Our hedgehog Arthur died this week. We buried him yesterday in a shady spot on the side of the house. There’s a stone ring around the tiny mound of earth that he’s displaced. I’ll go today to get some kind of shade-loving flowering plant and a pinwheel. What I admired most about him was his commitment to running on that wheel and to stopping immediately if we caught him at it.
He was never going to live very long. We knew that when we got him. African Pygmy hedgehogs only live 3-5 years (Arthur was two-and-a-half.), and, honestly, the first thing I did every morning and the last thing I did every evening was look into his cage on my way up or down the stairs and make sure that he was still alive. He was such a tiny, determined little thing, and I was always astonished (and relieved) that his body was still working.
Only, Wednesday, it wasn’t.
When I looked into his cage on my way up the stairs, I thought he was laying down funny. You wouldn’t think something like that would be obvious or set off alarm bells, but when you’ve watched someone sleep every day for two-and-a-half years, I guess you develop expectations for how the activity should look. When I pulled the covers off of him, I saw that he was covered in poop and blood. I put on some rubber gloves and gave him a bath. There weren’t any surface injuries, but his belly was covered in red splotches that were a dark purple around his armpits, and when he stretched out in my hands to try (weakly) to turn over, I saw a lump under his left jaw. There was no way to notice it in any other position.
Apparently 90% of hedgehogs who live past 2 years develop cancer of some sort. Lymphoma can speed quickly through a hedgehog’s tiny body. By the time you see the lump, the disease has already taken over.
When Merlin and I went to say goodbye to him at the vet, he perked up a little to see her. He tried to burrow into the crook of her elbow, and I thought, maybe… but when we set him down, his front paws couldn’t support him, and as he tried to push himself forward, they folded underneath him.
Throughout the day, I agonized over the timing of things, as if there were a better or worse time to tell Merlin, a better or worse time to say goodbye. I guess in a situation like this, it’s normal to want to try to control some part of it. And I think about how surprised and unhappy I am, even though I suspected every day that I would eventually be the one to find his body not working, just like Haggis, and Whisky, and innumerable pet fish. It’s considerably easier to bury an 8oz hedgehog than a 100 pound dog. Only not really.
In response to my small tragedy, a friend said that she and her husband were just talking the other day about all the things that having a pet teaches us. I knew what she meant, but I’m not quite ready to see it this way. There’s something about the surprise and fragility of life – the weirdness and wonder that it works at all – that fills me with the strangest emotion. I don’t know if I can ever learn it.