Sunday, May 26, 2013

Special Guest Author Post: The Hedgehog, or How a “Spiky Tribble” Really Isn’t a Tribble

Today's Middle Flipper post is written by SCetaceans!

“Love it with all your heart. Be calm (and sometimes, dominant) around it. Handle it every day. Feed it its favorite food. Put your scent by it so it can associate you with being safe and comfortable.” These are just a few things any animal keeper learns when trying to “tame down” an unruly animal. The few simple tips above, when given to a trained animal handler (aka, “don’t try this at home”), tend to make even the most aggressive animal tame (if not handleable enough for basic husbandry sessions).

Take my pal Terrico, for example. Terrico was a rescue that came into my life about six or so months ago. The university lab that I work for had room for a couple of “class pets”, so when a student’s full-grown male ball python needed a home, the biology department opened up our facility (and our hearts) to welcome this little guy into our lives.

Terrico, on the third day in our lab. Notice the “strike” position he’s in.

Terrico did not like people. At all. Even though we gave him a hide and wrapped one side of his tank up with paper, he would still strike at the glass if he saw anybody walk by. A big “DO NOT TOUCH” sign was put on his tank, and, it seemed, that was the end of it - we would have a grouchy snake that struck at everyone for the rest of his snakey-poo life.

Not on my watch. I’ve been working with snakes for as long as I can remember, and I know how easy it is to tame a ball python down - in fact, I’ve never met a genuinely nasty ball python in my entire life. I handled Terrico every other day during my work shift, and, after a while, he calmed down - he’s now a very handleable boy and only hisses if he’s woken up.

Or wedged inside the lab protocol manual

However, I’m not here to bore you with my stories of successful animal handling; I’m sure you could get those anywhere. What I am here to tell you about is my Demon Tribble, otherwise known as an African Pygmy Hedgehog.

This is NOT, I repeat, NOT a Tribble.

Tribbles. You all know them, you all love them (especially if you’re Uhura): the soft, purring, Klingon-hating animals that reproduce at unchecked rates if taken off their home planet. This is not the reason I decided to purchase a hedgehog.

Rather, it was because of this (yes, this is probably the worst reason to get a pet, but hey - I needed a pet):

I see no difference

The Hobbit with a hedgehog? Okay, it’s a meme that was going around for a while last year, shortly after the second season of BBC’s Sherlock had its season finale (Benedict Cumberbatch is an otter... don’t ask). After being persuaded by a friend who recently purchased a hedgehog and doing a bit of research (and generally nosing about under the #hedgehog tag on Tumblr), I decided that owning a h-hog of my very own wouldn’t be that much work. They looked like sweet, social, easy-to-manage animals that could be readily incorporated into my busy college schedule.

See what I mean? How adorable is that - a hedgehog in a tutu dancing, and not a grump in sight!

But the internet is a liar.

Meet my girl, appropriately named Freeman, due to her uncanny resemblance to a certain British actor who shall not be named. I picked her up on the 6th of June last year at the local reptile show as an early birthday present to me. I wasn’t expecting a reptile show of all places to have a hedgehog for sale, but there she was, her and a boy hog, out on display in the front of the vendors’ gallery. I bought her on impulse (well, I knew I had permission to get a hedgehog from my mother and all, but still), and two-hundred-dollars later (approximately the cost of food, supplies, and Freeman), I had a little Atelerix albiventris of my very own.

I mean look at her, isn’t she adorable? She even has blue eyes!

Everything I’ve read on hedgehogs say that they rarely ever bite, can easily be tamed down, and, after a while of socializing, tend to be very affectionate, cuddly members of the family. Apparently Freeman didn’t get the memo, and from the very start of our relationship, she hissed, jumped, and curled up nonstop. This was to be expected, as she was new to my home and new to my presence, so I relied on my animal handler training to calm her down:

Step 1: Give Animal its Favorite Food (this works especially well if the animal is hand-fed)

Yeah, right. Freeman would take food from my hand and run underneath her blanket. As you can see from the photo above, the little brat is all stretched out, ready to take her turkey-treat and head for the hills. Hedgehogs are related to shrews, so this means that they have a LOT of energy, eat a LOT for their small stature, and require a LOT of protein in their diet. While I feed her the recommended kibble and treat supplements (fresh fruits, veggies, meats, and insects), I soon found out she would not and probably could not be food-motivated like most large carnivores (and piscivores) are. Step One got chucked out the window.

Step Two: Associate your scent with things that are “good” and “safe”.

Well, Freeman obviously thinks she’s safe if she’s anointing herself with the scent of my hand-soap. Note my exasperated mug.

This step normally works, especially with big cat cubs. Wear a shirt around the house for a couple of days so it gets your scent, and then put it in the animal’s sleeping quarters. The animal associates your scent with feeling safe and protected, and therefore begins to like you when you pick it up and handle it.

      Like I said, simple: feed them, clean them, love them, and you’ll have a sweet baby tiger in no time flat.

Not the Demon Tribble. I’d take her out every day and let her run around my room while I lay on the floor with her. While I’d be busy studying for school, she’d scamper all about, sniffing and trying to wiggle into every nook and cranny she could find until, after a while, she would come up to me and begin to burrow into my clothes and go to sleep. Apparently she felt safe enough to slumber in my pajama pants’ leg; however if I made the slightest movement at all she’d puff up her quills, hiss, and jump - adorning my thigh with multiple prick marks. In one occasion, I had to remove my pajamas to get her out, lest be continually (and painfully) poked by needle-sharp quills. Hasta la vista, Step Two.

Step Three: Be gentle, loving, and kind to your daily-held animal: Yeah, that worked out real well.

Step Four: Give up and realize that nothing is going to work, no matter how hard you try.

You win this round, you spiky little rat.

I guess, at the end of the day, you’re going to love your child (whether it be furry, scaly, feathery, or Homo sapien) no matter what they do. Despite Freeman constantly keeping me up at night (she has a knack at knowing exactly when my school exams are and making sure I get no sleep the night before), continually poking me with her quills, and giving me the occasional bite, I still love her, and I still have to take care of her - that’s a promise all animal keepers have to make to their wards, even if they like the animal or not (or vice versa - you can’t be friends with every animal you meet, sadly enough). In the end, Freeman (who is more often called Satan now-a-days) is actually quite cuddly when she wants to be, much like a cat. I often take her out when I’m doing quiet activities that I know she’ll tolerate, such as reading. She tends to rest on my chest or - even still - in my pajama bottoms, curl up, and go to sleep while I learn how to fight off zombies (as per the current book I’m reading). She really is a good pet, and I can’t imagine not having her in my life.

...Although I’d really like her to stop biting me, even though she doesn’t break the skin.

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