The story and ethics of a life
For a good number of our followers the name Dan is instantly recognizable.
Not because he was shown or turned into a pet but because he was a totally blind hedgehog given the chance of life. He isn't the only one, but Dan was known because our rescue garden had been turned over to, secured and managed for him.
Finders of injured or poorly hedgehogs when bringing them in would often point out of the patio windows and exclaim 'did a hedgehog just go past the window?'. 'Yes, we would reply, 'that is Dan', and so his story would be told.
To fully understand Dans story we have to travel a little further back in time, before the existence of Willows Hedgehog Rescue.
The beginning of Willows was brought about by what turned out to be a blind hedgehog. We had noticed for a while lots of droppings in the garden and initially not knowing what hedgehog poo looked like, the blame had been firmly put onto the local cats. However one day we noted a hedgehog entering the garden under the side passage gate. This continued and looking out for our prickly and much welcome visitor we realised that this hedgehog had taken up residence in our garden. There was an issue though. When (in the days when we had time to) having breakfast on the patio the hedgehog would wander up to our feet and happily feed in broad daylight.
This we knew wasn't right and the hedgehog now named Sonic (yes even our first hog was called Sonic) was taken to a rescue to be checked over. We were assured if it did turn out to be blind, that as long as healthy, and taking into account our reasonably sized garden already managed for wildlife, if secured the hedgehog could if treated as wild, live a life with us.
Sadly a couple of days later on checking for an update on Sonic's progress we found that the actual centre policy was to put to sleep any blind hedgehog and Sonic never returned.
This angered us and we conducted a lot of research, putting anger to positive use. We contacted and talked to many rescues all of which confirmed that they would have monitored and placed a blind hedgehog under the care of a secure garden. That started a process of us working along with another rescue and finally the founding of Willows Hedgehog Rescue. To date as of the start of 2015 we have admitted well over a thousand hedgehogs, the majority successfully treated and returned to the wild.
Running circles around a Police Officer.
On the 16th of April 2011 after Willows had been running for some time and on the 'date in question' (as I am sure the police would say), a hedgehog with very laboured breathing was admitted. The hedgehog was found by a police officer- out in daylight and going around in circles in the middle of the road.
This hedgehog had pneumonia and examination told us that he was totally blind which explained the circling. Treatment commenced for the pneumonia and admission 1604B1 became known as Dan. Dan as he was now, showed all the signs of already being three possibly four years old, an age that many hedgehogs in the wild do not reach. But despite his apparent age he was feisty and the treatment worked well. He was left with a wheeze but which didn't seem to hinder or bother him.
Once off treatment and well we decided to see how Dan would get on in our garden securing it so he couldn't wander off and into the dangers he had faced before as a hedgehog that had become blind.
If he had showed signs of continued stress and non acceptance of a secure environment then we would have taken the ethical decision to put him to sleep. However Dan got used to his domain and after a short while settled into in a very natural home that we had built for him. To any observer he would have seemed to be sighted not blind finding his way around with ease, the only sign to his lack of sight being his emergence at any time day or night. We were careful to not make drastic changes in the garden which would cause an issue to Dan. A forgetful movement of a planter would be followed by Dan bumping into it, however if the move was permanent then Dan would soon adjust and avoid the obstacle appearing as if he could see it.
Definite 'trails' were soon visible in the grass (managed at a various natural lengths to encourage insects) and Dan would find his way around the garden without any problems following his well trodden routes. We never handled him and he was left to be a totally wild hedgehog albeit in a smaller area than a sighted hedgehog would roam out in the true wild. He found favourite spots to rest for a while, foraged for natural food as well as eating his supplemented food and moved nest around the garden as he pleased. In warmer weather he nested under shrubs and in the winter returned to using the human provided and very snug hedgehog home.
He was observed visually from a distance for his own well being and for the pleasure of seeing him and twice a year he would come into the rescue hospital for a check up to ensure that all was well with him.
His life post being admitted did have its moments of adventure some of which left us with hearts in mouths.
There.. and glad to be back again.
On one occasion a slip of diligence from us resulted in the garden entrance being left unsecured for a short while. Dan was out and about and following his nose managed to wander out of the secure garden. We spotted that the normally secured gate was open and immediately search for Dan. Now Dan was always fairly easy to find as his slightly wheezy breathing would always give his location away but now all that emanated from the garden was silence. Immediately a street search was started and leaflets printed off and pushed though neigbouring streets letterboxes. While out searching reports started to come in of cars being stopped to let a chuntering and determined hedgehog pass. Dan was finally tracked down, wandering down a street around a quarter of a mile away. Back in the secure garden Dan seemed to be quite relieved making straight for his hedgehog home and settling straight down adventure over.
Dan even via us received some post asking as to his well being after his little excursion.
Interlopers in the secure garden.
Another occasion saw a rescued litter of three and at the time juveniles needing to be acclimatised ready to go back into the wild. At this point we had less outdoor acclimatisation runs and we took the decision to see if Dan would tolerate them for a short time in his garden. The situation would be monitored closely and at the first sign of any issues the juveniles would be removed. Hedgehogs are solitary and although not territorial they wouldn't normally spend much time around other hedgehogs.
We watched Dan closely to see his reaction and to our utter surprise he inspected the juveniles and started to forage with them especially the one with whom he spent many hours (reverting to being nocturnal as they being sighted were) sitting beside this one juvenile.
The juveniles after a short while went off for release and Dan resumed his old patterns. This experience however brought about an idea with a back leg amputee hedgehog. Back leg amputees weren't new to us but with the juveniles seemingly reverting Dan to a nocturnal lifestyle we thought maybe just try and see if Dan would accept the adult amputee. Again this was tested out under close observation with intervention to be made at the first sign of any confrontation or stress.
The amputee hedgehog was placed into the secure garden when Dan was out and immediately Dan's nose went into the air sniffing out the scent as he did when we were present in the garden. Dan now started to move purposefully towards this new scent, the new hedgehog balling as it saw Dan approaching. Dan suddenly turned his movement towards the amputee hedgehog into a run putting his snout down, making contact and rolling the very surprised interloper a good ten or so feet up the garden. We were left in no doubt what so ever than Dan was not going to tolerate another adult hedgehog in his domain and Dan from that day on was never expected to share his little piece of countryside.
Dan would tolerate us in the garden and we never made any moves to interfere with his routines. He would always raise his head and sniff when I went into the garden, noting my presence and I would always call out 'Hi Dan' just to let him know that I was around. He actions were always that of a wild hedgehog avoiding us rather than coming to us and if I did go over to him just to visually check his condition he would tolerate for a few seconds my presence and then move off chuntering away to let me know that my company was not really needed. That was exactly how we wanted Dan's life to be.
Hedgehog Highways and the family cat.
Even Bluey, our 15 year old British Blue rescue has not been spared Dan's ownership of the garden.
Bluey is the softest soppiest cat you can imagine and has never shown any interest in harming wildlife. He sits and watches woodmice not once trying to grab one but rather enthralled by their movement.
Now Bluey occasionally enjoys a good old snooze in the garden and on one particular day had chosen to sprawl out on one of Dan's regular routes. Dan as it happened was up and about and heading towards the prone form of Bluey. Dan slowed and sniffed as he reached the obstacle, Bluey opening one large Amber eye. An Amber eye that was to expand seemingly to the size of a dinner plate as Dan walked backwards and then charged. I have never witnessed a cat go from a sleepy prone position to several inches off the ground in such a seemingly impossibly small space of time. Dan obstacle removed continued at a leisurely pace on his way, Bluey settling down at a respectable distance from the hedgehog highway.
Each winter Dan would go into hibernation fairly early and the winter would seem a very long time wondering how he was doing during hibernation. A very cold winter brought some considerable worry to us wondering if he at his age would make it through but every year Dan would emerge and our spirits would lift.
However time was showing, his ears thickening, his spine colouration changing to more ginger and his blind eyes becoming very milky but he was as sprightly as ever and I certainly wondered if he would make it into double figures.
The winter of 2014/15 was not especially cold and Dan went into hibernation early as always. As usual we wondered when we would see him emerge and it seemed to be later than normal and we still hadn't seen him. Finally Dan did emerge but this time having lost a lot more weight than he had on previous years. However a couple of weeks later he was almost back up to the weight he was when he went into hibernation and fears were allayed. A couple of weeks later when filling Dans food bowls I noticed that his breathing had taken on a different note and at the first available opportunity when Dan was up and about I took him into the hospital for a check up. He had lost weight and his breathing was laboured. The decision was taken to treat in the hospital and monitor the situation due to his advanced years. Initial signs seemed promising but over the period of a couple of days he became less active and on the 12th April 2015 in the afternoon just four days short of four years with us Dan slipped away.
We are no strangers to death dealing with so many injured and ill hedgehogs but Dan although never treated as a pet and always left to be wild in his domain of our secure garden was very special to us and his death was and is a very emotion event for us. He has been buried under one of the shrubs he used to forage, sit and have a good old scratch under.
Dan was a veteran hedgehog. Most hedgehogs in the wild don't get to live beyond three years, Dan was with us for just shy of four years and judging his age when admitted was probably seven or eight years old. We are happy and honoured to have been able to give him as long a life as he had and always with his best interests at heart.
More than one life.
Finally, Dan stands for so much more than just one life. Dan stands for our most fundamental principles in giving life a chance. Always with ethics in mind and strictly monitored for any signs of stress but we know that animals can adapt given the right environment and for the right reasons. No healthy and able hedgehog would ever be kept from the wild but for a blind hedgehog such as Dan the alternative from death was a long and good life albeit in a secure garden managed for him.
The Ethics of Life.
There is at times considerable debate in the wildlife rescue community with regards to the 'ethics' of disabled wildlife being kept in a more confined environment. Rescues differ in opinion however we find the majority do prefer the opportunity of life over certain death unless the disability is unethically restrictive. Those on both sides of the fence tend to be rather vehement in their opinions
Each case has to be dealt with on an individual basis and with close monitoring to identify any signs of stress, It is sometimes muted that a human can' know whether an animal is 'happy'. The word happy is not really apt and any person working extensively with a wildlife species can easily identify and recognise behaviour that denotes stress in that species. Given the right environment and left to be wild in that environment allowing natural behaviour albeit in a smaller area wildlife with issues such as Dan can live a life free of stress and exhibiting natural behaviour.
Here at Willows we have a number of hedgehog friendly large wild secure gardens on our books owned by kind hearted people who believe in life and let the hedgehogs live without interference and a number of blind and three legged hedgehogs have and are living out wild lives without any stress.
In memory of 'Dan Dan'
allowing us to share his garden
16/04/2011 to 12/04/2015