I’m back from vacation, and (before getting back to all the serious stuff) I want to show you this little guy (or girl) — a very young hedgehog, eating from a plate of food we put out on our driveway, during our month in England. The plate is four inches across, which should show you how tiny the hedgehog was. Hedgehogs — adorable bristly animals — aren’t found in the US, but people in Britain (and elsewhere) go crazy for hem, and we’ve joined the cult. We had a family of them living under some bushes near our house, a mother and three little ones, which when we first saw them were barely the size of my fist, but able to forage for food on their own. We’d see them at twilight, intently sniffing the ground, waddling, looking for slugs, grubs, and earthworms. They can cover more than a mile in a night.
Following directions on various hedgehog websites (this was our favorite), we fed them, using cat food (any flavor except fish), and also Spike’s Hedghog Food, sold in British pet stores. We’d see them every night, eating what we left out for them. They tolerate people amazingly well. One of the babies did seem a bit timid, and would freeze when we came around (and flinched when we took pictures, and the flash went off). But I followed the mother around the first night I saw her, getting as close as five or six feet, and she didn’t blink. One evening I followed one of the babies down a hill alongside a stream, watching it tug worms out of the ground, getting within a foot or two of the action. It didn’t seem to know or care that I was there.
British vets, we read, will treat sick hedgehogs free. The species is declining, unfortunately, in part due to its defense strategy, which is to curl up in a ball, with only its sharp little bristles visible. This deters most predators, but it’s not a good tactic to use against cars, and so hedgehogs show up all too often as roadkill, poor little things.
Ours got sick. One Sunday morning we found first one of the babies, then the second, and then the third, lying all but motionless out in the sun. That they’d left their nest in the daytime was a bad sign, and they looked terribly ill. They barely moved. One was muddy, and blew hapless bubbles out its nose when it breathed.
So we took three trips to the nearest vet, after phoning, and finding the vet ready to come to the office at a moment’s notice to look at the hedgehogs. I put on gloves, and lifted them into a box. Even with gloves, the bristles are sharp! The vet reported that the babies had colds (due to the wet, cold weather), which is more serious than it sounds. Around 90% of young hedgehogs die before they’re mature, and colds can easily kill them. After five days in the vet’s care, all three of our hedgehogs recovered. We took them home, and released them. True to form, the vet didn’t charge us anything (and in fact gave us a big box of cat food samples, to help with our feeding). We lost track of the mother, and wondered if she still was alive. But the little ones (bigger now), still came out every night, and — though`they seemed more wary (who could blame them, after we’d picked them up and taken them off to captivity?) — still ate the food we gave them. They could be as wary as they liked. We were happy that we’d saved their lives.
Footnote: we’d hoped the vet could tell us if the babies were males or females, but the vet, wisely, I’m sure, didn’t handle them enough to find out.