Sometimes it’s not easy to purchase a trendy pet. If you happen to live in a land-locked town of 30,000 people and your pet store is fresh out spiked animals, you’ll likely find that you’ll have to fly in, say, an African Pygmy Hedgehog.
Last year, for Oksana’s birthday, I looked into doing just that. I inquired at the Wee Fishee Shoppe first and it so happened that they had just parted company with their normal hedgehog distributor and had not yet found another. We scoured the Internet for information and learned that purchasing one in Alaska was at least legal, but we’d need to find a licensed… grower of hedgehogs first.
Fortunately, there is one in Anchorage. I called them up and got the important information: They sold hedgehogs for $125 each. It’s expensive, I guess, but not unacceptable. In further conversation, though, it became much more complicated.
For us to buy the little Yoj, we were going to have to “Goldstreak” him down to Juneau. That’s a fancy way of saying we had to buy him a seat on an Alaska Airlines flight. That alone would have cost us another $75 or so, but Alaska Air also requires that vaccination papers be presented for any animal traveling on their airlines – even if it’s only in-state. If the sky-rocketing cost of this tiny pet wasn’t already over our yearly budget for warm-blooded spike-balls, I might have tried to contest their policy on the grounds that, in Alaska at least, hedgehogs aren’t even required to have any vaccinations!
We briefly toyed with the idea of asking a traveling friend to escort a hedgehog from Anchorage to Juneau, but if they were going to be flying down, we’d still have to buy the $75 ticket. One friend was planning on making the drive down through Canada, but it didn’t seem like a good idea to have him try to smuggle an African animal across international borders. I’ll bet the drug dog would go nuts.
So it was that I missed my opportunity to buy a pet for Oksana’s birthday, but miraculously, just two days later, a family had put a hedgehog up for sale in the local newspaper’s classifieds! After calling the number listed, we discovered that their hedgehog was purchased from the same people in Anchorage (one of them worked for Alaska Airlines, so they managed to dodge the super-first-class-ticket-price that hedgehogs seem to incur.)
Oksana made an appointment and we went together to check out the strange little critter. We were led upstairs to their daughter’s room and found a homemade, wood and wire cage with lots of shavings inside. No sign of a hedgehog, but as soon as the little girl lifted up a small blanket, we saw a bristling, apricot-colored sphere.
It didn’t take long at all to figure out why they were trying to find him a better home. When I reached into the cage to pick him up, that little sucker hissed and shook his balled-up frame in the most intimidating manner! In fact, my first reaction (after yanking my hands back out of the cage) was to pack it up and leave. “Thank you very much, but we’re holding out for a pet that doesn’t kill.”
The only other hedgehog I’d seen before this was one of my students’. It was blind, and maybe because of that, it had absolutely no qualms about running all over your hands. In fact, it was so docile that he would keep his hedgehog with him through the day, sleeping in the pouch formed by the hood of his sweat shirt. This hedgehog was very much afraid of our giant human hands and it was probably due to the little girl neglecting to hold him every day. After trying to pick him up myself, I hardly blame her.
Oksana was more persistent, though, and apparently better able to combat her fight or flight tendencies. While the little girl’s mom was running through the house looking for gloves, Oksana found a small blanket and managed to cradle the prickly beast into her grasp. Turning the blanket over, we could still only see more criss-crossed spikes and only a tiny opening where the rest of the poor little guy’s body must have been sheltered. For a few moments there was much shaking and hissing, but eventually he poked his head out to see what was going on.
It was then that we decided to keep him.
You see, hedgehogs are cute. Adorable, loveable, precious, darling. In fact, our little hedgehog is so darn cute that I can use words like that to describe him without feeling as if my masculinity is in jeopardy, because, dammit, it’s just plain true.
For the sake of our bank account, Oksana and I played it nice and cool. Since he’d had so little human contact in his formative hedgehog years, we didn’t know if he’d ever become comfortable around people. So, when we didn’t jump at the chance to pay their $125 asking price, the mother told us we could take him for a weekend to see if he’d grow on us. She even told us that they weren’t that interested in the money, just in finding him a good home. Score!
We did take him home, but keeping him was already a no-brainer. In the two days we had him, he must have already grown accustomed to our scents because, while still touchy when we picked him up, he would rapidly calm down and begin climbing around. That following Monday, Oksana called the family back and, after a bit of haggling, arranged to buy him for $80 (we should have had him for $75, but when she got there, no one could make change for a $20.)
Oksana already had a name in mind for our new little pincushion: Yozhik. It’s Russian for “Little Hedgehog,” or as we often call him, “Hedgie.” All Roman alphabet spellings of Russian words are phonetic, so it’s pronounced pretty much as it’s spelled. “YOJ-ick” might be a little closer, though. After paying up, Oksana stopped by the store and bought him some big plastic bins for a cage and then got to work sewing a couple “sleeping bags.” To this day, he still spends most of his daylight hours inside them.
I suspect a lot of people that have yet to hold a hedgehog can’t imagine having one as a pet. Believe me, it’s probably not as much like having a sea urchin for a pet as you might think – although, I don’t really know, because I’ve never really played with a sea urchin (more Spanish language trivia: A sea urchin is “erizo del mar” or “hedgehog of the sea!”) When he calms down, Yozhik’s not so bad, although I doubt he’ll ever really be friendly towards us… indifferent is the best we can hope for.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal animals, which explains why we decided very early on not to keep his cage in our bedroom. Most nights, almost as soon as we turn off the lights and the living room gets quiet, Yozhik emerges from his little plastic penthouse and begins to explores his three-tiered home. He might stop on the middle level to eat (our hedgehog food is a lot like hard kitten food) or take a drink from his little water dispenser, but that’s always on the way to the bottom level where pine shavings cover the floor and his exercise wheel dominates the enclosure. He’ll then commence running. And running. And running. If I wake up any time before sunrise, I’ll find him going round and round, stopping every minute or so to peer outside the wheel – perhaps to see if he’s gone anywhere. If you flick the light on he’ll freeze in place and stare through the cloudy plastic walls of his cage to the outside world…
Now that we know how to pick him up without hurting either him or ourselves, we take him out of the cage almost every night so that he can hang out with us. His behavior is never exactly predictable, but if he doesn’t simply crawl under the first pillow he finds for a nap, it usually it boils down to just three modes.
Frozen mode is pretty obvious. Sometimes when we take him out, all he seems to want to do is sit perfectly still and stare at us. For hours. He doesn’t ball up or even bristle when we get too close to him. Loud noises and rapid movements don’t seem to overly annoy him. Nope, he just sits there, frozen, staring at us. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of creepy.
Licking mode is far more interesting. When Yozhik happens upon a new and interesting smell, he often stops and starts licking and chewing at whatever it might be. Sometimes it’s a specific spot on our couch. Sometimes it’s the deodorant on the armpit of my shirt. Sometimes it’s a friend’s hand (I don’t want to know why.) At any rate, he licks whatever-it-is ferociously for a minute or two and then leans backward to spread the lathered saliva over his quills.
I suspect this is some sort of survival mechanism – taking on the scent of the environment or something. Whatever it is that he’s doing, he gets way into it. His tongue is freakishly long, but in and of itself, not long enough to reach to his back. To compensate, Yozhik bends over backwards, arching his back and his spines, and flick-flick-flicks his tongue as far down his body as he can. I’ve actually seen him fall over backwards (and off the couch!) while doing this. When he does finally finish, though, he seems quite happy and goes off on his sofa explorations with big, bubbly wet stripes on each flank.
The only other mode we consistently see Yozhik in is what we like to call zoom-zoom mode. Let me tell you, zoom-zoom mode is what having a hedgehog for a pet is all about! A few times a week, Oksana and I turn down the lights, start up a DVD and extract Hedgie from his sleeping bag and cage. We’ll put him on the back of the couch and then forget about him – if he’s in zoom-zoom mood, we’ll see him soon enough.
Yozhik is a rather small animal and not much of a climber. With zoom-zoom mode activated, he’ll criss-cross the backs of the six sections of our couch looking for a way down to the seat cushions. If we don’t prop a pillow in the corner, he’ll come to us and descend our torsos. Most of the time he’ll just cruise right on by, hunting for food perhaps, verifying his memory of the surroundings, more than likely. Eventually he might crawl under a pillow and go to sleep, but on rare occasions, he has been known to cuddly up on one of us.
Since we didn’t get Yozhik until he was already an adult, it’s disappointing that he’ll never be completely comfortable with us. Despite the current trend of having a hedgehog pet, they still have a long way to go before being considered domesticated. Nevertheless, now that we’ve figured out how to hold him and now that we’ve discovered that pine shavings make cleaning his cage so much easier and now that we can hand-feed him anything from mealworms to sunflower seeds… Oksana and I are quite happy to have him. Hopefully, he feels the same way about us.