Vermont’s Hedgehog Breeders Talk Life on the Hedge | Animals | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont’s Hedgehog Breeders Talk Life on the Hedge

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Ozzy - COURTESY OF STACI FOURNIER
  • Courtesy Of Staci Fournier
  • Ozzy

Legend has it, there once lived a pirate named Jacquotte Delahaye, who had fiery red hair and a swashbuckling spirit to match. She sailed the Caribbean, faked her own death and lived disguised as a man for many years, before perishing in a shoot-out as she fought fearlessly to protect her home island from invaders.

Her namesake hasn't navigated the Seven Seas or fought within an inch of her life, but she does spend nights spinning on a tiny wheel and poops on every surface she graces with her prickled body. "Jackie" — as she's endearingly nicknamed — is a loving mother hedgehog, one of the six 'hogs Heather Fullam from Green Mountain Quillibusters currently has in her herd.

GMQB, based in Fullam's home in Georgia, is one of Vermont's two hedgehog breeders. Staci Fournier runs the other, a Lyndonville-based operation called Prickly Potato Hedgehogs.

Jackie's littermates are all named after pirates. Fullam wears her love for all things nautical on her sleeve — her maritime-themed tattoo sleeve, that is. A previous brood was named after sea gods and goddesses; another, for the world's oceans.

Fournier, on the other hand, doesn't name her hedgehogs according to theme. But each of her current nine do have one nickname in common: "They look like a potato with quills!" she wrote in an email. "They are all my little potatoes."

Fournier, 31, and Fullam, 34, comprise a Vermont hedgehog monopoly, except for those purchased from out of state and the rare shelter adoptee. Accordingly, a burgeoning number of hedgehog owners often look to them for guidance.

"Even when I'm not breeding, I'm still helping people who have a hedgehog from somewhere else," Fullam said.

She and Fournier both use software to track their hedgehogs' pedigrees, but creatures purchased from Craigslist may be severely inbred and can suffer from a slew of sicknesses, she cautioned. Some hedgehogs are also cursed with prickly personalities, ranging from the unfriendly — all balled-up and grumpy — to the downright brutal.

"Hedgehogs are really temperamental moms," Fullam said solemnly. "They might cannibalize their young if they feel threatened at all."

"Breeding hedgehogs is not for the faint of heart," Fournier noted. "It can be absolutely heartbreaking finding a litter of dead babies that you have waited impatiently for."

Pretty harsh for a breed with an apparent likeness to potatoes, huh? But despite the gore, both breeders got into the biz because hedgehogs are also irresistibly cute. Fournier got her first hedgehog, Petey, the year she graduated from high school. Galvanized by her newfound love for the species, she began breeding them herself four years later.

"I'm obsessed with hedgehogs," she said. "I think they are the most adorable and interesting pets! Those beady eyes, wiggly noses and the hilarious positions they contort themselves into while anointing."

Hedgehogs "anoint" when they chew on something with a good smell and then spit it all over their quills — like DIY critter cologne.

Fournier sells hedgehogs for $200 to $300 each, depending on coloring (darker ones tend to be more coveted) and markings (the more unique, the better). But breeding, despite its time intensiveness, is just her side gig. Full time, Fournier is a private care attendant.

Fullam, who charges $175 to $250 per pet — with darker, female hedgehogs on the higher end of that scale — works as an operations manager for a cybersecurity company. Previously, she worked at numerous pet store jobs. Fullam said she missed interacting with "pet people" when she made the switch to a more traditional work environment.

"I've always been that kid who had a ton of different pets," she said. "And weird ones — lizards, tarantulas."

So, about three years ago, Fullam decided to get back into the pet game. She had already owned a few hedgehogs, and she bought another one — with a pedigree — from Fournier. Then she purchased its mate from a breeder in Michigan; plenty of distance from Fournier's Vermont operation would ensure no inbreeding, she said.

Heather Fullam and Jackie - SABINE POUX
  • Sabine Poux
  • Heather Fullam and Jackie

The more experienced breeder became Fullam's mentor of sorts, someone to guide her through the unfamiliar (and unconventional) terrain of the field. Fournier herself had learned the tricks of the trade years earlier from Aimee Brown, who owned the now-defunct Vermont breeder Racing Hedgehogs.

Fullam also sometimes turns to breeders in online communities for advice, even though, like tough-lovin' hedgehog mamas, they can be surprisingly unfriendly. Still, these groups contain plenty of amiable breeders, too, including Pokey Moms of Arkansas and Hillbilly Hogs of Kentucky.

Because both are relatively small, Neither Fullam or Fournier's businesses require U.S. Department of Agriculture approval, though they both follow the department's guidelines anyway. Fullam said she won't be expanding her business anytime soon.

"Vermont's not the state for that," she said. "We don't have that kind of population. It's definitely a hobby."

It's mostly a hobby as far as finances are concerned, as well; Fullam estimates she profits maybe $500 a year, without taking into account travel costs.

Fullam keeps her hedgehogs in their own personal totes on a utility rack in her home, separated because of the breed's solitary nature. That social, playful side of the nocturnal creatures, showcased in YouTube videos and Instagram posts, is usually activated by owners themselves.

"Socializing babies is very important," said Fournier. "All hedgehogs will ball up at some point, that's normal; but a hedgehog that constantly stays balled up doesn't make a good pet."

Fournier plays with her hoglets — hedgehog babies — every day, using her bare hands. Although hedgehog quills are prickly and can be uncomfortable to the touch when raised, they aren't barbed and don't penetrate skin, unlike those of their larger, carnivorous doppelgängers.

"A porcupine's natural defense is their quills," she said. "The quills are very sharp and loosely rooted, so that when a predator touches them, they can release their extremely sharp quills from their back."

Hedgehogs, however, have a rather more adorable means of protection.

"A hedgehog's natural defense is to ball up so that their soft tummy isn't exposed," Fournier explained.

Fournier's whole herd lives in its own bedroom in her home, which she keeps heated within the breed's optimal temperature range.

There are many other requisites for proper pet care, and both breeders insist that potential owners understand what goes into keeping their hedgehogs alive before they buy. Interestingly, almost all of their clients are women.

"I've sold to one guy, ever," Fullam said.

Like any pet, quilled or non-quilled, hedgehogs also require regular medical care. It's nothing short of tragic to think of a hoglet in pain (in their infinite cuteness, should they not be immune to all hardship?), but a few veterinarians in Vermont do have experience handling both regular hedgehog checkups and emergencies.

Dr. Liam Bisson of Shelburne Veterinary Hospital once removed an abdominal mass from one of Fullam's little guys.

"Surgery on hedgies is delicate, because they are so small and there isn't a large volume of medical data on hedgehogs," he said. "So we ... are still learning a lot about these creatures."

Bisson and Bradford Veterinary Clinic's Dr. Susan Tullar agree that, beyond their size and relative unorthodoxy, one other hedgehog-specific trait makes them unusual patients: their physical shyness.

"Fear in the hedgehog causes them to roll up into a ball," Tullar explained. "But friendly hedgies are a joy to work with."

Tullar will use mild gas anesthesia if need be, or her "very technical Pocket Pet Viewing Receptacle." That is, a large pretzel container, clear on all sides for 360-degree observation.

Too. Freaking. Cute.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Lookin' Sharp | Vermont's hedgehog breeders talk life on the hedge"

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