Hedgehog experts weigh in on the pros and cons of human-hedgehog relations.
A few weeks ago, I was on vacation in Japan and stumbled across Harry, a hedgehog café in Roppongi, Tokyo. After agreeing to pay ¥1000 [$9] for 30 minutes of hedgehog petting and as much tea and instant coffee as I wanted, I was told to choose a hedgehog and take a seat.
The hedgehog I chose was brought over to me in a box and left in my lap. Each time I tried to pick it up, it would dodge my hands, darting around the box and cowering in the corners to avoid me. It did not seem to be having a good time.
When I did manage to pick the hedgehog up, it walked backward to try to escape my hands, eventually falling and landing on its back in the box. After a couple of minutes, the animal tired of me completely and curled up in a ball a corner of the box. When an employee at the hedgehog café noticed this, he brought me a different hedgehog.
The new hedgehog also didn't seem massively into human contact; when my friend tried to pick it up, this one too tried to walk backward out of his hand. After a little while, the experience was bumming me out, so I left. A few days after I returned from Japan, the hedgehog café went viral. A video the Guardian made about the place started popping up on my social media feeds, followed by pieces in Time, Jezebel, and the Japan Times.
I am, admittedly, extremely sensitive when it comes to animals. I haven't eaten one (intentionally, at least) in about 15 years, and I have a hard time watching anything that depicts animal cruelty. I've made it through Stepmom, Dancer in the Dark, and ISIS beheading videos without flinching, but I turn into a puddle if I even think about The Plague Dogs or that episode of Futurama with Fry's dog.
I'm also aware that humans have a tendency to project our own emotions onto animals. What I read as the hedgehog being like "don't pick me up, I hate this" might have actually been "I have to poop" or "hello, I like to eat insects." So before hijacking the Facebook comment sections to scream that the hedgehog café is an evil hub of animal exploitation, I decided to reach out to people whose opinions on the subject might be more informed than my own.
"If these café were to pop up in the US, my group would be all over them," Deborah Weaver, president of the Hedgehog Welfare Society told me. "It's not in the best interest or health of the animal."
Weaver confirmed that the behavior of my hedgehog suggested the animal wasn't really enjoying his time with me. "When they don't want to interact, they will ball up," she said. The walking-backward trick, she added, was a particularly clear sign that the animal wanted to get away from me.
But Weaver's biggest issue with the café is that it's open during the day—hedgehogs, she pointed out, are nocturnal, so forcing them to socialize during daylight hours is "not ideal." Plus, the hedgehogs are ill-suited to living in empty tanks like the ones used by café. "Because they're African hedgehogs, they still think of themselves as prey," Weaver explained. "They like to be under something for safety."
Hugh Warwick, a UK-based hedgehog obsessive and the author of two books about hedgehogs, also didn't think the tank situation—in which multiple hedgehogs are housed together—was ideal. "They are solitary animals so might find cohabitation stressful," he told me. Warwick also pointed out that hedgehogs don't like sharp noises—a fact he learned at the International Hedgehog Olympics, which is apparently a real thing that actually happens.
"They encourage people not to applaud," Warwick explained. "You wave your hands as a sign of appreciation of the hedgehogs feats as they complete the sprint, the hurdles, and the floor exercises."
But Warwick wasn't sure where he came down on the interactions between hedgehogs and humans. In his experience holding hedgehogs, he said, some animals have seemed distressed, while others appeared fine with it. "I'm quite ambivalent about that side of it," he said. Without an analysis of the hedgehogs' cortisol levels, Warwick said, it would be difficult to determine whether the café's animals were under stress.
When I reached out to the hedgehog café via a colleague at VICE Japan (because I don't speak Japanese), a representative denied that the café's hedgehogs are miserable, telling us, "Of course they're are happy!"
The café also defended the disturbance of the hedgehogs' natural sleeping patterns, saying that the business opened at 12 PM in order to minimize the animals' exposure to daylight. 12 PM is, of course, often referred to as midday, on account of it being in the middle of the day.
"The café is designed to be a coming together space for hedgehogs and humans in order for the two species to get used to each other and prepare for a healthy pet-owner relationship," the representative told VICE. In other words, the main purpose of the café is to sell hedgehogs as pets.
This pet hedgehog business opens up a whole new set of issues. Warwick, for one, is strongly against the idea. "I do not believe that keeping hedgehogs as pets is a good idea," he said, citing the difficulty in caring for hedgehogs, as well as the potential harm that could be caused by the animal becoming a fad pet as reasons.
"I also believe people breed exotic pets motivated principally by money, because that's why they do it—they don't do it for any other reason at all," he said. "I'm suspicious of the motivations behind these types of things."
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