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Rescue Center Gives Hedgehogs New Life

By: Rebecca Jones

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North America's only hedgehog rescue shelter began, you might say, in a flash of inspiration.

Zug G. Standing Bear, an associate professor of criminology at Colorado State University, had no interest in bristly little animals with pointy noses. His animal passion was – and is – wolves and wolf hybrids, and he remains active in the movement to care for these creatures.

It was his wife who first saw a hedgehog at a plant nursery, of all places, and made it her mission to get herself a pet hedgehog. Within days, she came home with Flash, a female hedgehog so named because if you put her on the floor, she could disappear in the blink of an eye.

This was in 1996. Soon after, one of Standing Bear's students pleaded with him to take on the care of another hedgehog, one named Thelma, that his girlfriend was trying to place into an adoptive home.

"The literature on hedgehogs said they were solitary creatures, so I didn't think it would work out," Standing Bear says. "I told the kid they probably wouldn't get along, but to bring Thelma over and we'd see what happened. Well, the literature was wrong. Flash and Thelma hit it off right from the start and became inseparable.''
        
About a year and a half later, Flash died of fatty liver disease – a condition brought on by improper diet. Yet she was fed the diet suggested by a book on hedgehog care. Standing Bear didn't understand. And soon thereafter, Thelma, too, died of old age.

Hedgehog Deaths Spurred Shelter

"If Flash and Thelma hadn't died when they did, we never would have gotten into the rescue business," he says. "But it was just so traumatic that I got on the Internet, started looking for information about hedgehogs, and I found out there were no rescue organizations. This was in early 1998."
        
It wasn't long before the Flash and Thelma Memorial Hedgehog Rescue of North America was born. And Standing Bear, the man who thought he was called to rescue only wolves, is its chief executive officer – and the chief hedgehog handler. A crew of volunteers – mostly Standing Bear's university students – comes to the Fort Collins shelter daily to clean cages, feed and socialize the residents.

Hedgehogs are fairly new to the pet world in the United States. Most are known as African pygmy hedgehogs, but technically, that's not correct, says Standing Bear. Most of the hedgehogs in this country are Central African hedgehogs, White Tummied hedgehogs or Algerian hedgehogs. He estimates there are between 40,000 and 100,000 pet hedgehogs in this country.

Unlike European hedgehogs, these African hedgehogs are small – under 1 pound – and their habits are still not well understood. Much of the information available about caring for pet hedgehogs is inadequate or incorrect, Standing Bears says, and can actually be harmful. While their estimated life span is 4 to 6 years, many die before reaching their second birthday because well-meaning owners don't know how to properly care for them, he says.

29 Hedgehogs Live in Shelter

Today, some 29 hedgehogs are permanent residents of the Flash and Thelma shelter. Permanent residents are either too old, too unmanageable or too disabled to be adopted. Another half dozen or so await adoption to a proper home. The main shelter is set up in a large shed in Standing Bear's driveway. There are isolation quarters for newcomers and sick hedgehogs in his upstairs bedroom and bathroom. The shelter also has branch rescue operations in Denver, Colorado Springs and in Stockton, Mo.

Hedgehogs come to the Colorado shelter from all over the country. One, Ithemba, came from a pet store in Joplin, Mo. A Missouri hedgehog lover spotted the animal and noticed it was developing bald spots. When the storeowner refused to take proper steps to treat the hedgehog's illness, Standing Bear advised the concerned man to buy it. Standing Bear drove all the way to the Missouri state line to pick up the creature.

"We normally try to discourage people from rescuing hedgehogs from pet stores because that just encourages the pet stores to get more," Standing Bear says. "Normally, if they don't take care of their hedgehogs, we'll sic the U.S.D.A. on a pet store, and the U.S.D.A. will shut them down, since for the last couple of years hedgehogs are regulated under the Animal Welfare Act." But in Ithemba's case, there simply wasn't time. She's now recuperating in Standing Bear's hedgehog infirmary.

Meet the Hedgehogs

In a nearby cage are Prickles and Grouchy, whose most recent residence was a sixth grade classroom in nearby Loveland, Colo. When no one could care for them over summer vacation, they wound up at the shelter.

Also in the infirmary is Sonicker, at 5½ the oldest hedgehog in the shelter. She's blind, and is recuperating from a recent jaw surgery. "She's still a curious little character, though,'' says Standing Bear, gently picking her up and rubbing her quills.

The newest arrival is Ralphie, an Algerian chocolate hedgehog who came in just two days before. Her former owner had to give her up when his landlord decided to enforce the "no pets" rule, and the owner's parents declined to take in their son's prickly pet.

"We need to fatten her up a little bit," says Standing Bear, who insists each hedgehog at the shelter be weighed daily, so any sudden weight loss – a symptom of illness - can be detected and the problem dealt with. "But she's healthy. She'll be adopted out."

So far, about 45 hedgehogs from the Flash and Thelma Memorial Shelter have been placed in new adoptive homes. But many more hedgehogs in need get placed into new homes without ever spending a single night in the shelter. "We do a lot of work over the Internet," says Standing Bear. "We facilitate many adoptions that way."

In addition to providing rescue, care, rehabilitation and adoption services for hedgehogs, the Flash and Thelma Memorial Rescue pays for veterinary care for hedgehogs in cases where their human caretaker cannot afford the care. It also administers a special fund, the Munchkin Memorial Fund, to assist researchers at Yale University in the investigation of wobbly hedgehog syndrome, a fatal hedgehog disease similar to multiple sclerosis.

For information on the Flash and Thelma Memorial Hedgehog Rescue of North America, visit its Web site at hedgieflash.org Donations may be sent to P.O. Box 1903, Fort Collins, Colo., 80524. The hedgehog rescue hotline is (800) 735-3160. E-mail Zug Standing Bear at MGSpikers@aol.com.

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