Note: No hamsters were harmed in the making of these images, and these scenarios were designed with natural hamster behavior in mind.
“When we brought Nibbles home, we realized that hamsters are a lot more work than people think,” the photographer Traer Scott tells me. “She hid for like a week straight, and we were thinking, ‘Wow, there is not much reward in this.’ But then we started working with her, and she warmed up to us immensely. My daughter would take her out when she got home from school, and we would make her safe spaces to run around in. That’s where the dollhouse came in.”
Hamsters often need space when they first come home, so Scott and her family took it slow. These animals also require mental stimulation and daily exercise; Nibbles stood on her hind feet each night when she was ready to come out to play. And as they soon discovered, she liked exploring the daughter’s dollhouse, trying out the beds and adventuring from room to room.
Hamsters don’t live for a long time, and Nibbles has since passed away, but her memory has helped inspire Scott’s latest photo book, Goodbye Salad Days, featuring hamsters in meticulously crafted handmade dioramas. The book tells the story of Kevin, a fictional hamster in the throes of a quarter-life crisis. The character of Kevin was played by multiple hamsters, starting with Nibbles. “There has been a legacy of Kevins,” the photographer says. “Hamsters are all different. But all hamsters are adorable and have remarkable and very charming abilities, like stuffing carrots into their cheek pouches.”
Although she insists that Kevin isn’t based on anyone in particular, Scott drew inspiration from her own memories when imagining Kevin’s home, work, and social life. “I did take a lot of the ideas for the scenes from my 20s and early 30s,” she says. “I also live in a college town which has a very young general population, so I see wave after wave of kids struggle as they stumble towards adulthood. I wanted Kevin to be a boy because, frankly, it allowed me to make him to be a bit more clueless and bumbling than a woman would generally be portrayed.”
Scott collaborated with her husband and daughter to build the dioramas, and she created many of the props herself, learning as she went by following YouTube tutorials. She also included references to Harry Potter and The Beatles, both family favorites. “Building the dioramas took so much longer than I expected–like many months longer,” she explains. “I kept having to ask for extensions. The process was me generally curating and collecting little elements over time for each scenario and then bringing them all together when I had to.
“Some elements were handmade by me, some bought in various cities I traveled to, many ordered online. Also, all of the artwork that you see, like posters, paintings, and wall décor, were all done by me. That was super fun.”
The comfort of the animals was always the top priority. Once placed in the dioramas, the hamsters could roam as they wished, and they got plenty of treats, including carrots and grapes. Scott designed many of the scenarios with natural hamster instincts and behaviors in mind. “What I always tell people is you can’t make a hamster do anything,” she says. “They usually explored and then tried to eat various elements of the scene, or stuff them in their cheek pouches, so we learned pretty quickly that everything had to be glued down.
“Shooting took a very, very long time and we often had to do multiple sessions of something because the hamster would get stressed, and we knew we had to end it. The fact is that if the animal is unhappy, you will get terrible photos, so caring about your pet’s comfort and happiness is beneficial all the way around.”
Though often misunderstood or labeled as a “starter pet,” hamsters are complex, sentient creatures, so it’s important to do your research if you ever plan to bring one home. Adoption is always the best option, although you might have to be patient or find the right rescue because there aren’t as many hamsters available as there are rabbits or guinea pigs. With that being said, there are some dedicated rescues offering hamsters for adoption. Many shelters will also have a small animals room, so ask around.
As all of the hamsters in Goodbye Salad Days were beloved family pets, Scott emphasizes the importance of providing attention and care. “When people decide to get a hamster, they need to be willing to commit to a ‘real’ pet,” the photographer explains. “They are not disposable. They need daily exercise and care. I worry that too many pet hamsters are not getting their basic needs met. Hamsters are clever, curious little animals, and they need mental and physical stimulation. They also poop constantly, so you have to be ready to clean the cage a lot!”
With proper care and plenty of stimulation, hamsters make wonderful friends and companions. In Scott’s case, they also became unlikely muses. The individuals who played Kevin have all sadly passed away, but the family welcomed a new hamster into their home shortly after the book was completed. His name is Neville, and they love him dearly.
Of course, Scott and her family will always remember Nibbles, the hamster who started it all when her daughter discovered she liked playing in her dollhouse. “My daughter loves the book,” the artist tells me. “She took it to school to show to her class, and I wasn’t sure that it would resonate with the kids, but they loved it. Really loved it even though they didn’t understand all or even most of the jokes. I think it works on multiple levels.”
Goodbye Salad Days: Kevin Faces Adulthood is published by Chronicle Books. Get your copy here. If you’re in the New York area, you can see the work on exhibition at Photoville at Brooklyn Bridge Park now through December 1st, 2021.