Fish out of water (pt. 2)

As I walked into the room (late due to a rather erroneous website) it was immediately apparent that this was not a normal conference. I had agreed to talk at ‘Thought for Food: the ethics of eating: a colloquium at Blackfriars’ at short notice, despite it taking place the morning after a week’s holiday. And despite it being nothing to do with hedgehogs. And despite it being quite some time since I have talked on this sort of subject.

But I enjoy a challenge and had prepared my 20 minute contribution to the conference … which was not a conference but a colloquium (an academic seminar). So, the reason why it was so different? Five monks in white habits and a nun too, along with 20 or so others, sat around a square of tables. Talking was Professor Angel Mendez – and as I gathered the programme for the day, I found his subject was ‘Sharing in the divine edible gift: becoming nourishment’. Rather different to my diatribe against industrial meat production and call for eco-nutrition.

Angel – what a name for a man in a habit – was talking about eros – desire – and how this can overtake us when we are considering food. But the bit that really stuck in my mind was his statement that ‘the abundance of food was an indication of the generosity of god’. Now I am sure you can see the flaw in this argument and at the end, when no one else was asking questions, I decided, that despite the august and obviously devoted audience, it was time to ask something pertinent.

‘If the abundance of food is an indication of the generosity of god, what does the absence of food indicate?’ Angel rambled on about the fact that there is more to life than just food – and left me needing to comment that surely it is indicative that god is obviously as spiteful as he is generous. I think that fairly clearly set me apart from everyone else in the room. And freed me up to ask whatever I wanted – which, in the case of the crumbs, was one of the most remarkable revelations I have ever had.

The conversation had moved on to the delight of making bread, and how at the eucharist it is a very special event when the bread consumed is local. But then came the problem of the crumbs. A simple wafer leaves no mess, but a small chunk of homemade bread risks shedding a few crumbs. And this lead to letters to Rome to try and work out what to do with the crumbs. Apparently my jaw hitting the table drew attention and someone decided I might need some of the back-story. The crumbs are not crumbs of bread after the bread has been blessed. They are fragments of christ and apparently it is not the done thing to hoover up christ. In retrospect my question, ‘is there not a time when you just want to say ‘get a grip’ to people like this’ was ill-placed, as it became obvious that there were many people ‘like this’ in the room!

By the time it was my turn to talk, I decided that I should just go for it and hope for the best, moving my assault on from fundamentalist religion to the industrial production of meat. And I actually rather enjoyed myself. There was one monk who was sitting in his medieval robes with frayed black jeans and hush-puppies sticking out under the table – checking his mail on his i-Phone. And the older, grey-bearded monk who had been working for many years in the West Indies, describing the delight of receiving best quality Trinidadian grass for his very English pipe, so better to enjoy the carnival!

And the hedgehog connection? While my powerpoint presentation was being sorted out by the IT monk, I took the opportunity to plug my book to the rather bemused audience and explained that there was a food connection, as it contains a recipe for hedgehog spaghetti carbonara. This focussed much of the tea-time conversations!

It was strange to be among religious fundamentalists in the UK – but also fun and challenging. All power to weirdness I say, as long as people do not thrust their weirdness on me (and they get a grip about the crumbs!)

The hedgehog in the fog

I have just read that Sergey Kozlov, author of beautiful fairy tales featuring the Hedgehog and the Bear, has died at the age of 70. I came across his work while researching my book (or googling the word hedgehog as it sometime became) – and the most memorable version was the film made by Yuriy Norshteyn – The Hedgehog in the Fog. I have seen this many times – it is gorgeous and spooky and worth watching.

During the research I also came across a superbly surreal video from Bjork for her track Human Behaviour which was most definitely an homage to the Norshteyn animation – starting with a hedgehog, or course.

Have a watch of them both – a real sense of loveliness.

Damn dams

I wrote this article 14 years ago – and discovering it has made me feel rather old! But also rather proud that I managed to write something of this depth when I was really just starting out as a freelance journalist. And for such a publication – the New Scientist.

But where is the story now? I started to have a rummage and found this on the BBC web that in 2007 moves were afoot to try and re-start the project. And that is where the trail has stopped … I just hope that the damn dam has been stopped too – it was clear when I visited the Himba people ,who live part of the year near the beautiful Epupa waterfalls, that their lives would be destroyed should this development take place.

And where is the reference to hedgehogs? Even Namibia, famed for extensive deserts, has indigenous hedgehogs in the form of Atelerix frontalis … which has formed the basis for the breeding stock of the semi-domesticated hedgehogs that are still being touted as pets.

That was a bit of a shoe-horn of a hedgehog link – but I could not go publishing something without hedgehogs!

Why the exotic pet trade is wrong and undercover investigations are so important

More than 27,000 animals, including over 730 hedgehogs, have been seized from exotic pet dealer in Arlington, Texas. The company, US Global Exotics, was raided following a seven month undercover investigation by the animal rights organisation, PETA.

In what is thought to be the largest seizure of animals in the US, the range of species found is staggering: wallabies, sloths, ringtail lemurs, kinkajous, coatimundis, agoutis, hedgehogs, chinchillas, hamsters, gerbils, rats, mice, flying squirrels, guinea pigs, sugar gliders, prairie dogs, ferrets, snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, spiders, crabs, and scorpions.

Many of these animals have been collected from the wild and transported to the dealer. The undercover recordings on the PETA website show that US Global Exotics was a company that appeared not to care about the welfare of the animals. There are some very grisly and gruesome images, so be warned before looking at the video.

Friends of mine, who I met at the Rocky Mountain Hedgehog Show while researching my book, have been helping to clear up the mess by taking the hedgehogs into care. But now the Hedgehog Welfare Society needs help and money so they can re-home the hedgehogs.

And this is where I get annoyed about the whole exotic pet industry. The hedgehog pet keepers I met were wonderful and kind if, to be honest, a little eccentric. They love their hedgehogs, they care for them without fault. But their wonderful care helps perpetuate the exotic pet industry. They encourage people to think that it is okay to have these animals as pets and this means that other people, less well-equipped to be nurturing (or simply downright mean and stupid), think it is okay  to have an exotic animal as a companion.

I don’t know what the answer is, but while there is big money to be made from the exotic pet trade, there are always going to be people, like US Global Exotics, who will take advantage of lax enforcement of animal welfare legislation to try and squeeze extra profit from the bodies of these animals.

And if it were not for the intrepid investigator, none of this would have made the news – and the animals would continue to be abused. So all praise to the brave and wonderful undercover stars – who have to keep their light well and truly hidden. And if you are ever tempted to buy an exotic pet – try and find out what it went through before it got to you before making a decision.