Author Daniel Allen invited me to a meeting with two pet hedgehog breeders in hope, I think, of a fight. He is writing a book about exotic pet keepers and their animals and has been on a peculiar tour of coatis, pythons, raccoons and ant-eaters in search of a bit of understanding as to what motivates the choice of these unlikely house-guests.

My position on pet hedgehogs is pretty well known. Having had a brilliantly eccentric time in Denver, Colorado at the Rocky Mountain Hedgehog Show, I was well aware of what the pet hedgehog world can generate. And I have written about the sporadic attempts by exotic pet breeders in the UK to kick-start a fad-pet craze.

So I arrived at the strange venue, a sort of service station merged with a farm-shop, ready to defend my position – that there is no good reason to stimulate the interest in pet hedgehogs in the UK.

Daniel was already in place with Helen Gill and Louvain Greyfaulk. And they had been joined by a young woman from Cardiff, Tayer Witchell, who was there to pick up a baby hedgehog from Gill and hand over a young, furry and impossibly cute, rabbit.

Helen runs a pet shop in Cheshire – Simply Seahorses; Louvain had travelled up from Berkshire who describes herself as a house wife and hobby-breeder of pet hedgehogs. Between them all, they help run a web forum that assists in re-homing abandoned hedgehogs. And they had all descended on Birmingham for the fight arranged by Daniel.

How disappointed he must have been! I must have had a rare attack of diplomacy, and the three women were delightfully odd. And, in retrospect, I am seeing something odd in me too. I am getting older. I am (and there are some who would argue this is about time) developing a more nuanced attitude to previously straightforward black and white issues.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still some definites in this debate. I think that any time wildlife is incorporated into the ‘free market’, wildlife suffers. Wild animals must not be taken in as pets.

But what of exotic pets? When does an exotic pet stop being a ‘wild’ animal? How many generations in captivity before they are no longer wild?

Another ‘definite’ position is to do with welfare. But I am wary of getting drawn into welfare issues before I have got the ‘rights’ sorted out in my mind. Is it right to keep an animal as a pet? I would say that yes, it can be, if the animal has an enriched existence. Clearly someone who mistreats animals, whether wild or domestic, is contemptible.

You can tell I did not study philosophy, this argument is not very clear yet. But what I am getting to is the problem of pet hedgehogs in the UK. My instinct is to say this is wrong. And I base that not on the impact on the African species that have been bred into glorious array patterns and colours, but on the impact on the one species I have studied and grown to love, the Western European Hedgehog. My worry is that, should the numpties win and pet hedgehogs become a must have fad pet craze, unscrupulous folk will try selling off our hedgehogs as pets. Additionally, there is the impact on wildlife hospitals, who are in the position of not being able to release these pet hedgehogs when they are brought in, and are also not in a position of wanting to support the pet industry by putting the hogs back into the system.

But – and this is where Helen and Lou came in – there are already many people out there with pet hedgehogs. How many? No one knows. But they are there and they need the best advice as to how to look after their hedgehogs. And they need a support network so that when they get bored, they can at least have the animals cared for and re-homed. And this is what they offer through their web-forum.

Before any answers, some photos … because there were two hedgehogs in attendance, and this is where there is a clear conflict again – they are, undeniably, cute.

My conflict? I am not keen to support something that could lead to problems for our wild hedgehogs. But, there are pet hedgehogs out there that could benefit from support. And the pet hedgehogs can, and are, used to help raise awareness and fund that help wild hedgehogs. Both Helen and Lou have raised funds for wildlife carers and have spread the word about our wonderful Hedgehog Street.

The result? No fights but lots of talk. I remain on a rather wobbly fence. I would be horrified if there was a craze of pet hedgehogs, it would be disastrous for their welfare and for the wild hedgehogs too. But I would also like to see pet hedgehogs that are already there being kept well, and, when possible, being used to help promote the cause of our wild hedgehogs.

So, now I turn to you lot! What do you think? Am I being naive in not railing against pet hedgehog breeders? Am I being harsh on exotic pet keepers? Give me your thoughts and I will see if I can focus mine a little better too!

ps – I got to cuddle one too:

The research I am doing for the next book - on the iconography of hedgehogs – is allowing me to call some delightful things work – for example, I was forced to watch these two clips of an extended sketch from Monty Python.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jmnspyj-eY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhV856sXf3w&feature=fvwrel

Anyone with an interest in hedgehogs, violence, corruption or sarcasm would be well-advised to settle down for a short 15 minutes.

Rare is the time that I find myself in agreement with Les Stocker at St Tiggywinkles wildlife hospital (well, okay, not that rare, it is just that I am still smarting from some rather snooty behaviour) – but this report on the BBC news website about the attempt to promote African Pygmy Hedgehogs as pets in the UK is spot on … While it did what the BBC is obliged to do, and give two sides to a story, it clearly came down on the side of sanity.

As I have said before, on here and in my book, those extremely cute little hedgehogs – mash ups of Atelerix albiventris and Atelerix algirus –  in fact, here is some proof of quite how cute

(this one was called Matilda, sharing a name with my daughter) – they should not be encouraged as pets in the UK.

In the USA and Canada, should mainly focus on the welfare of the hedgehogs being kept in captivity – though I am still keen to address the issue of keeping wild animals at all … how long does it take a wild animal to be bred into a domestic one? It is about 20 years since the first ones were exported from Nigeria to the USA. Are these still wild animals? Could they survive back in their original habitat? I don’t know.

But in the UK there are two additional problems. First, numpties who think they can make a fast buck by trying to sell wild European hedgehogs as pets to other numpties who think they would rather not pay the £150 for the pleasure of a spiky nocturnal pet. It will happen if the craze catches on.

And secondly, the inevitability of boredom … there is a reason why the craze of keeping pet hedgehogs in the USA crested quickly and then quickly died. These are not great pets for most people. And children, especially, will get bored. And what to do? Many will be released into the wild (why not, there are hedgehogs out there already says the numpty) … where they will die, or be found and handed into one of the already overburdened wildlife rescue hospitals around the country. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has a list of active carers on their website – it would be interesting to know how many have already received unwanted pygmy hedgehogs. I know of at least six.

And what do the carers do? They cannot release the hogs, and they do not want to get involved with selling them on … so they are left with  them.

So – please – please – however cute they may be – think about how much more wonderful the experience is of seeing a wild animal snuffling around your garden at night – and put your time, money and effort into doing what you can to save our native hedgehogs (for example Hedgehog Street), rather than becoming side-tracked by the selfish desires to mount a potentially damaging must-have-pet craze.

To be honest, the title should probably be A LOT of self-promotion and bonfires, but that seemed somehow wrong.

To get the nitty-gritty of this dealt with first – there are a lot of bonfires planned for this week and some of these will exact a miserable toll on the country’s wildlife. If you need proof of that, pop along to a wildlife hospital and take a look at the few who survive being roasted. So the British Hedgehog Preservation Society makes a very big point at this time of year to ask you all to just check before you light your fire.

I did a piece on BBC West Midlands a while back where the slogan they were generating was, I think, ‘poke a bonfire, save a hedgehog’ … and as long as you use the handle end of a garden fork, that is great. Try and see if you can lift it a  little and look underneath. Better still, collect all your fuel in one place and then move it to the bonfire the day you are going to light it.

In 2009 the hedgehog lovers at Spontex have got in on the act, securing bouncers to protect a large fire, stopping hedgehogs unwittingly installing themselves in the wonderful shelter …

(photo by Fay Vass – BHPS boss)

Spontex have a good history of idiosyncratic hedgehog-related advertising as my previous post has shown …

So please, check out your bonfires before you light them. Hedgehogs face enough of a threat from everything else we do, so please give the pile a poke before setting it alight.

And now the payback – I have asked you to consider the dark misery of roasting hedgehogs, now I offer you some relief …

I am performing my almost ecological-stand up routine at the Idler Academy on November 22nd … and I want (to be honest, NEED) an audience of enormous proportions … and that is only partly because the amount I get paid is relative to the number of tickets sold … it is also because I want to instil my brand of hedgehog-love deep into the hearts of as many people as possible … and also to introduce new people to the wonder that is the Idler Academy … So, please, book tickets and tell your friends. It will be fun …

I am still deeply embedded in the world of hedgehogs as I research my latest book, for the Reaktion Animal Series. This gives such license to spend all day searching through obscure references to the wonderful animal. And what a treat I received today when I tracked down a fairly obscure book from 1767 by Stephen Fovargue. Called, ‘New Catalogue of Vulgar Errors‘ it is available online. And on page 174 there is this:

I almost spat out my coffee as I read that for the first time, before realising the complications of archaic spelling …

The rest of the book is fascinating and well worth a read. The Preface is something that I think we could all benefit from considering: “To explain the use of education, no method can be more effectual, than to show what dull mistakes and silly notions men are apt to be led into for want of it.” To avoid further confusion, I have modernised the spelling.

Other delightful errors in need of Fovargue’s correction include, “That the heron makes a hole in the bottom of her nest, through which her feet hand, when she sits upon her eggs” and “That there is now, or ever was, such a science as astrology.” And remembering that this was 1767 it is interesting to note that the following was considered a great fallacy, “That the way to make boys learn their books, is to keep them in school all day, and whip them.”

That has helped give me a perfect morning of industry and self-amusement.

I have just had a moment, possibly indicative of senior ones to come, when I tried to check online for more updated information on a subject about which I had written, only to find all the references were to my writings about the subject … which makes me fear I might have made it all up.

And if it were not for the photographs I took at the 2007 Rocky Mountain Hedgehog Show in Denver, Colorado, I might be even more befuddled. But the photographs tell me that I was there and I did witness the International Hedgehog Olympic Games.

In fact, here are a few:

The reason I am back in the world of hedgehog shows is twofold – I am in the middle of writing a book about the iconography of hedgehogs for Reaktion and there is a chapter on domestication. So I wanted to see how things were doing in the amazing world of hedgehog-petdom in the USA. The other reason is that the latest show is about to begin, so if you find yourself within spitting distance of the Double Tree Hotel in Denver, get yourself to the Show.

One thing that did amaze me was the detail with which those who assess the ‘quality’ of hedgehogs on show have gone. The International Hedgehog Association now recognises 92 colour varieties! Salt and pepper, cinnamon, apricot, chocolate … the hedgehogs all begin to sound quite appetising.

Nice and quiet Sunday – recovering from a busy Saturday in Manchester where I was talking hedgehogs at the museum thanks to ExtInked, who have a display up there. Had been planning to hang around up there and have fun with the wonderful friends who inhabit the place, but had managed to wreck my back a few days ago while splitting logs, and was too uncomfortable to play. Next time, however, it will coincide with me getting my second, and LAST, tattoo … more here soon.

But back to this morning, while I was busy washing up and Pip was playing – with enforced Brahms in the background, a phone call came through from Firebird PR – who work with the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species. Could I be an expert, in an hour, for Channel 4 News … and we need stunt hedgehogs …

Luckily, Penny Little, who runs the Little Foxes rescue put us in touch with one of her fosterers, who takes the less-critical hedgehogs in until they are fit for release. Anne Fowler lives only 20 minutes away, so, after a shave and a realisation I needed a haircut (too late for that) I was soon at her door.

‘They had to want to do it today,’ she said as she invited me in. ‘One of the hedgehogs escaped last night and is under the dishwasher,’ and she pointed to the dismantled kitchen unit. But still the hedgehog had evaded capture, when she had managed to gently grasp it with the barbecue tongs it had rolled into a ball, understandably, and had become too big to extract. So there was a stand-off. And a plate of dog food with which to lure him out.

Channel 4 were not far behind me. I had been at the launch of an important report on Tuesday in London. The State of Britain’s Mammals had been commissioned by the PTES and was written by the UK’s top mammal scientist, Professor David Macdonald from Oxford University’s WildCRU. But David was in Brazil, and anyway, the story that the press had picked up on, again, was the parlous state of the UK’s hedgehog population. So, being local, and a media tart, I was ‘perfect’!

Cut aways of hedgehogs roaming the garden in daylight will undoubtedly upset the purists – hedgehogs are, of course, nocturnal and if they are out in the day, something is probably wrong with them. But I was most impressed with the journalist presenting the piece, Asha Tanna. I told her that these images would result in letters, and she very naturally wrote an explanation into her script … and while it is important people do not think that hedgehogs enjoy sunbathing, there is also something very powerful about actually seeing the real animal … even if it is out at the wrong time.

I have watched many of these sorts of reports being recorded, and it is always great to see the cameraman (and sorry, I forgot his name) find their inner-David Attenborough and go trying to capture every possible bit of actuality.

At one point it looked as if it was the hedgehog being interviewed!

Very impressive to watch them head off at 2.15 with a plan to have it all ready for 6.15 tonight … fast work!

And the story? Hedgehogs in decline, down 25% in 10 years, and over 90% in the last 60 years (though that is based on a possibly not very reliable population estimate from 1950). What we need to do? For a start, Hedgehog Street.

While radio-tracking hedgehogs, many years ago, around the fields of Devon I became quite lonely. Working from 9pm to 4am out in the dark and rain, returning to my cold, damp and draughty caravan to sleep for a few hours before heading back out to check all the day-nests was a tiring existence.

So it was no surprise to me that I started to talk to my hedgehogs. And while each had a unique number, referring to the frequency of the radio-signal the little box on their back gave off, I found that they easily acquired names. So Freya, the enthusiastic traveller, Nigel, the speed freak and ‘little Willy’, the one who had recovered from an intimate swelling all became my nocturnal friends. Those of you who have heard me talk on the matter will know that Nigel was my favourite hedgehog, becoming a close friend and also seeding in me the idea that has gone on to shape much of my thinking since then.

But it is George I turn to, if only as a link to a film I have just been to see. And what different characters. George the Hedgehog, the Polish animation, features a spiky protagonist about as far removed from the solid and reliable hedgehog I became fond of in Devon. In fact my Devon hedgehog almost had me in tears on BBC Radio. I had had a bad run of losing animals, even my beloved Nigel, to cars and badgers. This led to a line that I thought would be edited out of my book, A Prickly Affair, ‘and I watched in horror as my Little Willy was eaten by a badger.’

George had gone missing, I was recording my thoughts for the radio, walking around with a tape recorder, and I could not find him. I was getting more and more anxious, worried that he, too, had been eaten. Eventually I got a good signal and found him – and the genuine relief that the tape captured so moved one listener of Pick of the Week that he was minded to feed it in as a sample to a dance track … not sure whether he ever did.

Which, tangentially, brings me to the film I went to see at the Barbican in London last week. It was part of London’s International Animation Festival and was irresistible. I should warn any of the faint hearted that this trailer is fairly robust – in fact the entire film, George the Hedgehog, was one of the rudest and crudest I have ever seen. The Polish title is Jez Jerzy, and we were lucky enough to have one of the directors present for a Q&A after the screening. It felt slightly odd having people asking serious questions about funding and animation styles after such a bombast of fart jokes, alcohol and sexual excess. But they did.

Director Wojtek Wawszczyk expressed pleasure that only four people walked out of the screening. And seemed genuinely surprised when I got to meet him that I was interested not animation but in the choice of the species – why a hedgehog? This is something I have been asking many people who are involved in the use of the hedgehog – either in stories or marketing. What is it about the animal that made you think it would be a great idea.

I was not aware that this film is based on characters that have featured in an adult comic strip since 1996. George is a sex-mad alcohol fuelled hedgehog embroiled in a passionate affair with a married woman (human … this is odd) and being chased by a combination of racist skin-heads and genetic scientists. I heartily recommend it to anyone who likes their humour unsophisticated!

I have now written to the originators of the strip in hope of some answers as to why a hedgehog … and would welcome any suggestions you all might have as well!

 

I am currently writing another hedgehog book, while I wait for the revision for Beauty in the Beast to appear. This time I am doing it for love – I am pretty much paying the publishers for the pleasure. But I love the series it will be part of from Reaktion Books and really could not contend with anyone else writing it! It is far more about the iconography of the hedgehog and the way we relate to it – and not about my personal ramblings … though hopefully it will not be without humour. And today, after hitting a low in discovering that my ‘A Prickly Affair’ contains a mistake (I suggested that Nungunungu was Swahili for hedgehog when in fact it means porcupine – and the real word is Kalunguyeye) I found this amazing website – The Cursing Hedgehog – from Finland. I have written to the artist, Milla Paloniemi, for permission to use images in the book – these two in particular:


I am finding it fascinating how the hedgehog takes on so many different characters around the world – which is good news for the book!

At last, in my grubby little hands, I have the Dutch version of ‘A Prickly Affair‘ (and thank you very much to the author Warwick Cairns, to whom they were originally sent, for passing them on)

It is rather exciting to see an entire book that apparently has my words within – while I remain oblivious to the contents. It is possible, though I am sure that the publishers would never pull a fast one like this, that it is utterly different … would be very happy to hear from any bi-linguals out there.

There are a few differences, there were some phrases I used that were untranslatable – and there is a glossary of terms that might be unfamiliar to the good folk of the Netherlands. For example, Jerusalem and the Women’s Institute were explained, as was the has-bee David Bellamy. Rather strange to find that the Clangers were not a hit in Holland, but most surprising was to see the term ‘Dogging’ needing some detailed explanation. Any ideas what ‘Het hebben van seks in een auto terwijl anderen toekijken’ means?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 142 other followers