Updated: Sep 29
At the tender age of 27, I got my first pet. Being very allergic to most animals, I opted for an African Pygmy Hedgehog.
I have loved hedgehogs since I was a little girl and even wrote a book at school about a girl who found a hedgehog in the park and ended up opening a hedgehog sanctuary! I had no idea that you could even have hedgehogs as pets until someone told me, so I found a local breeder and went to visit and check if I was allergic to hedgehogs - hip hooray I wasn’t! I was added to the waitlist and set about researching how to look after a hedgehog and buying the things I needed to have prepared.
Having never had a pet before, I was conscious that I didn’t know what kind of pet-mum I would be so knowing that hedgehogs had an average life span of 4-6 years felt more ethical than taking on a pet who might outlive me (tortoise or turtle was another idea!).
I was matched with a baby boy, the runt of the litter- he was very small- salt and pepper spines, adorable little nose. I named him Unicorn, not because I’m unkind but because everybody needs a magical creature in their life, also it was ironic because he had many corns and Polly (polycorn) seemed meaner.
Being the runt of the litter meant that I had to pay him quite a lot of attention, he was very, very shy and frightened by everything. This also meant that I became attached to him very quickly. It took two months of daily cuddles for the whole evening for him to get comfortable with me. It was so exciting when he started to unfurl and crawl around my legs. Yes, he was spiky, but once he relaxed the spines lay flat so they didn’t hurt at all. Unfortunately for me, he was a ‘fraidy cat! Laughter, the sound of cutlery, a sheet of paper being moved all sent the spikes straight back up!
At that time, I was living at home with my Dad and he was also besotted, regularly had cuddles and even sang to Unicorn when he was getting stressed out and huffy (huffing is the noise he made when he was letting us know how big and scary he was; it was adorable).
A few years later I moved out, but I was unable to find a property to rent who would allow pets. Unicorn stayed with my Dad for a year until I moved again in 2019 and managed to get permission to have “ONE AFRICAN PYGMY HEDGEHOG” written into my rental agreement. Wahoo!
By this time, he had become quite poorly and had developed a lump on his snout. Tumours are common in hedgehogs, so it was not a huge surprise, but it wasn’t very nice to see him in pain. The vets couldn’t identify whether or not it was a tumour as the biopsy was not possible, he was too small! He was issued some pain relief medicine which I had to attempt to get into his mouth, which is very difficult when he’s curled up in a ball with all his spikes out. Eventually the swelling went down and things seemed to settle.
We had a very hot summer, so Unicorn spent less time snuggled in his hut and more time wandering around, I spent a lot of time researching how to keep a hedgehog cool and landed on a cool pack wrapped by a tea towel in one corner of his cage, randomly sprinkling cool water on him with a pipette and ice cold water in his bowl, those things combined seemed to help.
As summer was coming to an end his unusual behaviour continued, I kept an eye on him, posting regularly in supportive groups for hedgehog owners. I noticed that he was struggling to eat and struggling to burrow into his blanket, it was hurting his snout. I softened his food and rearranged his blanket for easier access and exit so that he could still hideaway.
We had a holiday booked for a week in Italy and I was worried about leaving him. I asked a friend to pop in to check his water, top up his food and to check he was still alive. I gave her the heads up that this might be a reality for her and suggested that she check before bringing her son along to see him. She kindly sent me videos of each visit so that I could see how he was doing, and I prepared myself for the worst. He didn’t seem to be in any general pain and was still eating and drinking normally, the lump on his nose hadn’t reappeared so I wasn’t sure if I was overreacting or underreacting. No one likes to feel like a bad pet-mum.
When we returned, Unicorn actually seemed happy to see me, which was a first in his 5 years of being alive and I loved it. One night I went out to dinner with some friends, I checked on him before I left and he was contentedly wandering about. When I got home a few hours later I popped in to see him again and I could tell immediately that something was wrong. He looked like he was having a panic attack, his breathing was fast and heavy, and he was making a strange noise that I had never heard before, it was 11pm and I had no clue how to deal with this situation. He was not okay.
I got him out and comfortable on my lap for reassurance and googled an out of hours vet, I called and described what was happening, they told me to come in immediately. I was always fussy about vets with Unicorn, not everyone has experience with exotic animals, so I always sought out people with experience, but I didn’t have that luxury on this occasion, I had to act quickly.
I arrived and was seen immediately, I sat and waited and hoped and secretly prayed to God that I don’t believe in. I didn’t want him to not die, I wanted him to not be in pain. Eventually someone came out and explained to me that the lump in his nose had grown inwards and was blocking his nasal passages so he couldn’t breathe properly. She said that they could try to resolve his breathing but that there was no guarantee and that he may be in pain or they could give him a peaceful ending, it was my choice. It was a horrible choice.
I knew what had to happen and answered swiftly and logically, the ethics and practicalities significantly outweighed my feelings. He was sat on the table in front of me as I made this decision, still breathing very strangely and clearly uncomfortable. I was offered some time alone with him which I accepted but asked that the vet come back soon as I couldn’t bear to see him struggling to breathe. I called my partner to let him know what was happening, had a little chat with Unicorn, had a little cry and then the vet came back with some forms to complete. A real death by paperwork.
The form flummoxed me, I didn’t know what I wanted, they could cremate him for me or I could take the body home to bury somewhere special. I liked the idea of burying him myself, it felt right. But then they came out with his body and I couldn’t reconcile how that had been Unicorn just moments before. I was creeped out by the whole thing, but I was shattered and had work the next day, so I took his body home in his carry bag, wrapped in the towel I had brought him in and went to bed.
The next morning I woke up and went to work. I couldn’t bear to go into the room where his body was. I thought I would be braver than this, I thought that I would be more okay with it. I spent the entire morning at work googling how to bury a pet. You can’t bury your pet if they have been injected with poison as it can seep into the soil or be dug up and then kill other wildlife, you can wrap the body in a plastic sheet but that felt undignified. Also, you can’t bury a pet anywhere you like, and I was renting so that was out. I then realised that I had a decomposing body in my house and I didn’t know how long it would be there for. Yet another google search suggested that I could put the body in the fridge or freezer – gross - should I put him in a Tupperware box first? What are these thoughts? Why is this so complicated? Why wasn’t I prepared for this? I decided that I was useless at work today and took myself home to deal with this horrible situation.
When I got home, I moved onto googling pet cremation and found a couple of local places, I called in a state and said “So, my hedgehog has died and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now. The body is at my house but it’s freaking me out and I need help to figure this out. Can you tell me what my options are please?” These places were SO helpful and kind and I really appreciated their guidance. I got some costs, made an appointment for that day and drove over. Unicorn was cremated at Phoenix Pet Cremations and put into a biodegradable urn. This urn then allowed me some time to figure out how I wanted to remember Unicorn. That week I purchased two stone sleeping hedgehogs, the urn was buried in my Dads garden in one of his flowerbeds with one of the stone hedgehogs to mark the spot. The other lives with me at my house.
I spent several weeks marvelling over how stressful the whole experience had been for such a tiny being and how much I just didn’t know. I learned a lot, very quickly. I learnt that the death of a pet is the same as the death of a human. The same practicalities need to be considered. What happens to the body? How will you celebrate their life? What will you do to commemorate or remember them?
I think of Unicorn often.
RIP Unicorn 07.04.2015 – 26.09.2019