During the past 8 years, Anna and I have worked very hard to promote hedgehogs as pets. Aside from our work with colour genetics, general hedgehog understanding, and in creating the IHFS,
it's successor, the IHA and the hedgehog show system, we've also caught the eye of the media on more than one occasion. This has been a real boon to our efforts to increase public awareness. We've been featured in articles in newspapers and magazines as well as radio and television programs around the globe. Probably our greatest moment, though, came when our efforts became the focus of The Wall Street Journal.
Why do things in a small way? On November 5th, 1996, the day before Presidential elections in the United States, hedgehogs graced the front page of this venerable journal while Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were relegated to the back page. Fitting? Appropriate? We sure think so!
OK, so it wasn't the greatest picture of me that I've ever seen, some of the information is far from accurate and a few nasty things were said about me by those who fancied themselves my rival, but the hedgehogs sure do look cute!
Here is the article in its entirety. All rights and copyrights are the property of the Wall Street Journal.
By Quentin Hardy
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
Bryan Smith and hedgehogs
FIFE, Wash. - Bryan Smith eyes "Winkles," the brown and white hedgehog sniffling in his palm. "He's got a nice round rump," he observes. "He doesn't connect well in the head, but that isn't too much of a problem in a male."
Mr. Smith strokes the hog's spine just below the "connect," which would be a neck, if hedgehogs had one. Winkles stiffens his spiky bristles - a temperament flash that reduces him to good, as opposed to great, show hedgehog. Winkles won't win in this, the premiere hedgehog championship of North America.
Mr. Smith leads a curious crusade. He wants to transform the African pygmy hedgehog, dismissed by critics as a "pincushion that pees," into a North American pet of choice. The 34-year-old Canadian is a self-made hedgehog geneticist, breeder and consultant. He also organizes hedgehog shows, with all the pomp and drama of hunt-country dog championships, to help promote the beasts.
"There is an ineffable quality about hedgehogs," he says, hugging several of his 18-toed friends. "You look into the eyes of a hedgehog, and it's not your ordinary animal."
Mr. Smith's animals aren't even ordinary hedgehogs. At his remote ranch in Keremeos, British Columbia, headquarters of his International Hedgehog Fanciers Society, he has genetically engineered 16 different hedgehog colours, including spotted and apricot. He has developed new theories of hedgehog diet, exercise and grooming. He keeps other exotic species, like earless goats and Dumbo-eared rats, but hedgehogs are his passion: Last year he sold about 1,000 of them for about $25 to $40 a pair.
Success is still a long way off. The American Pet Product Manufacturers Association reports that the hedgehog makes up just 1% of America's 12.7 million small pets. Hermit crabs are four times more popular. Mr. Smith also has prickly relations with a rival American hedgehog group. Another obstacle: the British, who have the best-recognized hedgehog experts, and believe the animal should run wild and free.
Hedgehogs shouldn't be "incarcerated," says Les Stocker, founder of St. Tiggywinkles Hospital, an Aylesbury, England, clinic that treats and releases some 3,000 wild European hedgehogs annually.
(Tiggywinkles is the name of a hedgehog in a Beatrix Potter book.) Unrelated to porcupines, hedgehogs are actually insect-eating relatives of the shrew. They are also "creatures without much brain power," adds Mr. Stocker. "If you want a pet, get a dog."
Mr. Smith perseveres, though. He concedes that the hog's spines and the eerie foam they sometimes lick upon themselves are potential pet drawbacks. Their nocturnal nature and occasional eating of their young could be problems.
But Mr. Smith thinks hedgehogs suffer more from bad marketing than bad habits. Hedgehogs can be trained, don't take up much space and are cute, he says. The spines don't really hurt - they are rather ticklish to the touch when the creature rolls into its defensive ball.
Spine Tingling Entertainment
The hedgehog show is Mr. Smith's way to popularize the animal. More than just a pet, "People want a standard of perfection," he says, "a goal to meet." The most important element of that perfection, according to Mr. Smith's rules of hedgehog judging, is a sweet temperament. Since prize winners tend to become prized breeders, Mr. Smith thinks evolution will create a mellower hedgehog. It shouldn't take long: One African hedgehog is good for three multiple litters a year.
But looks count. Judges eye the Fife contestants for shape, and for Mr. Smith's color categories, which also include "platinum," the white-and-brown "snowflake" and the streaky "chocolate confetti."
"It took three years, but I think I've almost got the genetic pattern down," he says, unfurling a complex chart of recessive and dominant color combinations and how to genetically engineer them. "I've offered this to several universities, but so far there has been no interest."
Hedging the Bets
The Fife show is the fifth such hedgehog meet in North America this year, or ever, and the best attended yet. But for every mainstream pet breakthrough such as the common hamster - which was a Syrian pest until the 1930s - there are numerous failures. Pot-bellied pigs never went mainstream, and fainting goats and wallabies simply flopped.
Hedgehogs, in fact, saw a mini-burst once before - in 1994, when speculators got into the show-hedgehog market. In the frenzy, select hedgehogs went soaring to as much as $7,000 a pair - only to leave many investors stuck with animals that now retail for about $50 a pair.
How did prices get so high? "Rates on CD's were low, and people were looking for other investments," says Steve Sawyers, owner of Noah's Exotics in Chouteau, Okla. "With emus at $30,000 a pair, hedgehogs were another way of diversifying." The emu market also collapsed in a glut, and now some breeders give them away.
Besides, other exotic animals are jockeying for mass-popularity. The hedgehog's chief threat is the sugar glider, an Australian marsupial. The big-eyed glider appears part hamster, part flying squirrel and, when touched improperly, part car alarm. "A higher-maintenance animal," says Mr. Smith, who keeps a few sugar gliders himself. "I am not worried."
NAHA Isn't Laughing
The campaign might go faster if hedgehog lovers could get along better. Mr. Smith is sparring with the rival North American Hedgehog Association. "We are the original, the oldest association," says Dennis Kelsey Wood, president of NAHA, which is based in Albuquerque, N.M. NAHA was founded in 1993, a full year before IHFS. "The Fanciers' breeders aren't properly registered and their hedgehogs certainly aren't registered." NAHA will soon have its own hedgehog shows, he says.
But those problems seem far away at the Fife show. As the judging goes on, hedgehog fans cluster around tables that offer hedgehog books, hedgehog exercise wheels and hedgehog dolls. They hug each others' hedgehogs. They debate the merits of feeding their pets cat food vs. specialty hedgehog chow.
Pausing by the "Cup-o-Mealworms" display, Sharon Decker professes a profound love of hedgehogs. "I started with two pairs at the end of May," she says. "Now I have 23."
Twyla Wallace, superintendent of the hedgehog program for 4-H clubs of Fife's King County, sees hedgehogs as a way city kids can learn animal husbandry. "Kids are attracted to these guys like magnets," she says. "I just started talking about hedgehogs, and I've got 4-H clubs in 12 counties interested."
Nearby, judge Cyndie Stumbaugh checks a herd of scurrying finalists. "This is tougher than judging sheep," she says, petting a silver contender. "You've got to coax the personality out. With sheep, what you see is what you get."
In a major upset, "Totem" a salt-and-pepper female, edges out two-time regional champ "Daddy's Little Morning Fog," a two-year-old gray from Seabeck, Wash. Alex Walter, Daddy's 14-year-old owner, consoles himself with the many breeding offers his pet still attracts.
For Mr. Smith, it's on to new hedgehog horizons. There are shows planned for Kentucky and Vancouver, British Columbia. Soon he will address the growing Japanese hedgehog market. So many hedgehog colors remain yet unseen.
"There's a genetic potential for 65 colors, enough to work on for years," says the hedgehog guru, eyes alight. "People are all working on black now. We're starting on red." And, he adds, blue too.