Am I being mean?

As part of Jaar van der Egel (the Year of the Hedgehog) in Holland, I was invited over to give a talk (and also enjoy a few days of delightful peace in the flat of my friend Mina … there is a restaurant selling rotis that supply a mouth tingly, stomach distending heaven just a short walk from her one-time squat in an exclusive neighbourhood).

So, the talk  – and also the Year of the Hedgehog, I might as well contribute something about that event. But first the talk and my concern about potential meanness. I like to think that I am quite sensitive to the impact I have on people – if I have offended anyone, I really hope it is because I intended to do so … but after my very favourite ‘performance’ … my talks sometimes become a little more than just a lecture – and this one was great as they gave me over 90 minutes to talk, and I kept people happy, laughing (with, not at, I hope) and in their seats ’til the end.

But, as I met many people coming to chat to me on the way out, one man came up to me with obvious agitation. I had offended his wife – an American – and the cause of offence was my references to my time in America at the Rocky Mountain Hedgehog Show.

Now, there may be a few of you who have not yet read my book, A Prickly Affair, but just in case, here is a brief synopsis of a surreal few days:

I was invited by the wonderful people of the Hedgehog Welfare Society and the International Hedgehog Association to give a presentation at the biennial hedgehog show in Denver, Colorado about the campaign I had been involved in to stop the cull of hedgehogs in the Uists.

The hedgehog show is very like Crufts, with some obvious differences. And essentially, the cutest hedgehog wins. Now these are African pygmy hedgehogs (usually a mix of Atelerix albiventris and Atelerix frontalis) – not our western European hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) – our hedgehogs are totally, completely and utterly NOT appropriate as pets. In fact I would argue that neither are the Pygmy hogs (which, interestingly, are about the same size as most of the other 14 species of hedgehog … apart from the lardy-butts among the hedgehogs, ours!) … however, in the USA there is a body of people who are obsessed with their pet hedgehogs. I wrote a rant for the Guardian about this.

Where was I … ok, the show – after I had done my talk and witnessed the winning hedgehog be presented with a rosette many times its size, I was asked if I was staying for the International Hedgehog Olympic Games … now you know how sometimes you will (well, at least I will) say things that are obviously not true, as a joke …. well, I was wrong – utterly serious the IHOG.

In fact I will post something just about the IHOG because it it worth the attention.

There was so much stuff that I found strange – the animal communicator, Dawn Wrobel, who claims to be able to speak to not just hedgehogs but also the ghosts of hedgehogs past … in fact I heard her telling a couple that she had been told by their current pet hedgehog that the reason it was so disturbed was because the ghost of their cat used to sit beside its cage and complain that it had been so jealous of the attention the previous hedgehog had received.

I did a little research about animal communication and am as yet unconvinced by its efficacy … and alarmed at the costs of courses. However, I believe there are some people who are able to empathise better with non-human animals – and wonder if this is the beginning of the slippery slope to a belief in animal communication.

Back at the talk, I also talked about the Rainbow Bridge ceremony … and the valedictory to all the pet hedgehogs that had died in the previous two years. I caused guffaws of laughter with talk about the fund-raising extremes of some of the maggot-eating pet owners … all in all, we had fun.

But the offence? I think, and hope, it was due to a mis-understanding. At no point had I said, or meant to say, that this was all the madness of Americans – more that it was a delightful madness of a few specific people, as part of the a particular community. There is a risk when telling a story that the impression comes of a broader generalisation than is intended. And I am now going to make sure that the only times I cause offence are when I really mean to cause offence!

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