By Joshuah Creswell
New York,NY-When pet owners Josh Tanner and Adam Winslow adopted Ollie from aUnion Squarepet store, they could not have foreseen challenges they would face with a special needs hamster. Born almost blind, unable to speak and showing signs of mild autism, it was unlikely that Ollie would ever be able to lead a normal life.
“We knew he was pretty stupid, even for a hamster,” remarks caretaker Tanner, “but when he couldn’t even figure out how to use the water bottle, we knew we were in for a difficult situation.”
Ollie regularly runs into the walls of his own cage. He appears to believe that running in his wheel transports him to another place. His nights are spent continually pounding his head into this water bottle, for no apparent reason. In all, life looked very bleak for this confused, little hamster. When hope was lost for Ollie, a miracle happened.
“I put Ollie on our piano while Josh was playing, and we were shocked to see him responding to the music. After Josh was finished with a Chopin piece, Ollie walked around on the keys, playing exactly what was just played, note for note,” Winslow explained. “He then ran up and down the keyboard playing these beautiful arpeggios.”
Tanner added, “He can play chords by playing different keys with the front and hind legs, and using his nose to play the top note. He can harmonize with what I play, improvise, or play back anything he hears.
Since the time his gift was discovered, four months ago, Ollie has been living an active life. He is involved in pet therapy in hospitals and nursing homes, has made appearances on late night television, and is working on his first full length album, A Little Hamster Music. Saturday Night Live has him booked as a musical guest for an upcoming episode. According to producer Lorn Michaels, it was either “…[Ollie], Chris Brown, or Kesha, and we decided to go with someone that has talent, and who hasn’t brutally beat a young girl.”
But his greatest achievement may be giving hope to other animals with mental disabilities.
“We got a letter from someone with a mentally unstable dog in a veterinary hospital. He was recovering from a suicide attempt when he saw Ollie’s story on The Tonight Show. Although he will never be a virtuoso pianist, and has no gifts to justify his troubled life, Ollie’s playing didn’t make him feel worse about himself, but somehow inspired him to want to live.”
Despite all these accomplishments, Ollie’s day to day life is still plagued by the same challenges. He still gets lost in his cage, runs into walls, and bangs his head on the cage bars for hours at a time. On tour, Ollie requires constant care and has become somewhat of a diva, drinking only bottled water and using only quality newspapers for his nest. “We used to line his cage with the free El Especialito, but now he will only build a nest with the New York Times.”
“We’re always concerned that he will just jump off the piano and run away, and we had to ban cats from his performances after we almost had an incident,” remarked Tanner. “But once he starts playing, you can tell that he’s happy, and that makes it all worth while.”