Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.


Today I was looking through my desk in search of a suitable envelope for an orphaned greeting card, and I came across these sketches I had done of our pet hedgehog, Renfield, several years ago.

Renfield died a year ago this past spring. I didn't feel like posting about it at the time, because I was so upset. I hadn't been through the experience of a pet dying in over a decade, since Harry the Hamster's brief appearance in my life when I was nine. Renfield was 7 1/2 when he passed away -- older than most hedgehogs in captivity live to be. He had been slowing down for a while, not running on his wheel as much at night. One evening when Jeremy went to refill his food and water, he found Renfield dead beneath his exercise wheel, one of his favorite hiding spots.

I felt awful. It was spring, but still cold, so we hadn't taken Renfield out to run in the garden in several months. Digging in our garden and turning up a nice crunchy beetle or juicy earthworm was one of Renfield's favorite pastimes. He also liked to chew on wild mint, which was weirdly adorable. He didn't like the cold, though, and would spend all of his time outside in the winter months trying to climb up the inside of our pant legs to keep warm. Also, frozen dirt means no free hedgehog snacks. So, we decided it was better for everyone if we only took him outside in the late spring, summer, and early fall. I had known that Renfield was probably nearing the end of his life after his late fall vet visit, but I had hoped to be able to take him out to the garden at least once more before he died.

So, Jeremy and I did the next best thing we could think of. We wrapped him in one of his flannel blankets, dug a hole beside the garden, and buried him there, alongside his favorite toy. I bought a small bouquet from a local florist, who looked at me as though I had twelve heads when I told her what I wanted, and laid them over his grave. Then I went in and cried and hugged the cats, who were less than happy to be scooped up and squeezed by a soggy, sniffling human.

In the weeks after his death, I asked myself all the questions you probably do when a pet dies. Was there something I should have done to keep him healthy longer? Was he suffering before he died? Should I have taken him to the vet and had them put him to sleep earlier, and if so, when? Should I have taken him out to the garden in the winter, or would that have only hastened his demise?

I don't know if Renfield every really liked our company, the way our cats seem to. I've read that hedgehogs can be wonderful, affectionate pets, but Renfield's first owner neglected him, and he never really felt comfortable around people. We were able to rehabilitate him to the point where he wouldn't shake and shrink into a bristly ball when we picked him up, but I think he ultimately would have been more happy if he had never met a human being and been free to roam the wilderness, munching on crickets all his life. We actually discussed whether it would be more kind to set him free at one point late in his life, but decided it would be better to continue caring for him. 

I don't think we'll ever get another hedgehog as a pet. We loved Renfield, and I hope we did right by him, but I think some animals are less suited for domestic coexistence with humans than others. As with any death, there are no easy answers about whether we did right or did everything we could. In the end, all there is is time and memory.

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