/Mailman School of Public Health.
His website is www.askdrlloyd.com