So, how DO you learn to handle a hedgehog? Very carefully! Despite their spiky appearance, these prickly little critters just happen to be incredible animal ambassadors for the San Diego Zoo. (Animal Ambassadors are creatures that can get up close and personal with our guests, helping people learn about their species and the habitat they come from. Read a blog about one of our ambassador programs, Zoo Express.)
Does that mean that you can actually touch a hedgehog? Yes you can! It’s just a myth that they can shoot their quills. Now, don’t get me wrong: despite being extremely cute and great Zoo ambassadors, hedgehogs do not make good pets. First of all, they are nocturnal. They also have teeth and, like any animal with teeth, they can bite! Cats and dogs make much better human companions because (let’s face it) it’s hard to cuddle a hedgehog!
I am a Zoo educator; I have a degree in zoology and have worked at two other zoos. Even so, before handling these particular hedgehogs at this particular zoo, I had to refine my animal handling skills by getting special training. This is done through a series of training sessions led by the keepers in the Zoo’s Children’s Zoo, where the hedgehogs live. This process makes sure that the animals come first and that they’ll enjoy getting to meet guests as much our guests enjoy meeting them!
The African hedgehogs are the first animals we are trained to work with. First, we are introduced to one of these spiky little critters: the keeper tells us the name, age, and any important safety information. Then the keeper demonstrates how to pick the animal up by very gently scooping it, keeping an eye on the head end to make sure you are not sticking your fingers near its mouth! When a hedgehog is first picked up, it may roll into a tight ball of spikes. This is a natural mode of defense and it might stick its spikes straight up, criss-crossing them for maximum pokiness. Some people are more sensitive to these quills, which are pointy and rigid modified hairs, on the hedgehog’s back. Others don’t get poked at all! So, we can use a leather glove when we pick them up if we’d like to. They usually unroll themselves within a minute or two, realizing that we are not big, hungry predators that are going to eat them.
Because hedgehogs are ground-dwelling animals, they like to be cozy and have places to hide, so we can’t forget the towel. We place the hedgie on the towel so that they feel safe and can stay warm. Also, hedgehogs are famous for pooping during presentations! It’s nice when they poop on the towel and not on our hands!
Once you are holding your new prickly pal, he or she will lower his/her quills and start sniffing around. Hedgehogs have an amazing sense of smell! They need it to be able to find their favorite foods (insects, worms, snails, etc.) while cruising around in the darkness. The keepers show us how to make sure the hedgehog won’t try to scurry out of our hands by gently placing our free hand over its back. And, of course, when having a visitor touch a hedgehog, we turn it around so the “business end” (teeth!) is facing the handler.
When we first handle any animal, we get comfortable with them behind the scenes before going into the public. The keepers give us fact sheets and information on handling the hedgehogs so we can study up about them. Then, after a few weeks or so, we are tested on the information and on our handling skills! First, we do our talk in front of a keeper. Then comes the big test: an animal encounter where guests get to touch the animal and ask questions. If we pass this test, then we are allowed to handle the hedgehogs inside the Children’s Zoo on our own.
After a few weeks, the next step is to learn to crate the animal (meaning put it in a carrier to transport it). We learn what size crate to use and how to make the crate comfortable for the animal (you guessed it: two towels for a hedgie!) Before traveling off-grounds, we practice our crating skills by going somewhere in the Zoo. I took a hedgehog to our Spooky Sleepover at the Zoo in October.
Next, we show the keepers we can put the hedgehog in its crate safely. If we pass this final test, we are allowed to take the animal off-grounds. Our hedgehogs have taken their animal ambassador talents to many elementary schools and events around San Diego County!
All in all, it’s quite a process to bring our wonderful critters out to meet you! It takes time, training, and hard work! But the end result is fantastic, wouldn’t you agree? We get to bring this prickly little mammal of the African savanna out to meet all of you!
Kim Carroll is an educator at the San Diego Zoo.