When I was a young child, growing up in the English seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, I was on the brink of falling asleep one evening when I was jolted back to consciousness by a strange noise in the back yard beneath my bedroom window. I opened the window, peered outside, squinted through the blackness and, finally, saw something moving. It took a few moments before I realized it was a hedgehog – the nocturnal spiny-on-top, furry-on-bottom paragons of cuteness that are a semi-ubiquitous sight in gardens across the United Kingdom (and elsewhere in Europe).
I watched it while it scurried about, sniffing under here, exploring under there, rooting through wood and leaves for insects, and didn't go back to bed until long after it had squeezed back under the fence, and I was absolutely sure it wouldn't come back.
The next morning over breakfast I could hardly wait to tell my family what I had seen.
"Maybe you should leave it a saucer of milk," smiled my mother, who was always gently encouraging of my burgeoning wildlife obsession. Strictly speaking, this isn't the best thing in the world to do for hedgehogs (which tend to be lactose intolerant); it's better to leave a saucer of water, if anything. But I didn't know that at the time; and the notion of leaving a saucer of milk for your local hedgehog was (and perhaps still is) fairly commonplace in England.
The British love hedgehogs, and can at times become mildly angst-ridden at the human activities that place hedgehogs in peril. The most frequent of these is driving a car: hedgehogs have a habit of crossing the road; hedgehogs also have evolved to respond to threats by curling into a tight spiny ball; and, being small and dark, they can also be hard to spot on roads at night. This combination can lead to inevitable and unfortunate consequences.
There were for a while apocryphal tales of hedgehogs beginning to figure out that rolling into a ball might be protection against inquisitive cats but invited disaster from Land Rovers, and that many had learned to pick up their little legs and scurry for safety in the face of oncoming traffic. But such tales were indeed mostly apocrypha; because hedgehogs tend to react to cars only when the vehicles are, on average, 25 feet or so away, running is no more likely to lead to salvation than staying still.
Hedgehogs encounter other problems, on account of their insectivorous propensity for snuffling in, under, and around objects in search of food, and humans' tendency to simply discard – well, anything. For example, hedgehogs used to become entrapped in empty McDonald's McFlurry cups; they would crawl inside in pursuit of the remnants of sweet, sticky goodness, but their spines would prevent them from crawling back out.
But, Britain being Britain, a genteel campaign by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society persuaded the Golden Arches to redesign the McFlurry cups used in that country, with smaller, hedgehog-proof apertures.
Still, a hedgehog's curiosity knows few bounds, which is why a shopkeeper in my hometown of Weston-super-Mare (which evidently is a great place to be a hedgehog) recently heard some odd rustling. Looking around, the merchant found that a young hedgehog had crawled into an empty bag of potato chips and had become stuck. Adding to the dilemma, the animal and his snacky shroud were on the other side of a railed-off area, which the shopkeeper couldn't reach.
Over the next three-and-a-half hours, six people cut through the railings to reach the hedgehog – which by now was dehydrated and cold – and release it from its plastic prison.
This fact bears repeating: Six people took three and a half hours to slice through metal railings to save a hedgehog. At the end of which time they, of course, contacted the good people at Prickles Hedgehog Rescue, who took it in and have since been nursing it back to full health.
Because the British call potato chips 'crisps', the lucky hedgehog has been dubbed Crispian. Deploying even greater originality, I dubbed my childhood hedgehog Spike. I did indeed leave it a saucer of milk that night, and was thrilled to look out my window that evening and see Spike making use of the gift I left it. Night after night, Spike came back, stopping during its travels to sup from the saucer.
Then one day, the milk went undrunk. And the next. Spike had gone, presumably to that great luxurious leaf pile in the sky, and I never saw him again.
IMAGES: Hedgehog and car; with milk; with babies. (Corbis)
Crispian (Prickles Hedgehog Rescue)