Hedgehogs have long been seen as nocturnal, simple creatures who eat slugs, don’t bother with grooming, sleep a lot, and are solitary by choice, preferring their own grumpy company even to that of their female partners. Despite the enormous interest in these creatures and the research into their habitat undertaken over the past ten years, it is a well known fact that our understanding of hedgehogs is far from complete.
Drawing on five and half years of research, consisting of observation and notes, and based on hard facts and scrupulous attention to details, I was able to chart the development of a very young hedgehog into adulthood. The process itself and the results were astonishing since his quest to learn and adapt was not dissimilar to that of a human baby. Being an individual hedgehog raised with humans, he became by his own choice one of us, but entirely on his own terms.
Over a short period of time he learned not only basics such as toilet training (in three days), personal hygiene, and the best methods of feeding but he also developed the skills of real communication, not just randomly made sounds. He had a large vocabulary and understood different uses of the same word in various sentences. Within the first five months of his life with me, he not only developed the ability to talk in language-like sounds that were a perfect match for human sounds, but he also displayed an astounding ability to form concepts, to think and connect ideas as well as complex emotional interactions in human terms, including empathy with me on an unparalleled level. Yet, at all times, he retained his own personality and would give without any hesitation a very clear, often vocal indication of being displeased with some of my ideas.
Pets are commonly divided into those who either look up or down at us, like dogs and cats, but only a wild creature, in this case a hedgehog living free among humans, could be truly equal. This wasn’t an owner-pet relationship since usually a hedgehog wouldn’t make a good, happy pet, but was more of a unique, lifelong companionship.
Our rapport was of a very special kind, since it required me to be less of a human, and Gaby to be a little bit less of a hedgehog. While I thought and did everything in his terms, he in return voluntarily adapted his normally nocturnal life to be for the large part diurnal in order to spend more time with me. Even in the first fascinating months of “getting to know him”, I found myself often surprised and moved by his eagerness to reach me, to understand, to learn by intelligent observation of his observer (me!), the intensity of his feelings for me, and his sense of humour. All of which we tend to usurp as human traits, not normally associated with such small mammals as hedgehogs. My findings are all the more extraordinary because they go against our preconceptions.
This is a story of a chance meeting of two beings who were determined to find out what they had in common, and in the process not only forged an extraordinary friendship, but also learned that pleasing each other is one of life’s greater wonderments. Our understanding was total, as there was not only intelligence and high awareness here, but also evidence of a telepathic communication and the overwhelming and greatly endearing need for affection. When I held him and said, as was customary every bedtime, the tender, loving words that he knew well, his eyes endlessly scanned my face and every so often he told me emphatically how much he loved me. It was as moving as it was poetic, and at times – in its intensity – it seemed that his heart literally hung on my voice as if on a golden thread.
If I had to single out the most important lesson I have learned from my lifelong experience with various creatures, it would be that the behaviour of animals living with us reflects to a greater degree our own. We regard the professional study of animals as valuable and of great importance to the future of all species. But to know those we observe in a relationship on an equal level, without the impediment of misunderstanding, fear and mistrust which detached research often causes, is much more rewarding both in their knowledge and in their friendship.
As our perception of hedgehogs is very limited, I sincerely hope that this factual account of one hedgehog’s intelligence, courage, ability and extraordinary affection will speak for all.