First – thank you for the many people who took time to read through the last post and the many many comments. I was surprised at the depth of feeling and hope that I have not re-started any once forgotten problems.

Reading through what has been written, I think I have a better handle on my position. Or at least a way of expressing it:

  • No wild animals should ever be taken from the wild and kept as a pet.
  • I think that hedgehogs, of whatever species, belong in the wild.
  • Pet hedgehogs (African species, possibly hybrids, and possibly subject to 10 or 20 generations of captivity) are unable to be returned to the wild.
  • The welfare of any hedgehogs that are kept in captivity should be paramount.
  • Breeding hedgehogs for profit is likely to lead to a reduction of the quality of conditions in which hedgehogs are kept.
  • If you are going to look after a pet hedgehog then please use this position to help promote the really important issues surrounding the well-being of ‘real’ hedgehogs out in the wild.
  • ‘They are just so cute’ is NOT reason enough to keep an animal in captivity (these are not animated teddy-bears).
So – my first list … and I am expecting that there are people out there who might be able to add to this, or critique ideas that are there – so please do!
And with respect to that last point – here is a link to a video on youtube featuring a pet hedgehog – which is designed to increase awareness of and interest in African (pygmy) Hedgehogs as potential pets. The message is good – that hedgehogs do not digest lactose well … we know that – NO to bread and milk, whatever your parents might have said (or even the illustrious Podushkas) … though I have to say there are great alternatives that do not involve the exploitation of cows. But, the use of a cute hedgehog will only make the demand higher and the risk, I fear, is that this will tip the UK situation from one where a few (frequently delightfully odd) folk keep hedgehogs as pets to one where the horror of the ‘must have fad pet’ emerges. And however well those few people who do breed hedgehogs keep their animals, and however much they may abhor the idea of this becoming a craze; there would be no craze if it were not for the few good people keeping interest in the animal as a pet alive. So everyone who is involved with keeping the offspring of the original Atelerix albiventris and Atelerix algirius must consider that risk and consider their culpability.
I know it might come as a surprise, but my life does not revolve around hedgehogs – I do have other interests, and this blog is going to slowly morph to include far more British wildlife as my new book gets closer to publication. The Beauty in the Beast is, in my opinion, even more fun that A Prickly Affair …  there are still hedgehogs, but there are also many many more wonderful animals. So, get pre-ordering! (after you have commented on this blog, of course)

 

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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:

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.

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.

Unsurprisingly, I find that I am at the receiving end of a great deal of hedgehog-related strangeness. But not all of it warrants a posting, or, as is happening at the moment, it is arriving while I am in the middle of something that is making my brain hurt … like now. I am writing about the house sparrow – a fantastic bird being advocated by an amazing gentleman. But there is just so much information that I need to squeeze into so little space and the bit that is making my head hurt is trying to make the links work … so a little deviation is called for to lighten things up for me.

In no particular order, here are some hedgehoggy things we should all care about:

1. Actually, this is not to lighten things up but to say ‘told you so’ … someone has been found trying to sell a European hedgehog in Kent – the actual ad has been taken down and they have been reported to the police and the RSPCA, but an archive of the ad is here. I am often asked why I am concerned about the push to sell pet African Pygmy Hedgehogs in Britain, and this is one of the main reasons. Either unscrupulous or mind-boggling stupid people will try and sell on our own wild animals. If you want a real hedgehog thrill, then try and get to see a wild one, where it belongs, in the wild.

2. There is a lot about the latest crop of pop stars that has passed me by, but I have now heard of Lady Gaga. Apparently this most eccentric of individuals has a commendable fondness for hedgehogs. Well, that is what I thought when I first read the headline, but it turns out that, and as this is something I read on the web, it is quite possibly no more reliable than a posh-boy Lib Dem promise, Lady Gaga had a rider for her concerts demanding two baby hedgehogs to be present back stage in her changing room. And I thought I was a bit over the top asking for a cake.

3. I was giving a talk to the Kent Mammal Group and was given the most amazing story – a woman told me how she had recently failed her driving test because she had stopped for a hedgehog in the road. Apparently you should not stop for anything smaller than a cat. So would that make it okay to run over a chihuahua?

4. Hedgehog carers all over the country are having to feed an enormous number of animals this winter – so if you find yourself unable to get away over Christmas, or your guests don’t arrive … why not donate some of what you would have spent to the sanctuaries? The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has a list of just a few in each county on their website. These are not necessarily going to be the closest, but you can ask them if there are any nearer you.

5. And finally – something to gladden your hearts and excite you into a late Christmas purchase … the wonderful woman who made our wedding rings many years ago has just made some hedgehog earrings. When she told me I was nervous as she is a friend and many of these sorts of things are dire … but they are wonderful. Her name is Bridget Wheatley and her shop is also online.

The little hedgehog is fantastic – she has only just designed it and made a few. If you are interested, get in touch with her (through the website) and ask for a hedgehog or two for your loved one’s lobes!

I have avoided Sonic the Hedgehog for as long as possible – mainly because I have never played the game and have absolutely no idea what the excitement is all about. That is probably more of an indictment of my age rather than the game – though I would still love someone to explain the draw.

But now I am forced to write about Sonic and the Sega empire that spawned him (is Sonic male?) because they have managed to get a splash in the Daily Mail today. Which I only know thanks to the wonders of Google alerts.

The story?

“Dramatic decline of one of the nation’s favourite creatures: 300,000 fewer hedgehogs in Britain than a decade ago”

And it goes on to say some very important things about the decline in hedgehog numbers, how the data is gathered – through the rather unpalatable mechanism of counting road kill – and brings in ideas of intensive farming being one of the key problems for rural hedgehogs. All good stuff.

So why am I grumpy?

Well that is the story really. It is a story of how the PR industry ‘use and abuse’ on behalf of their clients. It is a story riddled with self-indulgent moaning about the hard lot of a freelance writer who keeps getting drawn into doing the work for people who are being paid each and every month – even when they make such absurd mistakes as has been done in this instance. But mostly it is a story that asks the big question … what numpty put those hedgehogs in the picture?

Back in September I got a message from Sega’s PR company, Mischief PR. They wanted help in the run up to the launch of their new game and they wrote to all sorts of hedgehog related groups around the country. A few were passed on to me – and more than once, promises were made, e.g. “We would make a donation to the UIST Hedgehog Rescue for your involvement and would also be mentioning the charity in our press materials, so aiming to raise awareness of the work you guys do! It is designed to be a fun event, but also ones that highlights the serious nature of your charity.”

There were looking for the most dangerous road crossing in the UK for hedgehogs, they wanted quotes on the numbers of hedgehogs killed on the roads and they wanted a supply of hedgehogs to pose for a photo-shoot.

Given that this was done with the promise of publicity and money for the BHPS – of whom I am a trustee – I decided to invest quite some time and managed to find them a suitable place, some hedgehogs and plenty of facts about the state of hedgehogs.

I asked if I could come to the photo shoot – as by now they were hoping to do some sort of Abbey Road mock up … and I though it would be quite fun to see, and also be something I could use in my talks. I find the whole iconography of the hedgehog fascinating. I even had a positive response from Radio 4’s Saving Species programme who were interested in using this to spark a discussion on the true impact of roads on wildlife. This is important because dead hedgehogs, and dead anything else for that matter, is far from the full story. Roads, especially busy roads, act as real, physical barriers to many species. They have a far greater impact on the environment than simply dead beasts.

They agreed and said they would let me know when it was all happening … and I decided, having dealt with PR companies before, not to hold my breath. And a good job too! As the event all took place with not one jot of communication with me, despite promises to the contrary. Even my phone calls were ignored.

And if they had invited me along? Well, then they would not have made the mistake, which has made them look utterly ridiculous. Somehow they have ended up with an African Pygmy Hedgehog in the shot. Have a look at the picture, the hedgehog on the left looks a little different – smaller, whiter spines. That is not a native hedgehog. If Sega want to go helping Atelerix frontalis and Ateleric albiventris, I would suggest they start investing in conservation projects in Africa, not encourage people to take them in as pets.

I have written quite a bit about these before now. These are pet hedgehogs. The craze for keeping them as pets was big and brief in the USA – as is always the case with fad pets. And there are people who would like to see the same thing happen here. Now I have spent plenty of time with these pet hedgehogs and can see why some people, especially those unable to do much in the way of moving themselves, might find them agreeable. They are cute and they can be tamed into cuddliness.

BUT – we have our own wild hedgehogs here, and if the craze does kick off, it is inevitable that unscrupulous dealers will start trying to palm off our wild hedgehogs as pets, and when boredom sets in, as it will do, and people want to get rid of their pets, they will either just release them into the wild – where they will die – or hand them on to a hedgehog rescue centre, that will be poorly equipped to deal with – and unable to re-release the animal.

So, Sega, and your PR machine, it is time to correct the picture and to pay up – there are a number of hedgehog carers who have spent considerable amounts of time and energy, only to feel ignored, and there groups like the BHPS as well – who would all benefit from a fraction of your great wealth. More importantly, there are thousands of hedgehogs out there who would benefit from some scrapings from the Sonic table – oh, and don’t forget the unpaid writers!

Lets see Sega make good on its promises, or lets start a call to boycott Sonic.

And just as a final note – who thought that sticking boots, ‘Sonic’ boots, onto a young hedgehog was going to make it happy? Poor thing looks utterly miserable.

Very rarely do I feel that I have been in the vanguard of anything. There was a time when I was one of few people talking about the emergence of genetically engineered trees, and the threats to the environment that an unfettered release might cause. I felt then that I was on the wave. Everything else, well, I have either just been part of a pack, or ploughing a very lone course.

But now, I am thrilled to have assisted in the beginning of a new craze that is sweeping the globe at an unprecedented rate. No longer are people looking for esoteric celtic knots or the names of their children/loved ones/cities of conception. Mum, love, hate and ironic anchors are no more the tattoos of choice. The new tattoo is … well … I hardly need say … the hedgehog.

I received an email from Eryka Blank – the delightful mystery of emails is that you can have so little idea of who you are in contact with. I had no idea of country or age – just that she had read my book in its US incarnation (always a good starting point) and had been attracted by the images at the bottom of each page, so much so she was contemplating having one done as a tattoo. I sent her some larger copies of the pictures – the originals were done by the great artist David Shephard – and asked that if she did get a tattoo done, she send me a photo. And she has, along with a note explaining more about her and what motivated her … so here she is:

And here is what she had to say about herself:

“I agree, our tattoos should be friends.  I live in Madison, Wisconsin, and grew up in Cedarburg, Wisconsin.  I am in my third year of college studying Communications Arts emphasis on Global Communications, and a theater minor.  I have always loved the outdoors and critters, and I constantly surround myself with pets.  I love books like ‘Watership Down’ and ‘Life of Pi’.  I can’t remember how I got interested in hedgehogs, but I did quite a bit of research on them, have a  pet hedgehog (named Phinneus), and am a member of the Hedgehog Welfare Society.  I short story I wrote titled ‘Burberry and the Fox’ is appearing in the Nov/Dec issue of the Hedgehog Welfare Society newsletter.  Last winter and spring I get receiving mysterious packages (I suspect my parents may have had a hand in this) with little plush hedgehogs and hedgehog books.  One of these was ‘The Hedgehog’s Dilemma’.  I loved reading your book and every time I saw one of the little inked drawings on the bottom of the page I thought what a great tattoo it would make.  I judge art by whether or not I would be willing to get it tattooed on myself.  The little hedgehog is actually my fourth tattoo (the others are a circle of Beatles lyrics on my upper back- “Pools of Sorrow Waves of Joy are Drifting Through My Opened Mind”, a fiery colored swallow on my leg, and my beloved dog’s paw print on my ankle) and didn’t hurt much.  It stung a little, but was no worse than getting a shot from the doctor.  I thought, what better animal to have staring fiercely out of my arm at everyone? Eventually I want to get the whole arm that the hedgehog is on turned into a full sleeve of critters- air, earth, and water all represented. I hope whatever you get tattooed on your other leg is as worthy as your hedgehog!

Personally, I have a great fondness and respect for cheetahs, birds (like swallows and sparrows), and otters.  In fact, I think a river otter will be my next tattoo.  Whatever you choose I can’t wait to read about it in your next book.

Thanks,

Eryka

P.S. I recently did a speech on the history of the relationship between hedgehogs and humans for my speech class and I found your book to be an excellent reference!”

And as Eryka suggests, I am in the market for a new tattoo – but this is a serious one, one based on a competition that has already begun. There are advocates for different species all clamouring for my attention, trying to win me over to their particular animal. What will it be? Badger? Dolphin? Solitary bee? House sparrow? Owl? Otter? Water vole? Dragonfly? Fox? Porpoise? Robin? Bat? Any other suggestions?