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.