SUMMERVILLE, S.C. – Zhu Zhu pet hamsters are the must-have present of the 2009 holiday season. They squeak, run through mazes and even ride skateboards without making a mess, making them darlings of kids and their parents.
But Harriet Wortherby knows that a year from now will be a different story. She remembers the Tickle Me Elmo carnage of ‘97 — when just months after parents shelled out big bucks to secure the furry creatures, millions of giggling Elmos were shoved into dusty corners as fickle children transferred their loyalties to Beanie Babies.
In order to turn the inevitable mass abandonment of the hamsters into something positive, Wortherby has established a shelter for the Zhu Zhus at her 50 acre country estate near Summerville and plans to have the hamsters transferred to deserving children in Africa. The shelter is empty now, but she anticipates it will be filled next year. She plans to set up at safe havens at veterinarians’ offices in all 50 states for people to bring the unwanted hamsters, “No questions asked.”
The program, which she is calling “Zhu Zhus for Zulus,” will be modeled after organizations like Aid for AIDS and Recycled AIDS Medicine Program (RAMP), which donate unused AIDS drugs to HIV-positive patients in developing countries. Once a medicine has been prescribed it is illegal to redistribute it within the United States, but there is nothing to bar its redistribution in another country.
The cost of transporting the hamsters will be considerable, but Wortherby has secured the financial backing of animal lover and actress Katherine Heigl, who plays “Izzy” on the hit ABC show Grey’s Anatomy. Heigl’s charity organization, the Jason Debus Heigl Foundation, recently paid $25,000 to fly 25 Chihuahuas from Los Angeles to the East Coast, where they will be adopted and spared an unhappy fate.
California shelters have reported a glut of abandoned Chihuahuas in recent years, due in large part to the heightened profile the breed has enjoyed because of heiress Paris Hilton, whose pet Chihuahua Tinkerbell is a permanent fixture in her handbag. But while the increase in ownership of the yappy dog has been concentrated in California, the Zhu Zhu phenomenon has infected the entire country, with online auction site eBay reporting markups of 500 percent. That’s why Wortherby said that she chose Africa as the recipient of the hamsters.
Wortherby’s proposal has received some criticism by ecologists, who say that releasing the Zhu Zhus without a preliminary study could be tantamount to bringing an invasive species to the continent.
In addition, an informal survey of a Zulu village in South Africa suggested that Zhu Zhus might not be received as gratefully as Wortherby anticipates. “I’d rather have a goat or reliable electricity,” said Mzambo Nkosi, a sentiment echoed by his neighbors. “Or maybe Oprah could expand her school so that my daughter could attend, too.”
Salty Caramel is also a guest correspondent for The Discust. This article can also be found at thediscust.com.