Backstory: A heavenly home for hedgehogs

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Inside row upon row of rolled-up pastel towels, small, thorny creatures are snoozing. It's mid-morning after all, and hedgehogs simply do not like to rise before dusk.

This isn't a hedgehog spa, nor a fantastical Beatrix Potter tale. This is St. Tiggywinkles – a wildlife hospital. It's where 500 hedgehogs are served meals in bed every day in the hope they'll put on enough weight to survive the winter.

It also is a place with a royal stink.

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"Why don't you turn on the fan, please?" says hospital founder Les Stocker to a nursing assistant. He turns and offers an apologetic grin to a pair of visitors as industrial blades dispense, for a moment, the noisome truth about hedgehogs.

Mr. Stocker is a sort of Dr. Doolittle of English environmentalism – cushioning the collision of man and nature on an ever congested isle.

In Britain each year an estimated 5 million wild animals are injured as their paths intersect with those of man. Most of these perish. But a fortunate handful – 10,000, to be precise – are given a fighting chance and a place to rest at St. Tiggywinkles.

"In a country like Britain where you have 60 million people packed into a tiny island where there are roads everywhere, of course wildlife casualty is going to climb," says Stephen Harris, a biology professor at Bristol University who has collaborated with Stocker on research. "People like Les working with rehabilitation techniques are having a big impact on conservation."

St. Tiggywinkles, spread across six acres in this town near Oxford, calls itself Britain's first wildlife hospital. It bustles 24/7 with new arrivals – badgers, deer, water fowl, anything that fits in a car – brought hourly by concerned humans.

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This is a family operation. Mr. Stocker oversees the nursing staff – the kind of people who have the patience to feed orphaned hedgehogs with eyedroppers and the courage to tackle and relocate deer roaming in urban areas. Sue Stocker, his wife, runs the front office. Their son, Colin, manages the books. Veterinarian surgeons are called in when needed.

The Stockers once cared for the furry, feathered, and spiked downtrodden in their home – as a hobby. An accountant by trade, Mr. Stocker's passion was animals ... even on dates, notes Mrs. Stocker. "When we were courting, Les would say, 'Let's go to the park and look at the birds!' "

Little did she know then that she'd one day share her home with 700 English starlings for a year after their feathers were blown off by a factory explosion. They filled cages in the kitchen, the porch, and the garden. Volunteers came in shifts to help. But that was the mid-1980s. Mr. Stocker had been treating wildlife out of a shed in his garden since 1978.

"We wanted a life change," Mr. Stocker says of his growing devotion to animals. "We took stock and we wanted to do something besides crunch numbers. I feel [animals] have gotten a rotten deal – we've taken over their land and everything. If you can pick them up, they've gotten to a state where they need your help. I never tire of helping them."

Wildlife rescue simply wasn't practiced much in Britain in the late 1970s, despite the deep love the English have for all creatures great and small, stoked by childhood tales of animal friendships – from Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh to waistcoated and pinafored Beatrix Potter characters.

In 1984, a drought rendered earthworms and other "creepy crawlies" scarce: a bad break for hedgehogs, whose pointed foraging snouts have earned them the moniker "a gardener's friend."

The Stockers campaigned to raise awareness of the plight of hedgehog s and to educate people about what was appropriate to feed them: cat and dog food, good; bread and milk, bad. The phone rang constantly with people who'd found ailing hedgehogs, now that they looked. Stocker would give advice on hedgehog care, but sometimes he'd ask the caller to simply put the hedgehog on the train.

"I knew that the British Rail network used to carry racing pigeons," he says. "So I contacted British Rail and made the arrangement that if somebody had an injured hedgehog, they could put it on the train at their station [in a box] and they would go straight through to Aylesbury." Hedgehogs from as far away as Scotland made the free journey as a Red Star parcel.

During the years-long drought, the Stockers welcomed 10 hedgehogs a week. Then came other small animals, followed by the occasional deer, and finally the flock of starlings. "It just got harder and harder to fit everything in," says Mr. Stocker. That's when the idea came to build a wildlife hospital. They broke ground in 1991 and British royalty cut the ribbon.

Hedgehogs are a distinct focus at St. Tiggywinkles, where they take up the most room.

Hedgehogs are Britain's favorite wild animal, according to a 2005 survey by the Horticultural Society and St. Tiggywinkles. And the Environment Agency, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group, declared the hedgehog the icon of the environment for 2007. The hospital, whose name was inspired by Mrs. Tiggywinkle, the industrious, aproned hedgehog in Beatrix Potter's tales, now includes a visitor center, a coffee shop, a hedgehog museum, and outdoor spaces and pens for recovering animals.

Stocker has written books on his wildlife practices and trained a network of "carers" (foster hedgehog parents). Rail service to St. Tiggywinkles is no longer needed because of this network.

On a typical recent day at St. Tiggywinkles, as white clouds raced across the sky after a storm, things were wild. Stocker stood in the front office dictating questions for an animal vet to Lisa, an assistant with purple highlights in her hair. He'd just returned from vacation and was back to the business of battling the Scottish government which is trying to manage a 5,000-strong hedgehog population on the Isle of Uist. The government claims the hedgehogs are eating the eggs of rare birds.

Stocker disagrees, saying plenty of other predatory animals may contribute to the demise of the birds. He and his nurses have been trying in recent years to cart off the hedgehogs to the mainland before they are "executed."

"The trouble with hedgehogs is you can't find them," says Stocker. "Because they are nocturnal, you see, and they get in the most out-of-the-way places. And on the Island of Uist, there are no streetlights, at night it's pitch-black, you know! So you just can't find them. It's a nightmare."

The tally so far: 150 a year killed by Scotland and 150 a year saved by St. Tiggywinkles. Seeing a tie game from here to eternity, Stocker sponsored doctoral students from Bristol University to radio-track hedgehogs brought from Uist and released to wander for a year. The Scottish government feels that dwindling food supplies and lice on the mainland means releasing them into English gardens is crueler than simply killing them on the spot.

"There's no point rescuing these hedgehogs from Uist if you are going to subject them to a long, lingering death on the mainland," explains Doreen Graham of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

But after the biology students' published report found that the deported hedgehogs were managing just fine, the stand against deportation has softened. The SPCA is now considering allowing hedgehogs to be moved – and not killed – if they're kept in cages for several weeks to allow them to acclimate and gain weight before being released in new territory.

***

Sharon, a nurse with hair moussed into a shape not unlike that of the three curled hedgehogs she is holding, heads to triage. The three young siblings were found at a gas station nearby where they'd fallen into an oil pit. They will be weighed, washed, fed "glop" (a mix of dried insects and cat food), and put to bed.

If these greased hoglets make it – and 70 percent of St. Tiggywinkle patients do – they'll be set free in the spring in gardens across the country.

"You never get used to that," says Mrs. Stocker, "the buzz you get when you help an animal and then release it."

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