The Zion­ist Zool­o­gist Who Brought Ham­sters Into Our Homes

Forward Magazine - - Foreground - By Sam Bromer

On April 12, 1930, a Zion­ist zool­o­gist, his Syr­ian guide, a lo­cal sheikh and a group of hired la­bor­ers gath­ered in a wheat field out­side Aleppo, Syria. They started dig­ging. Hours passed without in­ci­dent, save for the de­struc­tion of a fair por­tion of a lo­cal farmer’s crop. Un­de­terred, they con­tin­ued ex­ca­vat­ing un­til, at last, the la­bor­ers lo­cated their tar­get: a nest full of tiny, adorable baby ham­sters. Is­rael Aha­roni, the zool­o­gist who prompted the search, de­scribed the mo­ment in a diary en­try: “Af­ter sev­eral hours of hard work, they suc­ceeded in rais­ing from a depth of 8 feet, a com­plete nest, nicely up­hol­stered, with a mother and her 11 young!”

Aha­roni and his team had found the Syr­ian ham­ster — or, as it is now known in el­e­men­tary school class­rooms through­out the world, the golden ham­ster. That crea­ture, whose nat­u­ral range is a mere 1,900 square miles and whose evo­lu­tion­ary in­stincts force it deep un­der­ground, is rarely found in the wild any­more. But, due to Aha­roni’s ef­forts — and de­spite a few dev­as­tat­ing mishaps that al­most ren­dered his work fu­tile — rel­a­tives of spec­i­mens found in this sin­gle nest now live in nu­mer­ous coun­tries around the world.

Aha­roni’s ex­cite­ment prob­a­bly wore off quickly; it turned out that car­ing for the furry crea­tures was a night­mare. When he placed them in a box, the mother ham­ster be­gan to eat her ba­bies, and she had to be killed. Then, as Rob Dunn writes in a 2011 Smith­so­nian mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle, af­ter Aha­roni took the ham­sters back to Jerusalem, five ham­sters “chewed their way out of the wooden cage.” As if things weren’t bad enough, one of the four re­main­ing ham­sters pro­ceeded to eat one of his fe­male sib­lings, leav­ing only three. The sit­u­a­tion seemed hope­less, but, to para­phrase Jeff Gold­blum’s im­mor­tal “Juras­sic Park” line, life, uh, found a way. Two of the sib­ling ham­sters pro­duced 150 baby ham­sters, and the pet ham­ster was (lit­er­ally) born. Aha­roni had in­tended to breed the ro­dents as lab­o­ra­tory an­i­mals, but by 1938, they had be­come do­mes­tic an­i­mals in the U.S. and the U.K. It’s un­clear if Aha­roni was lit­er­ally

dig­ging in those fields out­side Aleppo: Ac­cord­ing to Michael R. Mur­phy’s “His­tory of the Golden Ham­ster” (1985), the zool­o­gist’s col­league Ge­orge Hess once re­marked that Aha­roni was “a ter­ri­ble coward.” Only his “love of na­ture and ex­ces­sive cu­rios­ity” gave him enough grit to go out in the field and ex­plore. That cu­rios­ity led Aha­roni from a shtetl in the Pale of Set­tle­ment through the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire, Syria, Tran­sjor­dan and Pales­tine to the Sinai. Apart from the ham­ster dis­cov­ery, which has be­come his legacy, Aha­roni lived a re­mark­able, pro­duc­tive life.

Born in Vidzy, in mod­ern-day Be­larus, Aha­roni (who changed his name from Aharonovitz) stud­ied zo­ol­ogy and Semitic philol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Prague. Ac­cord­ing to Oded Shay, an Is­raeli scholar, Aha­roni was in­flu­enced by Men­dele Mocher Sforim’s’ “Toldot ha-teva” (“His­tory of Na­ture”), a He­brew book se­ries for young read­ers that dis­cussed the fauna of Pales­tine and even gave the an­i­mals He­brew names — as well as by his re­li­giously rooted Zion­ism — and sought to re­search the liv­ing crea­tures of the Holy Land.

Aha­roni set­tled in Re­hovot, Pales­tine, in 1902. In “Mem­o­ries of a He­brew Zool­o­gist,” a me­moir he com­pleted a few years be­fore his death in 1946, Aha­roni ex­plained that even at such a young age, he was cer­tain of his goals in Pales­tine: First, he wanted to “study … wild an­i­mals in their habi­tat.” Sec­ond, he wanted study these an­i­mals’ “orig­i­nal names,” by draw­ing from his vast knowl­edge of the He­brew bi­ble and from re­search­ing lo­cal “desert dwellers.”

With these ob­jec­tives in mind, Aha­roni be­gan to col­lect rare bird spec­i­mens, and to give them sci­en­tific, He­brew and Ara­bic names. Ac­cord­ing to Shay, while Aha­roni trav­eled be­tween Syria, Iraq and Be­douin en­camp­ments in Ot­toman Pales­tine, he “dis­cov­ered many new species, and many thought to be ex­tinct.” (He ap­par­ently housed many of the spec­i­mens in his home; since “Psy­cho” hadn’t yet come out, it seems it was still so­cially ac­cept­able to have a house filled with taxi­der­mied birds.) Today, his col­lected spec­i­mens — in­clud­ing a north­ern bald ibis, which is now a crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species in the Mid­dle East — are housed in the Nat­u­ral His­tory Col­lec­tions of the He­brew Univer­sity.

Aha­roni’s life was filled with other fas­ci­nat­ing ad­ven­tures. He ex­plored the Dead Sea and Tran­sjor­dan for but­ter­flies, which he pre­sented to Sul­tan Ab­dul Hamid II of the Ot­toman Em­pire. Dur­ing World War II, Aha­roni served as the zool­o­gist for the Turk­ish army, where, ac­cord­ing to Shay, his mis­sion was to “direct the war against lo­custs,” which were a ter­ri­ble bur­den on sol­diers. Not all of Aha­roni’s the­o­ries of wildlife in the Holy Land would prove to be cor­rect — his as­ser­tion that the bib­li­cal taber­na­cle may have been adorned with the hide of a nar­whal, or “sea-uni­corn,” has not been borne out by science — but he bravely and pas­sion­ately pur­sued his cu­rios­ity in an un­fa­mil­iar land and laid the foun­da­tions for gen­er­a­tions of Is­raeli sci­en­tists. Still, for bet­ter or worse, it’s those pesky ham­sters that keep his legacy alive.

Sam Bromer is the For­ward’s cul­ture in­tern. Con­tact him at bromer@for­

Aha­roni had in­tended to breed the ro­dents as lab­o­ra­tory an­i­mals.


ON THE RO­DENT: Is­rael Aha­roni is cred­ited with dis­cov­er­ing the Syr­ian ham­ster.

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