It’s taken me a while to write about poor little Bear, our pet African pygmy hedgehog. He died just before Christmas. Of course I was very sad, but even more I was overwhelmed by guilt. From the second I heard that Bear had been found lifeless in his cage, I was filled with deep regret. In the weeks and perhaps even months before that day I had become very clear that Bear, while cuter than you can possibly imagine, was not the right pet for us – it was obvious he was not thriving in our home – and I had planned to tell Coco, his “owner,” when she came home from boarding school just a week later that we needed to find a new and better home for him. The struggle I faced was that I couldn’t really imagine where that would be.
The first problem we faced with Bear was that he came into our lives not with proper consideration and planning, but on impulse. A year ago, Christopher went to pick up Coco from boarding school and later that afternoon they arrived home with Bear! Another student had brought him into school hoping to sell him, and Christopher and Coco just couldn’t resist him. As cute as all headgehogs – especially miniature ones – look in photos I was shocked by how much he looked just like a blonde sea urchin with legs. His quills were sharp. Really sharp. My internal alarm bells rang right away. “This is a crazy idea!” I cried to Christopher. Why should our daughter who lives at boarding school for the majority of the year take on the wellbeing of a new pet that lives at home? And where is he going to live? Christopher thought Bear would be happy living outside in the cage with the two bunnies. While I was googling “hedgehog habitats” and discovering that Bear’s rare variety meant he couldn’t live outside because he needed to be in a minimum of 72 degrees, Christopher and Coco thought they’d try him out with the bunnies. Well the bunnies hated him and got very aggressive with Bear and upset him terribly. He hyperventilated for hours afterwards. We resolved that he would live in Coco’s bathtub until a proper cage arrived from Amazon in a day or two. Well, his cage arrived and it was HUGE, dominating Coco’s tiny bathroom. But he seemed happy enough, exploring around, eating the catfood and fresh roasted chicken we’d been told he especially liked. And he ran and ran and ran in his wheel, but only at night. Yes, he was nocturnal. And that meant that whenever we went to play with him and give him love he would be sleepy and grumpy. Nothing in me thought this was a good idea, and the regret in me now is that I didn’t act then and there, that I didn’t insist that he be returned immediately.
I admit that I too get swept up in his cuteness and in the novelty of him. But it didn’t last long. When I thought of all the endless nights he spent in that cage in the bathroom, alone while the rest of the house slept, more alarm bells started ringing. We’d take him out of the cage at 9 or 10pm when he was just waking up, but he would do his rapid heavy breathing that clearly signalled distress and after a few minutes I would put him back, worried that I was upsetting him. Also, hedgehogs are not easy to hold. I could just about cup him in my hands when he was relaxed, but he would spook easily and when he did his spikes would puff out painfully stabbing my hands.
After a few months, I received a warning sign. I checked on him late a few nights and found that he wasn’t on his wheel doing his beloved running. As I live on the other side of the house though, I thought he must have just been doing it later on in the night while we slept. Then after that I noticed he was eating less, and not finishing his chicken. When Coco came home for a weekend, I expressed serious concern. She played with him late into the nights and took videos and showed me that he was happy and playful, which he did indeed appear to be in those moments.
But my feelings about his wellbeing became more grave over time and I decided I would tell Coco when she came home mid-December that I was sure he wasn’t thriving and that we needed to find a new home for him, perhaps with other hedgehogs (and I certainly wasn’t prepared to get another).
On a Monday in early December Zach’s friend Ali come over to the house, and she was desperate to play with Bear. She patiently waited until after dinner when he would be waking up and then we brought him out to play. Bear was always shy and nervous at first but as usual he eventually warmed to us and did all his sweet and endearing body movements and facial expressions. I showed Ali his funny buck teeth and his oversized mouse ears. She was scared to hold him so I let him crawl all over her on the sofa. He seemed happier than I had seen him in ages. I even sent Coco a message that I thought Bear was maybe becoming friendly and more well-adjusted. But the next morning as I was doing an errand after dropping Zach at school I got a text from Christopher saying that Bear had died in the night. I couldn’t believe it, but of course in retrospect it all made sense. I was devastated. I felt like we had utterly failed this poor creature. I am sure he died of depression and loneliness. He showed all the classic signs – decreased energy, decreased food intake – and yet I didn’t know what to do to better care for this helpless creature. He wasn’t neglected, he had a lovely home, plenty of food and toys and we loved him. And then it became clear to me. Bear was never meant to be a pet. He never should have been taken out of his natural habitat.
Here on our farm, animals and the loving care of them is a huge part of our lives and one that gives us great pleasure and happiness. We have managed and cared for endless pets and livestock that have thrived on our watch. But this time we got it wrong. I don’t mean to say what is right for everyone, but what I do know for sure is that pygmy hedgehogs, unlike rabbits or hamsters, are not easy to care for. I think anyone would have a hard time convincing me that they should be pets under even the most responsible and loving circumstances. Lesson humbly learned.