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No Hamster's Ball: Petco Cancels Rodent Races for Fear of Running Afoul of City Law

By Olivier Uyttebrouck
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    There was no chance for some quick-footed hamster to emerge as the next Seabiscuit last weekend.
    That's because Petco Stores suspended its hamster races to stay clear of Albuquerque's new animal ordinance.
    Petco, which opened its third city location Saturday on the West Side, typically holds hamster ball races to celebrate the opening of a store.
    The sight of small, fuzzy critters racing down a track in plastic balls may seem innocent enough, but Petco dispensed with the tradition because the city's ordinance prohibits "live animal racing for public exhibition." The law took effect in October.
    "I know of no other local ordinance anywhere in the country where hamster racing is prohibited," said Don Cowan, a spokesman for Petco, which operates 850 stores in 49 states.
    City officials say the store probably qualifies for an exemption under the ordinance, which allows the mayor to approve animal races in some circumstances.
    "We certainly are not the animal Nazis," said Councilwoman Sally Mayer, who sponsored the animal ordinance.
    "That was not my intent to prevent something like that," Mayer said of hamster ball races. "My gosh, for the opening of a store, that does not seem objectionable."
    Mayer said the provision is intended to prevent commercial operations such as dog tracks that allow pari-mutuel betting.
    Petco studied the ordinance and didn't consider challenging the provision against animal racing, said Rick Nordaker, Petco's district manager for New Mexico and Colorado. "In my mind, it was pretty clear."
    Mayer suggested that Petco contact the City Attorney's Office or Mayor Martin Chávez to request an exemption from the ordinance.
    Cowan said Petco will try to obtain an exemption before a national hamster ball race scheduled for March 31, in which races are held in stores across the country.
    Kids take hamsters to the events, place them in plastic balls and rely on the rodents' running instincts to propel the ball down an 8-foot track toward a finish line.
    Petco suspended the races in September, just before the city's ordinance took effect, Nordaker said.
    The centerpiece of the city ordinance requires that dogs and cats be neutered unless their owners buy a $150 permit. The prohibition against animal racing is on Page 58.
    Mayer's controversial 68-page ordinance went through 16 drafts, a court challenge and several standing-room-only City Council meetings. It added definitions of cruelty, raised fees and revisited every aspect of animal care that was in the former law.
    Its critics said it went too far.
    Denise Wilcox, who oversees the Albuquerque Animal Care Centers, said her office has the authority to grant an exemption from the animal racing ban if Petco requests one. The determination would be based on an inspection by a city field officer, she said.
    "We just want to ensure that the animals are humanely cared-for," Wilcox said. "We'll make sure the hamsters are not being abused, and we'll take it under consideration."