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Backstory: A heavenly home for hedgehogs

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 16, 2007



AYLESBURY, ENGLAND

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.

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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.

"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.

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