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Hedgehog Club

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hedgehog profileHedgehogs: Unlikely But Adorable Pets
by Marjorie Dorfman

Why are hedgehogs such popular pets and why are they not for everybody? Read on and learn more about their magical although rather spiny appeal.

Where does the hedgehog come from?
Hedgehogs have been around for the last 15 million years and remain unchanged. There are sixteen species of hedgehog in five genera that are found throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and New Zealand. There are no hedgehogs native to either Australia or North America. They are nocturnal insectivorous mammals. The name hedgehog dates back to circa 1450, and is derived from the Middle English heyghoge because of its pig-like snout and the fact that it frequents hedgerows. Hedgehogs are also known as urchins, hedgepigs and furze-pigs.

Fossil records reveal that hedgehogs have been around since the late Cretaceous period (144 to 65 million years ago). They survived not only the extinction that wiped out the large dinosaurs but also later catastrophes that killed off great numbers of other mammals. They were well known in the ancient world. In the middle of the seventh century BC, The Greek lyric poet, Archilocus, observed a hedgehog’s meeting with a fox. He wrote without having any way of knowing about the hedgehog’s long evolutionary history:
fox and hedgehog
"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." He was referring to the hedgehog’s signature defense mechanism; its ability to curl up into a prickly, unappetizing ball."

What is the hedgehog’s natural habitat?
Hedgehogs are commonly found in the parks, woods, gardens, and farmlands in England and Ireland. They are protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act and may not be trapped. The biggest threat to the hedgehog’s existence is the loss of its habitat and the chemicals being used in countryside gardens, which get into the food chain and poison many hedgehogs. In the wild "hedgies" as they are called in England live about 2 to 3 years. In captivity, they can live up to 10 years.

hedgehogsAncient Egyptians wore amulets to ward off snakebite. Old English folktales celebrate the hedgehog’s immunity to snake venom, but in reality, the animal is resistant, but not completely immune to the poison. If a snake makes the mistake of approaching, a hedgehog will bristle and roll up, fending off striking fangs with its longer spines. When the snake is fatigued or wounded, the hedgehog attacks, biting along the backbone toward the head until the snake is dead.

In 16th-century Europe, particularly Paris, boiled hedgehog was a commonly prepared dish. According to Larousse Gastronomique, the taste is similar to wild rabbit (without the ears).

What do hedgehogs look like?
All hedgehogs are similar in appearance and color. Their spines, which are a dense weave of mottled black brown and white, are hollow hairs made stiff with keratin. Unlike the quills of a porcupine, the hedgehog’s some 7,000 spines cannot easily be removed from the animal and they are not poisonous or barbed.

Predominately burrowers, hedgehogs are usually about 7-9 inches in length and the tail is just a little nub hidden under the quills. They can weigh about 1/2 lb to 1 and 1/2 lbs (9 to 26 ounces) and they are omnivorous, which means they eat both plants and animals. The upper body of these small mammals is covered with dark brown and whitish spines. The belly, face and legs are covered with soft fur. Their snouts are sharp and narrow; their eyes are small and their legs short.

porcupineMany people still mistake the domestic hedgehog for the porcupine, which is no relation (not even by a spine twice removed). Porcupine quills are extremely sharp, barbed and very dangerous while those of the hedgehog are smooth and not nearly as sharp. Petting a friendly hedgehog can be compared to petting a hairbrush; that is, bristly but not prickly.

hedgehog in curlHedgehogs have a very good sense of smell and hearing and unlike those of porcupines and echidnas, their spines are lightweight, short and flexible and they bristle when the animal feels threatened. When a hedgehog is in danger, it will actually fold itself up into a fleshy ball, from which spikes standout in every direction. This offers a shield of protection. The animal’s face, tail, and feet are tucked out of sight and the hedgehog takes on the appearance of a prickly ball, which predators leave alone.

The hedgehog in culture and history
Hedgehogs have always been benevolent companions for those who walk on two legs aided by one spine. These creatures appear in Latvian folktales, Chinese poetry and ancient Egyptian myths. In the modern world, the hedgehog’s most recent incantation is as Sonic, the comic book and cartoon super-hero, albeit a second and very different coming from Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

How many kinds of hedgehogs are there?
The common European hedgehog, Erinaceus europaeus, thrives near human settlements and frequents backyard gardens, pastures, and hedgerows, and it is ubiquitous in England where it serves as both the mascot of a national land trust and icon of the Mammal Society. This hedgehog is one of some thirteen spiny species found in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Indochina has its own unique brand of hedgehog, the silky skinned variety, which are sometimes called "moon-rats" or "gynmures". The more primitive moon-rats are long-legged and covered with soft, dense fur rather than spines.

hedgehog and fish
How do hedgehogs hunt and forage for food?
Hedgehogs are small, solitary, nocturnal animals that at times hibernate (sleep through the winter) or estivate (sleep for shorter bouts during the summer). When darkness falls, they leave their burrows or nests of twigs and leaves and forage in a home range no bigger than an acre. Relying on their acute senses of smell and hearing, they follow the sounds of rustling leaves and grass and the scratching of digging insects.

What do hedgehogs eat?
The typical hedgehog diet usually consists of spiders, beetles, frogs, mice, occasional birds’ eggs, and sometimes even snakes. They also eat carrion, mushrooms, grass roots, berries and melons. The forest hedgehog, which is the most well known to Europeans, is mainly an insectivore, but this is not necessarily true for other species.

Where hedgehogs roam in the wild, they are often welcomed as a natural form of garden pest control. Many people leave food out for them, even though it is best to just leave a small treat so that they remain hungry for garden pests who should have and will eventually regret not having gone south for the winter. Although it makes them sick, as hedgehogs are considered lactose-intolerant, they love the taste of cheese, milk and dairy products.

pet hedgehogThe Four-Toed Hedgehog is a common pet that can have a small portion of cottage cheese as a dietary supplement. Hedgehogs are also known to eat standard dog and cat food, and even though those fare better than dairy, they are too high in fat and too low in protein to provide proper nutrients over a significant period of time.

Hedgehog shows
The very first hedgehog show was held in Tacoma Washington, USA, on October 22, 1995. Close to 100 shows across the United States and Canada have been held since. Thanks to the International Hedgehog Association (IHA), there is even a working show system and standard of perfection for African Pygmy Hedgehogs.

Are hedgehogs for you?
Certainly hedgehogs aren’t for everyone, and conversely, everyone is not for hedgehogs. I guess that all depends on how you feel about lovable pincushions and whether or not your standard of beauty and companionship is flexible. Once you make and can appreciate the acquaintance of a hedgehog, however, it is unlikely that your tastes in anything will ever be the same again.

Did you know . . . ?

animal news

A wonderful book about hedgehogs:

The Hedgehog's Dilemma:
A Tale of Obsession, Nostalgia, and the World's Most Charming Mammal

by Hugh Warwick

Hedgehog's Dilemma

This book gets to the bottom of the boom in hedgehog popularity and examines the relationship between the hedgehog and man, covering both the mammal’s natural and un-natural evolution, from despised vermin to much-beloved beast. A historical and cultural exploration of the hedgehog, this is an engaging, informative, and charming look at the fascinating world of hedgehogs. Warwick writes with the heart of a poet, the eye of a scientist and a wry sense of humor as he describes everything from chasing hedgehogs across the English countryside as an undergraduate biologist to his introduction to the American Hedgehog Olympics.

And if you're thinking of a hedgehog for a pet...

The Hedgehog:

An Owner's Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet

by Dawn Wrobel and
Susan A. Brown DVM

Hedgehog Owner's Guide

Finally, a pet book about the unique experience of living with a hedgehog. This book emphasizes total care, training, and companionship as well as the specific traits of your fascinating pet. Inside you will find tips on how to feed, groom, house, and keep your hedgehog healthy. There is even a special chapter with fun activities for you and your new pet. Best of all, the book is filled with info-packed sidebars and fun facts to make caring for your pet hedgehog easy and enjoyable. There are breeders in the USA that will not sell a hedgehog to a new person before they have read this book.

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