Mini hedgehog pets stealing the hearts of Mainers

Penelope the hedgehog was asleep under a fleece blanket at lunchtime on Nov. 14, not far from the fired up wood stove in her home in Searsport, Maine. Lifting the blanket off Penelope’s spiky form, her owner Jennifer Larson, gently scooped her up, and on instinct, the hedgehog curled into a tight ball.

Cupping the ball of quills in two hands, Larson waited.

A snout emerged, long and delicate, tipped with a little pink nose that wiggled as the mini hedgehog sniffed the air.

Hedgehogs have an especially great sense of smell and grow accustomed to their owner’s scent, forming a bond of trust.

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Relaxing in Larson’s hands, the creature uncurled to reveal two round eyes, deep blue at close inspection. Then Penelope stretched her tiny arms and began to squirm.

“Some [hedgehogs] are cuddlers,” Larson explained. “Some are explorers. Some are just kind of aloof — leave me alone. And some hate everybody.”

Larson carried Penelope to the kitchen table and set her down.

“She kind of wants to go exploring,” she said.

As Penelope roamed the table, Larson talked about her pet, which is specifically an African pygmy hedgehog. She purchased Penelope and her sister, Sweetpea, when they were just babies, two years ago, from a breeder out of Massachussetts. At the time, Larson had to purchase an importation permit and possession permit to bring the hedgehogs into Maine. The hedgehogs, which came with necessary health certificates, cost her $250 each, and the licenses, an extra $52 each.

Since then, things have changed. In May, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife added hedgehogs to the unrestricted animal list, meaning hedgehogs can be shipped into Maine and owned as pets without any special permits — like a hamster or dog. And since then, more and more Mainers are becoming proud owners of domesticated hedgehogs.

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“They’re cute, they’re different,” Larson said.

A traveling veterinarian that specializes in horses, Larson used to own a domesticated hedgehog while attending college, so she’s fairly experienced when it comes to caring for the species.

“These guys can be tricky to care for,” Larson said. “They have to stay warm or they can go into hibernation. … They’re domesticated, they’re not in the wild, they don’t normally do that, so they can die.”

The normal lifespan of an African pygmy hedgehog is about four to six years, according to hedgehogcare.org, but they can live to be as old as 10 years. Like any other pet, they can have common health issues, such as cancer and eye infections. And they have some habits that are more endearing than others.

Hedgehogs are nocturnal, so it’s best to handle them in the evenings or at night. They can’t see well, so they spook easily. And when they are awake, they’re active animals that need plenty of exercise.

Larson’s hedgehog home is a large enclosure with an open top. With the floor lined with absorbent dog training pads (which makes for easy clean up), the enclosure contains plenty of toys, including an exercise wheel, PVC pipes, two plastic cave-like sleep spots filled with fleece blankets and a shallow Tupperware filled with glass pebbles where Larson hides mealworms for her hedgehogs to hunt.

The hedgehog diet is diverse, she said, though they can be picky about what they like. The bulk of Penelope’s diet, for example, is dry cat food, though the hedgehog also enjoys live insects, baby food — specifically mashed sweet potato and meat sticks — and meat-based cat treats. And sometimes, when Penelope comes across a food that has a new or interesting scent, she picks it up with her long tongue, contorts her body and paints the food onto her quills. The behavior is called “self anointing,” Larson explained.

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“See that green there?” Larson said, pointing to a vibrant green smudge on Penelope’s otherwise off-white quills. “That’s sweet pea baby food from earlier.”

Larson cleans Penelope and Sweatpea on a regular basis, placing them in a shallow pan filled with warm water and all-natural body wash, and scrubbing their quills with a toothbrush. And the self-anointing behavior isn’t the only reason this is necessary.

“When they run in their wheel, a lot of times they poop while they’re running, so they run in their poop,” Larson explained. “It’s called poop boots on the hedgehog sites.”

They’re smelly animals, she said. There’s no getting around it. In fact, when you pick them up to play with them, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll poop and pee, intermittently, for the first few minutes, she said. But Larson also owns five rats, six dogs, four barn cats, two house cats and five horses, so she’s used to the various messes that come with owning animals.

Hedgehogs, she said, are worth the frequent cleaning and extra care.

Placing Penelope back in her enclosure, Larson watched as the hedgehog used her snout to burrow back into her fleece bed, where she’d sleep away the rest of the day.