Something completely different: A hedgehog hospital

England’s West Country is a region of stately manors, ancient ruins, lush countryside scenes, grand coastal seascapes, quaint villages, desolate moors, majestic castles — and Twiggy Winkies Farm and hedgehog hospital. “You simply must visit the hedgehog hospital,” urged a friend. To keep the friendship alive, I agreed — and thoroughly enjoyed myself. It was a fascinating afternoon learning about and observing hedgehogs, which to a Canadian unfamiliar with the species, appears to be a mixed-marriage between a small-sized porcupine and a ferret, minus the tail. “Not so,” indignantly countered my friend. “Hedgehogs are cute, irresistibly cute. All English men and women adore hedgehogs; they don’t bother people, and they eat lizards, frogs, mice, snakes and other nasty things.”

For those that don’t know anything about hedgehogs, they are nocturnal mammals, sleeping during the day and searching for food only at night. They have soft fur on their cute faces and bellies and sharp quills — but not, fortunately, of the detachable variety — on the rest of their body. Hedgehogs have quite the family history — fossils found suggest that hedgehog-like creatures have ddled the earth for about 15 million years. When threatened, hedgehogs roll into a ball of projecting spines, making themselves invulnerable to any natural predator — but no match for automobiles speeding along the winding roads which hedgehogs, like the proverbial chicken, just have to cross.

Many survivors of these hedgehog hit-and-runs wind up at the hedgehog hospital near Newton Abbot in Devon, located between Dartmouth and Exeter. In a large barn, Elizabeth Dyas and Bill Knott care for dozens of hedgehogs, from abandoned new-born babies to injured adults.

The couple opened a small demonstration farm in 1990 as an educational exhibit for school children from nearby towns and cities — a sort of petting zoo with lambs and goats, rabbits, pigs, calves, hens and ducks, donkeys and ponies. All to give children hands-on lessons in conservation, preservation and care of the environment.

They took the name for the farm from a hedgehog in a story immortalized by famed English author Beatrix Potter.

“Within weeks, people started arriving with injured hedgehogs,” recalls Knott. “We had to turn them away — we didn’t know anything about hedgehogs. It seems we had a similar name to a charity animal hospital many, many miles away, and people thought — because of the Beatrix Potter association — that we would care for orphaned and injured hedgehogs. Finally, we gave in, learned how to care for the babies and injured hedgehogs, and we’ve been doing it ever since. Each year, we get hundreds of them. Some from road accidents, but many others from viruses or attacks by dogs, cats or badgers. Hedgehogs don’t survive being run over by cars, but they stand a chance if they’ve just suffered a glancing blow. And when they’re old enough or well again, we release them back into the wild.” The babies, some only a few days old, and so tiny they easily fit in the palm of a hand, are white with no prickly spines — so small, in fact, they need to be fed using small eye-droppers.

Children and adults alike swarm to the hospital to watch the care and feeding of these little animals — in fact, more than 45,000 people of all ages visit the farm and hospital each year, drawn by the peculiar British fascination with their prickly friends.

“We have a dozen people working with us, mostly college students,” says Knott. “When things get real busy — after a heavy flood of patients arrives — we can call on another dozen locals to help out.” Brits simply love having hedgehogs inhabit their gardens, not least of all because they keep away less friendly beasties. There’s even a British Hedgehog Preservation Society which leads research into the care and feeding of these distant relatives of similar species found in Europe, Asia and Africa.

While hedgehogs are not indigenous to North America, they have made inroads as many people import African pigmy or dwarf hedgehogs as household pets. As pets go, however, hedgehogs don’t score too well on the cuddly scale — but if you want something a little different, not too big, and definitely adorable, they can make a welcome pet. If you’re a night-owl or prone to getting up during the dark hours, a hedgehog can be an entertaining late-night companion.

And they require very little care — just some food, water and a cosy place to sleep. There’s no need to take your hedgehog walking when you’d rather stay tucked up in bed.