Sunday, September 11CDP Top 30 Of All-Time ('08-'10) - #20.
#20 - 'A Feral, Angry Cantaloupe Of Hellfire And Awful.'
(Originally published 7/2/09.)
As you may already know, the Missus and I are the proud and increasingly indifferent (respectively) owners of an African Pygmy Hedgehog named Laika. We’ve had her for about two years now, and for all intents and purposes, she’s a full-fledged member of the family. Sort of like a younger, hunched-over sister that’s covered in needles and eats mealworms. Every family has one.
The name Laika was chosen by me, as an homage to the Russian Space Dog of the same name; a street mutt that was sadly launched into orbit by the Ruskies with no intention of rescuing her. The original Laika has since been commemorated with a postage stamp and sculpture bearing her name and cementing her legacy as a canine pioneer in the early Space Exploration movement. I’ve always found the story to be equal parts fascinating, saddening and heroic, and to this day, I cannot look at our hedgehog without imagining her donning a tiny space helmet and blasting off into the terrifying blackness of the unknown. Wishful thinking, perhaps.
But I jest. To me, she always seemed about as well-behaved and intelligent as one could expect from what amounts to nothing more than an insect-munching rodent. Of course, my opinion was admittedly skewed as I had never been in intimate contact with any other hedgehogs in my life, save for that isolated incident in England where one skittered over my shoe and nearly caused me to ‘splatter my khakis,’ as the Brits never say.
That being said, she’s low-maintenance and lower-profile, idly going about her nocturnal ways in her spacious cage in the master bedroom. Most nights, she can be quietly heard pattering about on her exercise wheel (hedgehogs are easily capable of running 6 miles a night), generating a comforting White Noise of sorts for me and the Missus as we drift into slumber. As the weeks and months piled up, I began to think to myself, “Wow, maybe hedgehogs aren’t so bad after all.”
Wrong times a million, and I now have proof.
Last month, the Missus and I agreed to ‘hogsit’ for a friend’s hedgehog while she went on vacation. The hog in question, an intimidating monstrosity named ‘Whiskers,’ was now taking residency in our master bedroom right along side of Laika’s cage for the next two weeks.
The differences between Whiskers and Laika were fairly noticeable from the start. First off, Whiskers was approximately 3-9 times the size of Laika; she honestly looked more like a morbidly overbese* badger than an unassuming, spiny insectivore. I secretly wondered if someone had been sneaking raw bacon and mayonnaise into her food supply from the moments shortly following her birth.
*‘Morbidly Overbese.’ Work it into your next discussion!
Secondly, I quickly learned that Laika is well-behaved because the Missus trained her to be well-behaved. Acclimated her to human scents, handling and familiar schedules. Developed a bond and trust with her. Let her burrow around in her shirt and chew on her hair. Essentially the very same things that she did to develop a lifelong bond with me. When you don’t establish these boundaries early on with what amounts to a wild animal, they…well, pretty much stay wild.
Everyone knows that hedgehogs ball up when frightened or angry. What you may not know is that they make a ‘huffing’ noise as well. It sounds a bit like a rattlesnake with emphysema; a low, rattling, wheezing, shaking warning cry that doesn’t sound the least bit inviting or worth screwing around with. Describe it any way you wish; it just plain sounds dangerous, and whenever I hear it, instinct kicks in and I immediately leave the premises. I know better than to deal with anything covered with allergy-inducing spikes, even something that’s small enough for me to easily demolish with a hand-held rubber mallet. Don’t think I haven’t thought about it a time or two.
Laika was a small, smart, resourceful friend to all. Whiskers was a humongous, feral, angry cantaloupe of hellfire and awful, and I was now sharing a bedroom with her.
Have you ever had someone spend the night at your house that you just didn’t trust? Be it that you thought they would steal something, bludgeon you with a golf club or attempt to nudely slip into bed with you? This is exactly how I felt for the two weeks that Whiskers invaded my personal space. I slept with one eye open. Every foreign noise was heard by perked ears. Every solitary creak was met with me sitting straight up in bed, clutching a baseball bat and drizzling with flop sweat. I had no doubt that she was more than capable of chewing her way through the steel bars of the cage, methodically clawing her way up the imitation Goose Down comforter and proceeding to eviscerate me from the inside-out.
Oh, and with Whiskers’ extra weight, extra mass was certain to follow. Listening to this nightmarish Chupacabra shuffle, rumble and gallop on her exercise wheel sounded exactly, exactly, like a shoe in the washing machine. It was ferocious. It rattled the house. It kept me up for four straight nights. The Missus, fresh off of blowing out her knee while roller skating, was so jacked up on medication and NyQuil most evenings that she had no idea what was happening. There she’d be, out like a light at…oh, say 5:30pm, while I spent the remainder of the evening pacing around the bedroom, literally (and depressingly) berating an obese hedgehog for minutes at a time.
I’d stand at the base of the cage in my boxer shorts, wedge my haggard and stubbly face against the bars of the cage and yell-whisper from around 2:30 to 3:45am:
“This cannot be happening.” (Denial)
“Go…to…BED…you fat piece of shit!” (Anger)
“Mealworms? Lettuce? I’ll give you anything you want, please just let me sleep.” (Bargaining)
“(Incoherent sobbing; unspeakable profanities)” (Depression)
“Screw it, I’m sleeping in the office.” (Acceptance)
Even though my office was clear across the second floor of my house, I could still hear her in there. Nothing short of sleeping behind the water heater in the basement was going to rid me of this nightmare. For two of the four nights, I slept on the floor of the living room with the cats.
As a teenager, I knew that with adulthood would arrive a certain amount of adult responsibilities that I wouldn't quite understand until they showed up at my doorstep. Managing a marriage, managing your finances, managing your professional career; these were all things that I had to learn and tackle one jittery step at a time. 'Whiskers' represented the banana peel. The intangible. The X Factor. The runaway cement mixer at the company picnic. You can't prepare for something you never, and I mean never, thought you would encounter, regardless of how insignificant or outwardly silly it appears to be.
Life never ends up the way you plan it in your head. Once you accept that, things seem a lot more fair.
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