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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Looks That Quill: The Dark Side of Hedgehog Instagram

The first time I saw Mr. Pokee, a coffee-mug-sized hedgehog with 1.9 million followers on Instagram, I naively thought he was somehow special. He has fluffy white belly fur and likes to scamper around on his stubby little legs. He frequently poses in front of heavily edited nature scenes, as if he’s photobombing a Windows desktop. Sometimes he holds a tiny teddy bear or wears tiny socks. When he smiles, he shows the most adorable, unthreatening fangs.

But when I tapped the blue Follow button, I was surprised to see Instagram drop down a menu full of other hedgehog influencers I might enjoy. There was Koala, who wears glasses and poses in elaborate backdrops made to look like scenes from Harry Potter. There was Wilbert, who does hedgehog ASMR by munching worms in front of a mini microphone. There were hedgehogs wearing tiny hats, hedgehogs going on tiny vacations, hedgehogs posing in front of festive banners that said things like “HAPPY EASTER” and “PROUD TO BE IRISH.” The accounts daily_dose_of_hedgehogs and daily__hedgehog aggregated the best of the week’s hedgehog content and put some of it to music.

I followed them all. And then the algorithm kept giving. Hedgehogs started showing up in my ads. Cinnamon posed with a tiny towel on her head during her spa weekend, courtesy of Hotels.com. Ichigo appeared to smile at a wristwatch. Maple, a brand rep for two stores, said in her bio to “DM for #collaborations.” Another hog, Lionel, has done sponsored posts for Cadbury chocolate, a national pharmacy chain, a weighted blanket company, a PBS docuseries about woodland creatures, the 2020 Sonic the Hedgehog movie, a coffee shop in South Carolina, and a brand of carpet cleaner specially formulated to remove pet stains.

As I approached 100 hedgehogs followed, the algorithm began to suspect that I too had a hedgehog, or at least might be in the market for one. It suggested accounts selling hedgehog merch, hedgehog supplies, and, in some cases, actual hedgehogs. A shop in the UK offered a music-festival-themed set, including a tent, lanterns, a set of pint glasses, and two “mini resin burgers.” Some hedgehogs’ bios linked out to Etsy stores, where they sold their own props.

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My hedgehog tally kept rising. A hundred and fifty, 200. I created a new account just to keep track of them all—hedgehog.fan12, because hedgehog.fan was already taken and 12 is my lucky number. I started to wonder where the hedgehogs would end: Would Instagram ever suggest, say, hamsters instead? But follow after follow, the algorithm served up more. I stopped at 553.

These weren’t the sort of hedgehogs you might stumble across in the British woods, I learned. (Not that that would be likely to happen anyway: The UK’s rural hedgehog population is estimated to have declined by at least a third since 2002.) They were African pygmy hedgehogs, first imported to the United States from West Africa several decades ago, and now usually bred domestically. Although humans have made pets of a few of the world’s 17 hedgehog species, this one is by far the most popular. And you’d be hard-pressed to find an animal better for online content. African pygmy hedgehogs fit in your hand, and their spikes aren’t painful. Hedgies—that’s what hedgehog fans call both themselves and their pets—say the animals are “pokey.” As if a succulent had legs. One account referred to them as “lap cacti.”

Charisma-wise, a hedgehog obviously has more going for it than a cactus does. Maple’s human, Laura Easter, transforms into the heart-eyes emoji when talking about her. “This tiny little creature has just as much personality as our dog does, and it's so cute,” Easter told me. “She’s so sweet. She’s … she’s amazing.” Anna Mathias, human to Lionel, told me that only those who truly appreciate their hedgehogs can hope to get a big internet following. When people ask her (and they do ask her) how to become a hedgie influencer, she tells them to “love your animal,” because it comes through on camera.

As the months went by, the hedgehogs in my feed celebrated Memorial Day, the summer solstice, HBO Max’s Friends reunion. I became obsessed with the idea that this wasn’t just a subset of photogenic pets but rather an entire species exploding in popularity. I wanted to learn about the hogs behind the display names, to peek past their veneer of tiny top hats and GIF-able snuggle sessions. One question was running on an exercise wheel in my mind: When a species goes viral, what happens to the animals?

In 1991, the same year that Sonic the Hedgehog came out on Sega Genesis, Richard Allen Stubbs, an American animal importer, was living in Nigeria. According to a hedgie in upstate New York, who heard the story secondhand and retold it in the pages of the Hedgehog Welfare Society’s newsletter, several men from the north of the country came to Stubbs one day with a box full of African pygmy hedgehogs. He dealt mostly in reptiles, the newsletter says, but the men made him an offer he couldn’t—or in any case didn’t—refuse: 2,000 hedgehogs at 50 cents a head. They reportedly told Stubbs that the native hedgehog population in their region had reached nuisance proportions, and many animals were dying of starvation.

Stubbs was not the most auspicious guy to kick off a pet trend. Around the time that he branched out into hedgehogs, he also helped import 47 baby crocodiles that were on the endangered species list. A US Fish and Wildlife inspector found the crocodiles hidden beneath two boxes of land crabs and 50 cartons of tropical fish from Nigeria. Stubbs was convicted and sentenced to 12 months in prison for his role in the scheme. (He did not reply to requests for comment.) 

But the imported hedgehogs received a better welcome. Over the next few years, according to the newsletter, Stubbs sent thousands more to his clients in New York and Miami. At the time, the US Department of Agriculture estimated that there were as many as 9 additional hedgehog importers. The bonanza ended when the US permanently halted hedgehog shipments from countries with foot-and-mouth disease, a list that included Nigeria.

The animals made a modest splash in the US. Like any decent exotic pet, they were an alluring mix of companion and conversation piece. (Humans with disposable income have always fallen for this combo: Long before Finding Nemo sent parents rushing out to buy clownfish, the pharaohs took their cats to the afterlife and Emperor Augustus spent big on parrots.) And like any exotic pet, the African pygmy hedgehog mystified a lot of the people it lived with. They didn’t know how to care for it or breed it responsibly. Many hedgehogs ended up in the hands of rescuers, or died prematurely. Still, the original imported hedgies were enough to establish a stable North American population.

The species’ cultural momentum only really ramped up in 2013. According to Shota Tsukamoto, Koala’s human, that’s when the hedgie influencer trend took off in Japan. Just like other Japanese internet pets before them—Maru the cat, Kabosu the Doge—the early Instagram hedgehogs quickly jumped from screen to screen. The English-speaking internet soon recognized the animal’s ability to spawn endless fountains of content. A 2017 headline in New York magazine’s Intelligencer blog reads: “Azuki the Instagram-Famous Hedgehog Is the Only Pure Thing Left in the World.”

The glut of hedgehog content fed a demand for actual hedgehogs. As in the Stubbs era, many people bought them on impulse. They soon discovered that the carefully constructed scenes of hedgie bliss they saw on Instagram didn’t really prepare them for the rigors of the lifestyle. For one thing, hedgehogs are nocturnal, so if you’re expecting them to always be popping delightedly out of ice cream cones, you’re in for a disappointment. They have special temperature requirements, churn out a shocking amount of poop, and are known to produce something called “spit balls” whenever they encounter new scents. And because most local wildlife laws classify African pygmy hedgehogs as exotic, only an exotic animal vet may care for them. Some states only have one or two of those (and yes, they’re expensive).

Christina Hannigan, a volunteer rescuer for the Hedgehog Welfare Society, told me that “2017 was when it really went insane.” She sent me a spreadsheet that showed rescues jumping 30 percent that year across the country, and rising steadily since. When we first spoke, she was at her office in Chicago, where she manages condominiums. She had 10 hedgehogs living in her apartment, which was many more than she wanted but fewer than her all-time record of 17. “I would love to be less busy,” she told me.

Hannigan got her first hedgehog, Tumbleweed, in 2009, mostly because she thought he was cute, but also because he was the only pet that didn’t trigger her husband’s allergies. (She gave away her cats before the wedding.) In the happy years before the fad, the most she sheltered was 21 hedgehogs in one year. These days, she averages between 30 and 40.


It gets cramped. The hogs live in cages outside her bedroom, and sometimes they wake her and her husband up at night with the simultaneous whirring of their exercise wheels. (She told me excitedly that she recently switched to a brand that doesn’t squeak so much.) After 2017, Hannigan said, “my husband really started to question: Can we continue doing this? And I said, ‘I don't see how we can stop it. The need is only getting greater.’”

On Instagram, Hannigan said, people don’t see “the really gross stuff.” One of her rescues, an ornery old hedgehog named Bingo, came to her with a hair wrapped around his rear right leg, which had to be amputated. Another one, Oliver—who, on closer examination, turned out to be Olivia—had a prolonged mite infection that claimed many of her quills. Sam had an enlarged heart. Roscoe was on a diet of soft foods (only three teeth left).

Hannigan has made it her mission to use her online presence “to raise awareness of the non-cute part.” She helps run two Facebook groups for hedgehog owners, and they feel like entirely different online worlds from Instagram. Pet owners share pictures of strange rashes they found on their animals’ feet, or ask things like, “Is it normal for Ollie to poop all over his cage and in his bed?”

Much of Hannigan’s work is ferrying African pygmy hedgehogs back and forth to her local exotic vet. “They’re little cancer factories,” she said. Around half of middle-aged hogs have some sort of tumorous growth. Olivia developed one when she was 2. (Hannigan recently decided to “let her cross the bridge.”) The species is also prone to a disease called—and yes, this is its real name—wobbly hedgehog syndrome. It starts with mild ataxia, or loss of body control, and progresses into total paralysis. At least 10 percent of pet African pygmies develop the disease, though it can only be diagnosed post-mortem, so the real number is likely higher.

Donnasue Graesser, a professor of biology at Quinnipiac University and a cofounder of the Hedgehog Welfare Society, believes the syndrome is genetic. In 2006, she coauthored one of the few scientific studies on the disease. As she later wrote in the society’s newsletter, the “pattern of inheritance becomes obvious, even to an untrained person.” If the hog parents develop the disease, you can be pretty sure the hoglets will too—even when they’re raised in different places, fed different diets, cared for by different owners. Graesser advocates careful breeding to weed the wobbly genes out of the population. But this is easier said that done. One pro breeder told me that “backyard breeders” don’t always know to pay attention to bloodlines.

During my phone call with Hannigan, she mentioned a pet shop in Chicago that kept males and females in the same cage, not realizing they would breed. She had to go in and separate them. She imagined how an uninformed customer’s visit to such a store might go. “You know, it’s $300 for the animal, and he can’t tell you how old it is exactly, because he doesn’t care, and he gives you some standard food, wheel, no heat,” she said. “If you do the research ahead of time and … um, hang on one second.”

I heard her turn away from her phone and say, “I’m just doing an interview.” She turned back.

“I’m at work,” she said, “and my new employee is just figuring out that I am the craziest person he’s ever worked for.”

In the opening to his book A Prickly Affair: My Life with Hedgehogs, the ecologist Hugh Warwick says the world of hedgehogs is fraught with “politics, passion, and obsession”—which sounds melodramatic until you spend any time in it. The “politics” part became clear to me the first time I told a hedgie that I live in Pennsylvania. It was like a storm cloud had followed me into the Zoom room. 

Pennsylvania is the scariest word you can say to an American hedgehog lover. The state has unusually strict conservation laws that essentially forbid all pet African pygmies from existing within its borders. Hedgies elsewhere in the US have gotten local anti-hedgehog laws repealed, sometimes with help from the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, a trade association. But Pennsylvania remains hostile. A breeder in Las Vegas advises customers: “You MUST GO AROUND the entire state of Pennsylvania if you are travelling with your hedgehog. They are not even allowed to change planes at a Pennsylvania airport.” A rescuer in Maryland told me that she has heard stories of animals being seized and euthanized.

The longer I scrolled through the hedgehog’s infinite cuteness, though, the more I realized that Warwick had left a crucial word off his list: grief. Any pet-human relationship is a heartbreak waiting to happen, but hedgies seem to suffer more than most. Earlier this year, I came across a picture of a hog with Photoshopped angel wings. No, not Quillbert, I thought, as I read the caption:

It’s with great sadness 😢 and a heavy heart 💔. I am letting you all know our sweet sweet boy crossed the rainbow 🌈 bridge yesterday afternoon. We rushed him to the vets where they did X-rays and found he was riddled with cancer. He did not respond to any of the treatments the vet tried. He passed while at the vets. This is every pet owners worse nightmare.

I felt genuinely bummed out, and not just because I had intended to interview Quillbert. I felt sad because I liked him, and his owner had a gift for designing props.

The announcement’s comment section was a virtual vigil. People sent flower emojis. An account dedicated to documenting the life of a handsome golden retriever wrote: “I have loved following your page and your journey. Our deepest sympathies!!! We are so sorry for your loss.” (Golden retrievers get cancer about as often as African pygmy hedgehogs do.) The mourning rituals continued two days later, when Quillbert’s account posted a tribute photo, made by another hedgie in Brazil. It depicted Quillbert with a halo, ascending to heaven.

For weeks, the account kept posting old photos of Quillbert, now made somber by his recent departure. Then one day there was a picture of him staring out a window. The caption read: “Who’s out there???? Who do I see??? Stay tuned for a special announcement.” Three days later, the account introduced its new star, a gray-black hedgehog named Chibi.

Having seen the hedgehog circle of life play out once, I began to notice it everywhere. Some accounts were on their third, or sometimes fourth, mascot. The original Darcy the Flying Hedgehog? Long gone. Scribble and Q’b? They’re actually Gnocchi and Truffle. Scroll through enough highlights on Mr. Pokee’s page, and you’ll find one that reads: “When Mr. Pokee passed in March 2019 my heart was completely broken … The reason I will not change my Instagram name is that it’s not just about a hedgehog anymore. It’s about the story and the message: Be happy and smile.” You can think of him like a hedgehog Shamu. There’s the animal, and then there’s the animal’s brand.

The people who run these accounts cultivate some of the most cheerful corners of the internet. When the joy evaporates, it’s their job to bring it back. After a while, though, I couldn’t help feeling that every mini top hat concealed a brain tumor, every belly-rub video an undiagnosed case of the wobbles. The Instagrammability of these animals would destroy them, I thought. I watched a hedgehog lie on a pool floatie as a Bob Marley song played and felt only dread. While the algorithm buoyed the world with public joy, hedgehog rescuers were drowning in private grief. This is how the internet works: You get into something for the fun of it, and you end up being radicalized.

I unfollowed the anonymous aggregators and fortified my feed with the hogs I knew were being well cared for—Maple, Lilo, Chibi. But of course the algorithm doesn’t care if a hedgehog is getting enough calcium or is up to date on her immunizations. It doesn’t care if she has the right kind of ceramic heat emitter to keep her warm in her cage. It doesn’t care if her human respects the First Hedgie Commandment: “Love your animal.” To the algorithm, she’s another pokey, fluffy ball to toss into the hopper of the hedgehog-industrial machine.

Maybe there is no ethical consumption on Instagram. But if there were, it might look something like the Hedgehog Running Club. Created by Lemmy’s human and held every Thursday, it’s a friendly online competition in which hedgies track the distance their hogs put in on the exercise wheel. When I first came across the club, Lemmy had run close to six miles in a single night, landing him in eighth place, between Puff and Jambi. 

The bar graph showing their results wasn’t photogenic, exactly, but it suggested something comforting behind the scenes—dozens of hedgehogs, free of props and camera lenses, whirring away into the night. The next day, Lemmy’s account posted: “I ran extra in memory of Daisy. Rest well, fren.”

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