The Happy World of Hedgehoggery

2019 September/October

If you drop by Paducah city hall and visit Assistant City Manager Michelle Smolen’s office, there is always a small chance you’ll find a little, soft blanket coiled into a tight bundle on her desk. It will sit there, motionless, as its inhabitant is not inclined to disturb the bliss found within the cotton den. Wrapped within the layers is one of Michelle’s best friends, Basil, a prickly little ball of pure cuteness—from his teeny pointy nose and brown eyes to his minuscule little feet and toes. If you’re lucky enough to get a peek of Basil underneath a flap of the blanket, be assured he will elicit an involuntary “awwwwww.” The adorableness of this hedgehog is unavoidable.

 

“He’s been here just a few times,” says Michelle. “Everyone wants to see him. Everyone loves him. And he’ll sleep the rest of the day since he’s nocturnal. But most every day, he’s asleep in his cage at home. They are fairly solitary animals.”

 

Basil’s journey to Paducah began with Michelle’s desire to add a second pet to her household. She and Husband Jim already had one pet, a Boston Terrier named Walden (after Walden Pond). Michelle wanted another pooch, but Jim, who is the primary caretaker for Walden, wasn’t too keen on the idea. “So I negotiated down to a hedgehog,” laughs Michelle. “I researched and saw photos online of dogs and hedgehogs together, so I figured Walden would be ok with it.

 

“Walden had accidentally become my dog,” says Jim. “For the first few years of his life, he got to come to work with me. So by default, we bonded, and he became mine.”

 

“I was like, ‘This is b.s.! I want a pet that’s mine!’” says Michelle.

 

“I told her to just take a more active role in Walden’s life,” adds Jim, “but she wanted something cute and cuddly of her own. Of course, when you think cute and cuddly, the first thing that comes to mind is a hedgehog, right?”

 

Michelle found Basil not too far away in Evansville, Indiana. “We found him on Craigslist. It seemed a bit sketchy at first,” she laughs. “The lady we met breeds them.”

 

“We met in a Taco Bell parking lot,” says Jim. “She walked out wearing a tie-dyed tank top and pants and no shoes. As we handed her the money, a police officer drove up, looked at us, and drove on. He might have thought Was that a drug deal? No, that’s a hedgehog deal.”

 

“It seems like we get a pet to commemorate moments in our lives. We got Walden when I moved back from Boston,” says Michelle. “And now here we are in Kentucky. So we got the hedgehog and named him Basil after Basil Hayden bourbon.”

 

“So next we are going to move to Komodo and get a dragon,” laughs Jim.

 

Hedgehogs, while not exotic pets, are somewhat uncommon. They are part of the order of mammals known as Eulipotyphla (truly fat and blind). This order includes shrews and moles. Their back consists of quills which, when the hedgehog coils into a ball when threatened, point out in every direction as a defense mechanism. They are active in the evening and overnight. “He eats mostly cat food,” says Michelle. “And Walden likes the cat food, too. Walden figured out how to get into Basil’s cage and get to the food. When he does, there’s a loose hedgehog in the house.”

 

“We found out Basil will go hide in the couch,” adds Jim. “So we will leave his cage open, and he will go back to it at night. When I hear him in there running on his wheel, I get up and close the door.”

 

“He loves running on that wheel at night,” says Michelle, “but I didn’t know until after I got him that they will poop while they run. Then it gets on his feet, and he gets poop boots. Really, it’s a thing. So I have to wash his little paws with a toothbrush. We call it the poop boots toothbrush.”

 

Michelle and Basil have become best friends. “They have some kind of bond,” says Jim. “Basil doesn’t like me. He can be hissing and balling up because of me, and she will start talking to him, and he will calm down. I call him ouch mouse or spiky rat. I just don’t think he likes me that much.”

 

“He’s bonded with me. Which is exactly what I wanted!” adds Michelle. “I put in the work to be with him. And he’s pretty low maintenance, outside of the paws. I love having him around. I also like the people aspect of it. Everyone loves to see him and come over and hold him.”

 

“And hedgehogs are very photogenic if you can keep them still long enough,” says Jim.

 

“We haven’t taken full advantage of that,” adds Michelle. “There are some great photo ideas online. We have a shark outfit for him. We have hats. And there are all kinds of accessories out there. It’s a thing, especially on Etsy. A lot of the stuff is made for lizards, so we’ve bought some lizard hats.”

 

Basil has proven to be the perfect pet for Michelle. Maybe not so much for Jim. But Jim doesn’t mind. “Michelle gets him out at night, and it cuddles with her and chirps,” he says. “It’s like a cat when it purrs. I haven’t seen Michelle as happy as when she plays around with this little thing.”

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