The Secret Life of a Hedgehog called Gaby


Right from the very beginning of Gaby’s and my life together, I had the intense feeling that this was a unique opportunity to learn things which I would never have the chance to learn again. It was from that urgency of conviction, of being confronted by something uncharted, unknown and wonderful, that I started to keep a detailed diary. By far and large in science, the only research allowed and undertaken pertains to muscular movements and glandular secretions, the emotional side being regarded with disdain. Yet, here I was continuously, day in and day out, witnessing a conscious awareness, rational thoughts, intense feelings and intelligence, more possible in a small child than a hedgehog if one were to believe the available research. After all, this wasn’t one of the big apes, a dolphin or even a dog but a small mammal with a brain smaller than that of a cat. But then there is a certain inconsistency in our conviction; on the one hand, that the larger the brain the more intelligent its owner, and on the other, our grudging admission that rats (whose brains are similar in size to those of hedgehogs) are exceptionally intelligent.  We now know that it’s the density of neurons in the brain that is the marker of intelligence.

I knew that I had to keep my mind open and free from any prejudice of information previously gained, and to simply record everything as it happened since my lifelong experience with animals made me very aware of our lack of knowledge and understanding of the way in which animals think and react. This in itself isn’t surprising as we don’t even fully know how the human brain works. For that reason alone, it shouldn’t be strange that most animals, given the chance, find pleasure in the same way that we do; after all, we share the same heritage, and although I have observed this phenomenon time and time again, one day something happened that even I found astonishing. It was early summer and it was Gaby’s second June with me since he had been adopted by our family two and half years previously. His daily life followed a certain routine, an instantly recognisable secure pattern, and it was obvious from the very beginning that it was as essential to Gaby’s physical and emotional well-being as it is to all young, whether human or animal. The routine had a simple basic structure which I have described at length in previous chapters but over a period of months some changes crept in, introduced by Gaby so gradually that it was difficult to notice them at first. Not so this time.

This particular day Gaby got up from his afternoon nap and as usual first called at his loo. Unfortunately, not being fully awake, he got one of his feet dirty by stepping awkwardly backwards. I picked him up under one arm as one does with a child and started for the bathroom which is situated across the landing. On the way there I passed an open door and on seeing my husband inside our bedroom busy unpacking some boxes I walked in. We exchanged a few words and laughed and then as I turned to go, without thinking and completely on a good-natured impulse, I moved Gaby up into my arms and holding him like a baby I rocked to and fro in exaggerated, sweeping movements. It all lasted only a few seconds and if Gaby felt amazed by this new experience, his face certainly didn’t show it and we forgot all about it by the end of the bathtime. Or so I thought. That evening our usual bedtime routine was the same as it had been for the past 912 evenings and 912 mornings, with perhaps another 912 lunchtime thrown in. As he had self-established on the very first day, when picked up he would gravitate towards me and placed on my chest, he would hold on with his hands, his nose burrowed in the soft indentation at the base of my neck. Once there, he would talk rapidly in his language for three to five minutes, animated and eager to tell me all about his day. Gaby2After that I would talk to him, all the affectionate things he adored so much, and then I would sing his two lullabies. Altogether it would take about two hours to settle Gaby for the night, and that evening was no exception.

The next morning as I picked Gaby up to exchange our tender greetings, in the same manner as we had done only a few hours before, he started to wriggle out of my arms, at the same time protesting loudly. This, I must say, was quite shocking and had never happened before. Why, we had both rushed towards each other and once in my arms, he would nuzzle my neck or my face, all the time making small but intense squeaks of affection. And as I wasn’t going to be outdone, our mutual adoration of each other took some time to satisfy before we could get down to the mundane task of cleaning the bedroom and changing the bed. But although I was surprised (to put it mildly!) by Gaby’s strange reception, it took me only a second or two before enlightenment dawned on me in a manner as natural as if we were connected by an invisible thread, and it came into my head in the form of a loud and clear thought. Obediently and without thinking, I followed this “instruction” and placed Gaby in my arms in the way he had learned the day before, some seventeen hours ago, and rocked him gently. Eureka!

In an instant, the loud protestations stopped dead as if a plug had been pulled out. On contact with the supportive crook of a folded arm, his rigid body flopped into a relaxed, if ridiculous position, the expanses of his tummy growing by the second. He turned his little face towards me, his shining blueberry-eyes looking deeply into mine with obvious approval. I looked down at him in amazement. As if it were something that hedgehogs do naturally, he lay upside-down with his hands folded elegantly on his chest as if in prayer, while his feet rested on his tummy, his big toes meeting in the middle. His delight in this new arrangement was unmistakable. But he seemed to be waiting for something and lo and behold, a soft voice prompted me. It was a sound akin to the way we communicate; a discreet clearing of the throat as if to say “Haven’t we forgotten something?” Of course, silly me! Now, as was customary, I had to sing his two favourite lullabies while rocking him softly. It was only later in the day when he was napping that I could write all this down. Gaby’s long-term memory was clearly evident and had been documented for the past two years. Although I had no doubt about his intelligence, he still managed to astound me with his ability not only to clearly remember something that had taken place a long time ago, but to act on that information and to communicate to me his thoughts and wishes.

This new and, as I was in time to find out, quite exhausting routine became the most important part of Gaby’s life. There were no two ways about it. Apart from the time when he did his daily house inspection, trotting from one room to another, or the sleeping time spent in a variety of positions, all his remaining conscious hours were spent in my arms, tummy up, face at a quarter-turn, his eyes looking up straight into mine, his little hands neatly folded. Even when we had to visit the vet – a journey of some fourteen miles – we would arrive there with Gaby looking into the vet’s face from his new vantage point and everyone around us would laugh.

HedgehogSweatingGradually, with the passing weeks, a whole range of variations was developed. One position in particular reduced me to fits of giggles. It was initiated during a very hot week in July with the temperature nudging 80 degrees Fahrenheit. After an hour of continuously rocking a lump of a hedgehog weighing a kilogram and a bit, equal in real terms to holding two-pound and half bags of sugar, I was drenched in sweat. It plastered the hair to my head, it poured down my face stinging my eyes and I could feel the hot trickles dribbling down my back. Clad only in my cotton nightdress, I would sway to and fro with Gaby lying flat on his back, his soft down-covered tummy expanded in every direction. To make himself more comfortable, he would throw his arms aside in total abandon, his hands raised as if in evangelical blessing. His legs, which usually rested in a modest manner on his stomach, now lay dangling at an odd angle outside of his body like two large chicken drumsticks. Only his feet with all the toes parted, obviously to assist air circulation, were pointing up.

But it was his head which was funniest of all. Thrown well back over my arm, his mouth open and showing his two gleaming front teeth, he was snoring gently, unaware of giving the performance of a lifetime – the best ever impersonation of a drunken sailor-rat in a Marseilles gutter. It was also the ONLY time when I had to concede with some regret his resemblance in this position to a “sleepy rodent” as some dope wrote about hedgehogs. His performance which was repeated each evening for the whole duration of the heatwave each summer, never failed to reduce me to tears, although I had to laugh quietly, otherwise any changes in the rhythm of rocking or any gaps in my singing would bring a sharp intake of breath and a glint to at least one seemingly closed eye. On cooler nights Gaby would lie soberly in my arms, paying scrupulous attention to every detail of our ritual. His eyes would scan my face endlessly, his whole body tuned to my voice with such intensity that I would go on rocking him for hours on end, unwilling to break the spell.

His participation and understanding of the thrice-daily recital of our “terms of endearment” was astonishing and reminded me of the intense involvement of my two young children in their bedtime stories. Knowing every fairytale by heart, they would thwart my feeble attempts at changing the plot or wording. “Mom, this isn’t what Red Riding Hood said to the wolf, don’t you know?” “OK, OK, just testing!” I would surrender meekly, and loudly admire their superior memory. This cosy familiarity of our daily routine was as important and beneficial to young children’s feelings of security as it was to Gaby, a young hedgehog, But just how essential or how beneficial it was, I only fully realised when on one occasion, distracted by something happening outside the bedroom window I missed one single expression and unaware of this, carried on with the rest. His relaxed face took on an agitated look, his eyes insistently bored into mine, and he made the same questioning sound he always used when prompting me to speak up. As soon as he heard the missed sentence said aloud and with the expected feeling, he gave a deep sigh of approval and sank back, relaxed once more.

Of course, I instinctively understood him the very first time it happened, but as I wasn’t going to write only about our emotional entwinement, and as my solemn undertaking was to report the plain facts, I knew that I had to put this observation to the test. For two years after that first incident, at three week intervals, I would deliberately drop a sentence from our daily ritual of endearment, or replace one of his two lullabies by an “impostor”. Although I would sing something sweet and tuneful like “Will you be my sweetheart” or “Blue Bayou”, Gaby wouldn’t be conciliated. Any attempts at altering the order of my recitation or my singing would be instantly met with robust protestations in various forms, ranging from bad-tempered grunts and wriggle to sounds of prompting, all accompanied by an indignant and persistent stare, a sort of “I really-didn’t-expect-you-to-be-so-careless”. Making amends was always very easy. Gaby learned the meaning of the word “sorry” in his first few weeks of being with me and as he was enviably good-natured, he would accept my apologies and the right lullaby without any sulking. As far as he was concerned, I had some mental aberration brought on now and again by my feeble-mindedness. He found this quite touching since to him I was living perfection in every sense. Perhaps he thought me human after all. I have often wondered whether certain aspects of animal behaviour merely resemble that of human beings by chance, or whether especially in the case of a creature as young as Gaby, they are directly linked to some early learning process. Instinct or learning – that is the question.

Over my many years of living with many animals, mostly wild, I have compiled overwhelming evidence that all of them were capable of learning and adapting, and that it is only a matter of the right technique on the teacher’s part. There is a trend to believe that our ability and behaviour are dictated to a large extent by our genes. I have to disagree. Where humans and animals are concerned, the adult behaviour of individuals is due to the learning processes undergone in early stages of life. In my experience, wild birds in my garden, all few hundred of them, actually prefer hot water and hot food to anything served cold. They leave some of their feed when it is cold and literally jump on me when I appear with a hot batch. A feral cat, at least three years old and clearly never having been in contact with humans, whom I rescued from starvation in the depths of winter, became rehabilitated over several months to such an extent that he is now more affectionate and companionable than a dog, and now walks peacefully among the birds he once used to hunt.

Gaby the hedgehog, as a wild born animal had no notion of home comforts, the human way of expressing affection or of the meaning contained in human speech, yet within days he was able to recognise the superiority of a sumptuous bed over a cardboard box. Throwing instinct and its teachings to the wind, he joyfully adopted a human lifestyle with all the alien to him practices of kissing, hugging and talking. His vocabulary was extensive and on a par with an average two-year old child’s knowledge. He responded vocally to me and articulated his wishes clearly. His need for affection was far greater than for food. Well, is this instinct speaking here, or acquired knowledge? The most important lesson learned from my life-long experiences with various creatures is that the behaviour of animals reflects not an instinct but to a greater degree our own. Nurture is stronger than Nature.

Gaby’s passion for his new holding position continued unabated. This new aspect of our life had far-reaching significance, and from then on my learning process accelerated. All the books and documentaries made the clear statement, which I naively presumed was based on observation, that grooming was not an activity high on hedgehogs’ daily agenda. Although hedgehogs’ reluctance to wash was due, they explained, not to their natural sluttishness but to their somewhat unfortunate appearance, as far as grooming was concerned. It didn’t take me long to learn otherwise. By now, I knew that it had only taken Gaby three days to perfect his house training, and I learned to use to my advantage his passion for freshly laundered bed linen, still warm from the dryer. To indulge him I would change his two beds daily, and I could never tire of watching his ecstatic facial expression on being placed in his fresh, warm bed for his afternoon nap. This was in fact the only bribe that could persuade him to agree to our short parting, on the strict condition that while he slept I would come up every half an hour and check on him.

It was probably Gaby’s unwillingness for us to be separated even for short periods of time that led to my next discovery. Being so wholeheartedly devoted to his new body position, he was determined to make up for all the lost time by gradually prolonging our time together. He had obviously worked out that by doing his evening ablutions while still in my arms, he could save precious minutes. To my amazement and for the first time, I watched him washing his face in the same way a cat does, except that instead of sitting he would be lying flat on his back and using both his hands. First, he would thoroughly moisten these with his pink tongue and then proceed to clean his face, every bit of it, his eyes, cheeks, forehead, even his ears, nothing would escape his attention. Next, he would wash his hands, first the whole of his pink palms, then each and every finger. The last to be washed were his feet, and here he would show real mastery. His toes would all be washed separately, then any dry skin would be trimmed off until fresh and glowing he would relax in his hammock (that is, my folded arms), and listen to music, that is my rendition of his two lullabies, sung softly over and over again, the chorus lines reinforced with kisses. I could swear that once or twice I heard him muttering into his whiskers: “Heaven can wait, I’m stopping here for a while.”

Gaby’s weekly routine included a quick, warm bath in our bathroom’s washbasin. This was an event which did not meet with Gaby’s approval, and would only be administered in real need, that is, whenever Gaby had a little mishap while leaving his loo. But to him the plain injustice of the situation was inescapable. Although I always took the greatest care with the preparations, warming the towels up and ensuring that there was the right amount of warm water in the basin, bathtime would invariably turn into a tragi-comic performance, something along the lines of the Great Greek Tragedy.  As soon as I mentioned the hated word bath,  the atmosphere would become positively tense, and I knew I had to hurry. Firmly clutching Gaby to my chest with one arm and the towels under the other, I would walk boldly towards the bathroom. The shiny edge of the basin looming in front of us would be a cue to Gaby that he shouldn’t wait a second longer for the proceedings to gear up.  As if an invisible director had shouted “Action”, he would dramatically twist his body towards me while his hands would grab the front of my blouse with manic force. At the same time his expressive eyes, now huge, would plead with me from his upturned, heart-shaped face. “No! Oh, please! No! Please! Spare me! I don’t want you to use this harsh brush, not between my legs! Please!”

Taking into account that all he was resisting was a quick wash of his hands, feet and bottom, with the whole operation lasting no more than 30 seconds, his performance would only succeed in making me laugh. Giggling helplessly by then, I would tell him for the hundredth time that in the days of silent films his skills would, without a doubt, have been in great demand by many, but for myself I just wanted to introduce his lower regions to water and vice- versa. As for the dreaded brush, really, what brush? And what an imagination! Not wanting to add to his discomfort, I would fill the washbasin with only a tiny amount of tepid water, hardly covering his feet, and would compensate for this by changing it three times.  The next part was much more to Gaby’s liking. A quick rub in a warm towel, a change, and then wrapped up again in a fresh warm towel, I would rock him until relaxed and dry he would fall asleep. I could then transfer him to his bed and get on with my writing in the happy knowledge that exhausted by the events, he would now sleep soundly for at least two, and with some luck, maybe even three hours.

While I wrote that afternoon, an uneasy feeling made me stop and think. There was so much about Gaby’s behaviour that could invite direct comparison with a young child that once written down and presented to the world would certainly provoke accusation from the “rational brigade” of my being emotional, anthropomorphizing or even sentimental if not misleading. There is no one more conservative and opposed to change than the scientific establishment. Yet I based all my findings strictly on facts alone, and while I had no trouble at all in making my mind up about the degree of Gaby’s intelligence, I have decided to leave the final conclusion to the readers. In the blogs about Gaby that will follow later, I will write how Gaby’s life was twice saved by me by mouth to mouth resuscitation.

2 thoughts on “The Secret Life of a Hedgehog called Gaby

  1. What an extraordinary blog post! Thank you for sharing what you have been learning about this hedgehog and your loving relationship with him.


  2. Thank you for your kind comment. Perhaps you will find the poet about Gaby’s communication interesting. I love the way you describe nature at the campsite, inc. the little spider on the hydrangea. Both your wife and you have lovely voices and sing beautifully. And the jazz pianist! Excellent. Thank you.


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