When an Austrian real estate development company was commissioned by the government to renovate the University College of Teacher Education in Vienna, it faced a problem. The school's campus is home to about 50 wild common hamsters. While the common hamster is plentiful in some parts of the world, it is a protected species in Austria.
To allow this 50 million-euro (nearly $58 million) project to continue, executives at the company Bundesimmobiliengesellschaft, or BIG, hired Friedrich Vondruska, a landscaping consultant who specializes in environmentally friendly design, to help the company comply with regulations protecting the hamster.
Reporters at Austria's public radio station ORF got wind of this partnership and dubbed Vondruska "The Hamster Commissioner."
His story took off. He was featured on local TV news. He recently even gave a news conference.
As the project's hamster commissioner, Vondruska, a heavyset man with gray hair and ruddy cheeks, visits the construction site in the 10th district of Vienna every week to make sure the hamsters are doing all right. He says that since building started this summer, not a single hamster has been injured. He has a map showing where all the hamster burrows are on site, and whether they are active or inactive.
The active burrows are fenced off. As the construction goes on, Vondruska will move the hamsters — or actually motivate them to move themselves — by engaging in some strategic lawn mowing.
"Hamsters need places to hide," Vondruska says. "If there is no place to hide, they will move to another area."
Although this process sounds painstaking, Ernst Eichinger, BIG's spokesperson, says that protecting the hamsters will not slow down construction. "It just requires extra planning," he says.
Europe has been known to take its hamsters seriously. In 2011, the European Court of Justice threatened to fine France the equivalent of $24.6 million for not doing enough to protect the common hamster.
The European Union says the animal lives for just one to two years and needs to produce two litters a year to maintain its population levels. Changes to its natural habitat, for things like agriculture and infrastructure, can pose risks to its survival.
The common hamster used to be so ubiquitous in Europe it was considered a pest. But its numbers plummeted in the 1970s and '80s because industrial farming and urban development destroyed much of its habitat.
Today, its global survival as a species is of little concern, especially compared with the many species facing extinction on the planet, but its status varies from country to country in Europe. In Austria, the common hamster population is now stable, and in the city of Vienna it's even increasing, thanks to conservation efforts. Still, conservationists say Austria's common hamsters remain vulnerable and warn that the animals continue to face threats across the continent.
Common hamsters have brown and white faces, black bellies, and perky ears. Despite being adorable, they are rarely kept as pets because they are known for being aggressive.
"They look nice and friendly," Vondruska says, "but if you get too close, they fight you like a bear."
These hamsters are about 10 inches long, though, and weigh less than a pound. When they can't fight for themselves, Vondruska is there to fight for them. At least in Vienna.