Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?

Whole hog: At less than a pound, Stimpy would be snack food in the wild
Kristine Heykants

There, nearly invisible amid the quarter-acre of pavement surrounding the SuperAmerica on Hennepin Avenue in South Minneapolis, something twitches in the token patch of grass. From a distance it looks like a rat with quills. A man with graying hair and a mustache to match sits nearby, leaning over his crossed legs and staring at the hand-sized creature rooting around at a slug's pace. He's mesmerized. He puffs at a cigarette. He adjusts his tortoise-shell glasses and croons out words of encouragement to his, well, his hedgehog--"Whatcha gonna do, baby?"

But in this bright sunlight, no amount of cajoling can rouse the nocturnal insectivore out of its daytime stupor. The hedgehog, known as Stimpy, curls into a ball and hisses. Some pet. The proud hedgehog owner--we'll just call him Frank--is unperturbed. "He's always a little defensive. He's a real shy animal," Frank explains, like a doting parent making excuses for a kid's bratty behavior.

Frank didn't know the first thing about hedgehogs until he went to England last year. The Erinaceus europaeus comes out in droves after dark there, to browse for worms in backyard gardens and parks. "It freaked me out," he remembers of the nightly incursions. "I thought I was in a den of porcupines." But the Homo sapiens angliae didn't seem to mind; they seemed to welcome the company. Witness the hospital Frank visited during his stay, an infirmary named after the hedgehog Beatrix Potter immortalized, St. Tiggywinkles, complete with triage unit and recuperation beds. The couple who run the place estimate that some 100,000 hedgehogs die on British roads every year. Those that don't end up as road pizza are nursed at the infirmary, where their wounds are swathed in bandages and their broken limbs set in pinkie-sized plaster casts.

The closest Frank has come to Britain's unofficial mascot is the African pygmy hedgehog (or Atelerix albiventris), a smaller version of its European cousin. When he's not romping alfresco, Stimpy spends the better part of his time in an old aquarium that takes up a lion's share of his owner's efficiency apartment. Evenings, Frank sacks out on the couch in front of the TV with the hedgehog splayed across his forehead. By day, the creature keeps company with his mate Ren, who's still resting up after birthing a batch of inch-long babies. You might not want your life to revolve around hedgehogs, as Frank's has come to do; still, he figures, if you live with one long enough, "You get addicted to it."

Addicted enough, in his case, to live an outlaw's life. Sure, he and Stimpy regularly draw curious crowds here on the grassy knoll (there's no hill here, just a flat piece of decorative lawn) outside SA, where Frank works. But it's a clandestine operation--one eye on the hedgehog, one eye on the lookout for the authorities. Late this summer, Frank--who won't give his real name for the record--found out that for Minneapolis residents, it's illegal to possess hedgehogs like Stimpy and Ren. Since then, it's come down to show-off time on the sly, always with an open pocket at the ready. Ask him, and Frank might admit he sort of likes it out here--just the three of them (plus the new litter) thumbing their noses at the law.

Hedgehogs fall under an animal-control ordinance written with the purpose of barring city residents from keeping lions, bears, and other "wild by nature" animals in Minneapolis. Leslie Yoder, who manages the Minneapolis Animal Control department, admits the law's language is "too vague," but says hedgehogs are still considered feral. She's drafted new regulations that would permit exotics like chinchillas, ferrets, and African pygmy hedgehogs within city limits, as long as they're kept in cages around the clock. But until this proposed revision comes up for City Council review, the public hearing process, and formal adoption--which could take months--it's no hedgehogs allowed.

"God, think of all the people who are breaking the law and they don't even know it!" Frank says with a sideways look of astonishment. For animal control to bust all the scofflaws he knows of, "They'd have to do a sweep!" And in the same breath: "I know a lot of police officers--they're not enforcing the ordinance. They've seen Stimpy. I know at least eight who work [as guards] at SA. They think the hedgehogs are cute." So much for cracking down on crime.

Under the current rules, if the offending hedgehog is discovered, owners in Minneapolis have to remove it from the city within 24 hours and pay a $43 fine. Determined fanciers who thumb their noses the first time are then given five days to find a new home for their pets outside city limits; if the recidivists refuse to cooperate, animal control can confiscate their pets and put them to death--something that's happened, according to Yoder, more than once in the past.  

The fact that hedgehogs are popular hasn't deterred Minneapolis animal control from doing its duty. The department has a reputation for strictly enforcing the ordinance, especially when there's publicity involved. Last summer, staffers cracked down on Wild Rumpus, a children's bookstore in Linden Hills famous for its menagerie. The store had just enjoyed some high-profile TV time on the Lehrer News Hour; a hedgehog and a chicken turned up in the clips. Animal control, it turned out, was watching. "We had no idea it was illegal, since they sell 'em in every pet store," says store manager Chris Pardo. Wild Rumpus had to give away the hedgehog and get a permit for the chicken.

Over at Noah's Ark Fish and Pet Center in Excelsior, owner Linda McNally gets a good laugh out of imagining hedgehogs as a public danger. While most people who have never seen one think these 6-inch-long insectivores are porcupines, she says, their modified hairs are spines, not barbed quills. They're related to bug-eating creatures like the mole or the shrew, but aren't limited to a steady diet of crunchy exoskeletons--preferring, at times, to snack on slugs, fruit, meal worms, cat food, baby mice, poisonous frogs, cottage cheese, and carrion. In spite of their omnivorous appetites, the mature African pygmy hedgehog--what McNally now puts in the "exotic mammalian pocket pet" category along with sugar gliders and flying squirrels--weighs only about a pound. Before prospective owners take hedgehogs home, she advises them to read up on the critters and to find out if its legal to keep them in their municipality. She cautions that Minneapolis "is kinda strict."

It's hard to say just how many delinquents there are in Minneapolis. Hedgehog breeder Julie Moor of St. Paul says she's singlehandedly distributed several hundred baby hedgehogs to owners all over the metro area in the past three years. And she's only one of several breeders in operation. (Under current law, it is legal to sell hedgehogs in Minneapolis pet stores, but not to possess one as a pet.) Nationwide, several hundred hedgehogs are sold every day, according to Brian MacNamara of the International Hedgehog Fanciers Society, whose singular mission is to "promote and improve the care and quality of hedgehogs by means of education and exhibition." The society sponsors the International Hedgehog Registry and the half-dozen or so hedgehog shows held across the country each year. (Their Web site is www.hedgehoghollow.com.)

Talk about the ordinance provokes a series of guttural ughs from Moor, who has raised hedgehogs in her own home for the past three years. "African pygmy hedgehogs are not wild by nature in the United States," she says. "Yeah, they're wild in Africa, but there are no wild hedgehogs in North and South America. So it's just ridiculous." She points out that these hedgehogs don't stand a chance of surviving the cold if they happened to get loose in the urban wilds of Minneapolis. So much for their fitness as fearsome attack beasts.

Moor and her friend Kristy Hoffman have taken hedgehoggery to the nth degree. They distribute the bimonthly newsletter "Hedgehog Highlights" to a mailing list of some 200 subscribers nationwide. They tour their hedgehogs around nature centers and schools. They're planning a hedgehog show in St. Paul for next spring. And Moor hopes to soon start a support group called Hedgehogs Anonymous. (Even the International Hedgehog Fanciers Society acknowledges that there is such a thing as hedgehog addiction.) Last year Hoffman took her hedgehog to the Go Hog Wild show in Chicago, where some 70 contestants from the Upper Midwest turned up to compete. Skipping the masquerade and limbo, Hoffman's entry, dubbed "The Inspector," vied in two Hedgehog Olympics events, but he's obviously not one of the die-hard wheel racers or a toilet tube runner: His shameless bent for sniffing everything in proximity slowed him down and put him out of the running.

And yes, Moor says, out of such devotional get-togethers do come hedgehog champs. Pedigreed in a dozen colors (silver, snowflake, cinnacot, etc.) and trained for stamina and poise, the hedgehogs do battle in much the same way as do beauty pageant contestants--body shape and personality count--with the only real difference being that winners come away with ribbons bigger than they are. The next show is scheduled for later this month in Milwaukee.

"My goal is to win the title," Frank says, gazing at Stimpy, who's nosing around in a puddle of water on their apartment coffee table. Smart move: A champ hedgehog in prime breeding shape can command $1,000 and up. His main ambition these days is to buy an albino pair from Julie Moor and breed, breed, breed--ordinance be damned.


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