Joan Lockley's first hedgehog patient came from her own backyard in Cheslyn Hay in the West Midlands area of England nearly two decades ago.
"I saw it at night but then it was still there next morning and the only thing I knew about [hedgehogs] was that they should not be seen in the day, so I picked it up and put it in a high-sided box," Lockley tells MNN in an email interview.
"Through our local vets I found a lady who helped hedgehogs living close by, took the hedgehog to her, asked her what was involved in caring for them, took the hedgehog back home and that was just the beginning."
Little did she know what a big part of her life had just begun. Since that day, Lockley figures she has rescued well over 7,000 hedgehogs. She is the founder of West Midlands Hedgehog Rescue and has received an award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare for her rescue work.
Hedgehogs, which aren't native to the United States, are found in most parts of the United Kingdom, although their numbers are declining. They are often found in gardens and earned their name because they prefer rooting around in hedges and often make pig-like grunts, according to National Geographic.
For Lockley, it all started with that first critter she named Spike. The hedgehog Lockley found was an "autumn juvenile," meaning he was born late in the year and needed help with food and warmth to survive the winter. Lockley had to keep Spike warm with plenty of food, so he would stay awake and not hibernate until he had gained enough weight.
"I had beginner's luck with this first hog because there were no complications during its care, its hibernation and its release," Lockley says. "Maybe if I had encountered the many problems that come with rescuing hedgehogs, I wouldn’t have got further than this first one."
'All I know is that I love them'
Lockley released Spike back into her yard in spring, so she was up for the next challenge when her new hedgehog friend asked her to hand-feed some tiny orphaned babies with a syringe every two hours.
"Not many people will take on this aspect of hedgehog caring because it is so time consuming and tiring," she says.
But from there, hedgehogs just kept finding their way to Lockley. She even built a "hedgehog hosprickal" (named because they are prickly) to care for the injured animals. In 2017 alone, she took in 654 hedgehogs needing care.
"I am often asked why I continue to carry on trying to save hedgehogs and the truth is, I simply don’t know," Lockley says. "All I know is that I love them and have never turned a needy hog away, 24 hours of the day."
The dangers of hedgehog rescue
Hedgehog rescue isn't for everyone, she says.
"Lots of people have started up hedgehog rescue centers but they don’t last long because it takes over your life," Lockley says. "It isn’t just the work with the animals. It’s the constant phone calls, the forever having people in your home, the not having time to eat or grab a drink."
And there is the matter of the spines.
"There are dangers with handling hedgehogs, mainly through getting prickled with the spines," Lockley says. "I don't wear gloves to handle them, I use my bare hands."
In 17 years, she's only had a problem three times where she developed an infection after being pierced by a spine.
Similarly, she says, biting isn't that big of an issue.
"Hedgehogs rarely bite," Lockley says. "I have only been bitten about six times, and I believe that the hogs responsible thought that my fingers were food."
When hedgehogs are healthy enough to leave Lockley's care, they are released back into the wild. But a few never make it that far.
"If they are left with disabilities but are pain-free, they go to large gardens where they cannot escape but are treated like pets," she says. "Often, if they breed, when the youngsters are old enough, I have them back and release them to the wild."
After having helped 7,000 hedgehogs, Lockley says some have more distinctive personalities and she admits to having had a few favorites.
"The hedgehogs do have characters, some more obvious than others," she says. "My favorite of all time was Cellie, so called because he was found trapped in a cellar and nearly dead. He became the most intelligent hedgehog that I have ever known. He lived in my home as a pet, followed me around like a dog and was kissed and cuddled by thousands of people. He was even featured on television."