Why you should care
Members of the generation that grew up with “Sonic the Hedgehog” are now adopting real hedgehogs for their homes.
Brooke Wylie isn’t totally sure when she got hooked, but she blames the Internet and its obsession with showing the cute critter in a host of places, from a bathtub to coffee mugs. Sierra Robinson Penrod, a high school teacher, says her fascination started after she watched a funny YouTube video of one reacting to a human fart.
We are talking about hedgehogs. Pint-size and porcupine-like, these critters have become the latest hot option for American millennials who have decided to forgo getting the proverbial puppy for a pet. And why not? They’re cute enough to roll up in a ball for defense, and they only make mild hissing sounds when they’re irritated, as opposed to an annoying bark. And something else very millennial about them: You have to earn their attention.
The International Hedgehog Association estimates that there are about 100,000 to 140,000 living hedgehogs at any given time in North America, but that’s a “tiny drop in the bucket” of the small mammal pet market (hamsters, gerbils, etc.), says the association’s membership coordinator and treasurer Z.G. Standing Bear. Membership in the association has been fairly static over time. Why? It could be because hedgehogs are relatively pricey for their size (typically $150 to $300), and their litters generally yield only one to seven babies, he says.
Over at the Hedgehog Welfare Society, public relations co-chair Kristen Zorbini Bongard says she sees interest ebb and flow as hedgehogs emerge in popular culture. But the organization is now getting four to five Facebook group requests each day from people who have questions. Prospective owners often have to be on waiting lists, too.
But while hedgehogs are undoubtedly adorable to look at, adopting them takes a different understanding of having a pet, particularly in a world where we’re used to Fido the dog and Garfield the cat. “She does not care one iota if I am gone all day … she’s sleeping most of the day,” said Wylie, a copywriter in Denver who bought Niamh — an African pygmy — for $200 last fall from a Colorado breeder. Hedgehogs are nocturnal, so they get up either when stirred by their owners or during the night, when they most like to run around on hamster wheels (which is also when they’re known to defecate).
Niamh, who Wylie says is an “explorer,” likes to wander around, is pretty mellow and over time is getting more comfortable with her human owner: “You get out of it what you put into it.” She says the pet, whose spines are not particularly sharp, isn’t hostile or superfriendly. “She tolerates me very admirably for an animal that’s probably only a generation or two removed from the wilds of Africa.”
Indeed, hedgehogs don’t welcome humans with joy like dogs do when their owners get home. It takes some serious work to build the bond since they are not naturally sociable and can be grumpy. When they’re completely comfortable, they “splat,” or lay all the way flat. “The more comfortable they are, the more you’re going to see that really unique hedgehog personality coming out,” said Zorbini Bongard of the Hedgehog Welfare Society.
And for Robinson Penrod of Provo, Utah, and her Web developer husband, Jeremy, they discovered that their 2 1/2-year-old Algerian Chocolate Pinto, named Hufflepuff, was a bit of an anomaly. The self-described “extremely devout pet owners,” who have potty-trained their hedgehog, says Hufflepuff has a friendlier temperament than most. “She’s like our child, but she’s not,” says Robinson Penrod, whose hedgehog has a bit of weight issue — as chronicled on Instagram.
Both Robinson Penrod and Wylie can vouch for the fact that owning “exotic pets” makes it far more challenging to get ownership advice and veterinary care. For example, you can’t just walk into any pet store and ask what you should buy for your hedgie, according to Wylie. When you consult an online forum, you get “500 different tips on owning one” says Robinson Penrod, who had to find a specialty vet, with whom she’s spent more than $1,000 to care for Hufflepuff.
And that’s where you can’t be naive about hedgehogs. Their vet bills are expensive; they can be hard to examine, and they’re very prone to tumors and cancers, says Zorbini Bongard.
In fact, it’s illegal to own these exotic pets in some places in the U.S., including Arizona, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Pennsylvania, New York City and Washington, D.C. Some of the bans have been driven by fears that hedgehogs could disrupt local ecosystems, says Zorbini Bongard. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even regulates hedgehog breeding if someone has five or more breeding females. In the United Kingdom, the hedgehog population has reportedly dropped by 37 percent in the last decade. Possibly part of the problem: British hedgehogs were getting their heads stuck in McDonald’s McFlurry cartons, which supposedly prompted the fast-food chain to change its carton design (McDonald’s did not reply to repeated requests for comment.). And you might call it “fear-mongering,” but some researchers argue that hedgehogs can sicken humans by carrying diseases like salmonella.
But despite the risks associated with these prickly pets, the hedgehog community continues to be strong and as quirky as the animals themselves. The International Hedgehog Association has named a North American Hedgehog Military, as well as a government, complete with a monarch. “Becoming a hedgehog monarch is about as complicated as the British royal family,” said Z.G. Standing Bear. Can house-sitting for hedgehogs be far away?