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What Makes Zoey Run?

The fastest hamster on L.A.’s Westside runs a distance of eight feet in under 15 seconds, which is, comparatively speaking, just a couple of small steps for a human, but a giant step for rodentkind.

“We practiced on a track every night,” says Nibbles’ owner and coach, 13-year-old Josh Dassa, at this year’s Petco Hamster Ball Derby in Westwood, where hamsters have been racing for the past few hours in heats of four. Nibbles, a three-inch dwarf hamster with charcoal-gray-and-white hair, was a kind of dark horse in the running. He (or she, no one is quite sure) arrived unceremoniously in a clear, white plastic hamster ball carried by Dassa and his pretty blond-haired companion (friend or girlfriend, again, we can’t be sure).

Not every hamster is so unprepossessing. Earlier in the parking lot, I ran into a family of four humans — dressed in neatly pressed jeans and matching Hawaiian dragon shirts — unloading a truckful of tricked-out hamster cages. Team Evans consists of mom Diana, dad Aristotle, their son Aristotle Jr. and second son Brandon.

During practice rounds, Aristotle Sr. informs me, it is important to warm up your hamster, but not tire him out. Furthermore, hamsters are nocturnal, so Aristotle Sr. took special care to remind Aristotle Jr. to wake up the critters early that day so they wouldn’t be drowsy at race time.

“They love to run,” says Aristotle Sr. excitedly. He is a small, wiry Filipino man, full of energy and proof positive that all humans eventually resemble their pets. He grew up in Baguio City and didn’t own hamsters until he got to the United States. Nowadays, he works as a courier for KBS Delivery Service. “And before that I was a long-haul truck driver, and before that I was a cab driver. I can’t be stuck at a desk all day because I love driving. I know Los Angeles well, except there are some streets that don’t show up on the map.”

Left to their own devices, hamsters run up to eight miles in a single night at speeds of 2 to 3 mph. This love of running has prompted some enterprising folks to explore hamster power as an alternative energy source. But if the aficionados online are to be believed, it would take 1,000 hamsters running at top speed to generate enough electricity to light a 100-watt bulb.

With practice rounds done, all hamster parents are asked to report to the race area in the Small Animal section, located conveniently near the cash registers and just below the wall of terrariums — so the legions of unpurchased rats, fancy mice, gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits and chinchillas can watch, presumably, with envy.

“My question is: Are they gonna let these big hamsters compete against the little ones?” says Frank Leyon, father of Romy Leyon, owner of dwarf hamster Zoey. “Because the big ones have much longer legs.”

Zoey, according to popular, 8-year-old Romy, is a hamster fraught with positively Hamlet-esque contradictions. She doesn’t like to sleep, but sleeps all night. She doesn’t bite, but sometimes she does, though hardly anymore.

“I’m not worried,” Romy says, just before getting swept away by a platoon of little girls who have arrived to show support. “But the only thing I’m worried about is that.” Her eyes shoot daggers at a fat orange teddy bear hamster named Big Guy, whom I recognize from the parking lot as a member of Team Evans.

Of the hamsters in Team Evans — which include Injured (dropped on her head as a baby) and Escapee (likes to escape) — Big Guy is the biggest. But Vanilla is the fastest, and the only one that dances the Macarena.

Like sexing it, handicapping a hamster is a notoriously dicey proposition. What with surprise reversals in orientation, and balls popping open, and the contenders falling asleep in the middle of the track or stopping to eat bits of corn stored in their cheek pouches, heats can last anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. And the Petco derby, though a nationwide event, is distinct from professional hamster racing, which was born circa 2001, when a particularly nasty outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease caused the suspension of horse races in England. British bettors, jonesing for a good wager, raced hamsters in miniature dragsters. Last year, the sport even got its own show on MTV Overdrive U.K., from whence a single hamster superstar emerged: Mario Hamdretti, a.k.a. “The Hamsterminator,” whose turn-ons include “winning” and “pain.” With 18 career wins, and enough chutzpah to take on the local cats, Hamdretti is the Man O’War of rodent racing.

The fur flies during the final round of the Petco Hamster Ball Derby as Josh Dassa’s Nibbles sails smoothly across the finish line, tiny feet pumping. It’s a photo finish between Zoey and Squirmy for second. Vanilla finishes last.

Soon the plastic track and checkered flags are carted away. The girls, loaded down with new hamster accessories (ingenious off-to-school pet carriers, Kritter Kebab fruit dispensers, honey treats, water bottles), head for the registers. An older couple watch the dwarf hamsters toddling about in terrariums, snuggling, sleeping, chewing. “You wanna blow your brains out, they’re so cute,” the man says.

“I feel guilty,” Dassa says sheepishly as he holds the tiny, shot-glass-sized trophy that he will display beside Nibbles’ cage. “It was too easy.” But he will be back next year, he promises. Team Evans will be there too.