AYLESBURY, England — Got a sick hedgehog in the garden? Call the Hedgehog Hotline.
At the other end of the line, day or night, Les or Sue Stocker will patiently offer first-aid tips and instructions on how to put the animal on a train and ship it to their wildlife hospital for sick hedgehogs.
The 4,000 patients treated annually by the Stockers also include foxes, stoats, herons, rabbits, pigeons, badgers, owls and sparrows. But although hedgehogs may be downright stupid and their spiny coat decidedly uncuddly, they are the Stockers' main preoccupation.
The hospital at the Stockers' cottage in Aylesbury, 50 miles northwest of London, consists of a dozen cages in the backyard. It is called St. Tiggywinkle's, after the hedgehog who took in laundry in the Beatrix Potter children's stories.
ICU in Heated Shed
In the intensive-care ward, a heated garden shed, hedgehogs abound in various states of ailment. They range from orphaned babies to a whopper who took on a passing car and suffered a broken jaw.
In America, hedgehogs are thought of as porcupines. But hedgehogs are smaller and less aggressive; they use their spines not as weapons but to absorb the shock of a fall.
Strictly an Old World mammal, they are the stuff of legend in Europe. It was the German hedgehog's supposed ability to forecast spring that gave birth to Groundhog Day in the United States.
Les Stocker, 42, used to run an engineering business in Aylesbury, but gave it up to work full time with wildlife.
The couple were soon in heavy debt. "We even had to sell off Les' coin collection," Sue Stocker, 39, said. "We still lead a sort of hand-to-mouth existence."
The Stockers and their teen-age son don't take holidays.
"I don't think Les would enjoy one," Sue Stocker said. "Whenever he's away he worries himself silly about the animals. He went to a wildlife seminar in Florida and he was phoning home every morning before dawn to ask how each animal was and to talk us through various treatments for new casualties."
Les Stocker has just published "The Complete Hedgehog"--everything you'll ever need to know about hedgehogs. Right now the mammal is riding something of a wave. From being hunted by gamekeepers and having a price on their heads, hedgehogs are growing in popularity.
Just how much the British care about hedgehogs became clear a couple of years ago when a Welsh publican began marketing "hedgehog-flavored potato chips" and was besieged with angry protests.
Just a Joke
"I was quite irate too until we met and he assured us it was a joke," Sue Stocker said.
Hedgehogs are regularly debated in letters to The Times of London. Dorothy Blundell set off a discussion this year with a description of a hedgehog that crossed the road in front of her car. Instead of rolling into a ball and being squashed, it got out of the way.
"Does such a change from 'traditional' hedgehog response mean that these creatures are learning to live with the motor car?" she wondered.
Lord Bellew of Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, wrote to concur, saying hedgehog road casualties in his patch were down significantly since the 1930s.
Dense Hampshire Cousins
But from Hampshire, I. T. C. Wilson reported no change, noting: "Obviously, Hampshire hedgehogs still have a great deal to learn."
State-owned British Rail finds hedgehogs easy to ship. Their shock-absorbing spines protect them in transit, and, being nocturnal, they sleep through the journey.
The Stockers' undertaking is now a registered charity called the Wildlife Hospitals Trust, funded by donations.