October 28, 2009 06:00 PM

“A dwarf hamster,” says filmmaker Jeff Mizushima, “is probably the cutest animal on earth. When you see one, all you want to do is hold it.” True that! The tiny creatures – small enough to fit into any pocket – are irresistibly adorable with their beady little eyes, round bodies and puffy cheeks.

Mizushima was so enthralled with his own pet dwarf hamster, Taquito, that he made his first feature film, Etienne! A Film About the Little Things in Life, about a guy, Richard (played by Richard Vallejos), and his best and only friend, a dwarf hamster named Etienne. When Etienne is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Richard chucks his job to take his pocket-sized pal on a bicycle trip through the northern California Redwoods and coastline.

“I’d seen movies about hamsters and talking guinea pigs, but I don’t ever remember seeing a film about a dwarf hamster,” Mizushima tells PEOPLEPets.com. The cuteness factor, the director admits, was also a “big production value.”

Currently screening at film festivals around the world, Etienne! has already won Best Narrative Feature at the Oxford International Film Festival and a Special Jury Prize at the CineVegas Film Festival.

Originally, four hamsters, including Taquito, were cast to play the title role of Etienne, but that number soon multiplied to 12 when two of the dwarf hamsters had babies. “We didn’t know they were pregnant,” says Mizushima. “The babies were the size of your thumb. Two escaped through the bars of the cage while filming and we had look all over for them.” Luckily, the babies were found and placed in specially built cages. (For this reason, an aquarium with ventilation, rather than a wire cage, is advised.)

Why so many hamsters for one role? “You need more than one animal to play the lead,” says Mizushima. “We knew that one hamster would move and go after a piece of cheese, while other hamsters wouldn’t move at all. To play a hamster that looked sick, we used one of the older hamsters that wouldn’t budge once they were out of the cage.”

American Humane, an organization that monitors animal safety on film sets and issues the “No Animals Were Harmed” movie disclaimer, was present during the filming of Etienne! “The rep gave us hours that the hamsters could work. She’d say, ‘After four hours, you have to give the hamsters a break’ and we’d swap hamsters,” Mizushima explains.

At end of filming, all the baby dwarf hamsters were adopted by the cast and crew. “They’re the best animals children can have, aside from goldfish,” claims Mizushima. “They’re easy to maintain and don’t smell at all. The more you hold a dwarf hamster, the more it wants to be held and petted.” Just make sure to keep an eye on the little critters!

See more hamsters on PEOPLEPets.com:
Just Hatched! A Hamster Photo Shoot
VIDEO: Hamster Chompin’ On Popcorn!

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