Hedgehog hospitals fight to save Britain's favorite spiky creature

SHEPRETH, England -- After in-patient treatment and months of bedrest, Snoffle the hedgehog has beaten a life-threatening parasite, and she's prepared for discharge. The hospital staff celebrate; her recovery is one small victory in the fight to save Britain's most beloved mammal.

The U.K. is losing its population of spiky little creatures as fast as the world is losing its tigers.

"They are iconic to our island, and of course they're in massive decline," says Rebecca Wilson, who heads up the Shepreth Hedgehog Hospital, the small medical unit in the Cambridge countryside that saved Snoffle.

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Snoffle the hedgehog is shown after her recovery from parasitic lungworm.

Wilson and her staff treat approximately 700 animals every year, and theirs is just one of at least 800 designated "rehabilitators" that have sprung up around the country to try to redress the plummeting population of indigenous hedgehogs.

In polls and surveys, the hedgehog is consistently voted the U.K.'s favorite creature. They appear all over British pop culture, most notably in the children's book, The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. The story, by Beatrix Potter, features the adventures of an anthropomorphised hedgehog, and has been beloved by Britons young and old since it was first published in 1905.

"They do have this kind of odd, charismatic… grumpy nature to them, which I find quite cute," Wilson says. "They want you to help them but they're still going to huff and curl up in a ball, because that's what they do."

In the 1950s, there were more than 36 million hedgehogs in Britain, according to estimates. Today, there are thought to be less than one million, and humans are largely to blame for the precipitous drop in their numbers.

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A baby hedgehog is cared for in a rehabilitation center.

Wildlife Aid Foundation

"We're putting proper fences in our gardens. Hedgehogs need the connectivity. They need to be able to move from garden to garden," Wilson says, adding that pesticides, car traffic, and the increased use of pavement in backyards are all contributing to the hedgehogs' plight.

Responding to the crisis, the animals' adoring public has mobilized. A national campaign to save native hedgehogs, called Hedgehog Street, has registered nearly 50,000 "hedgehog champions" to create a more hospitable environment for the creatures and spread the word about the beleaguered garden dwellers' plight.

In the meantime, there are success stories -- like Snoffle's.

After her recovery and release from the hospital, a volunteer brings her home so she can adjust to the outdoors within the safety of a special pen in his backyard. She's carefully looked after for a few days, and then she's ready to go.

With the pen opened, she waddles off into the night, and into an uncertain future -- saved, for now, by the very species that's threatening her survival.