“I tuck them in at night”: the retired nurse who runs a hospital for sick hedgehogs | Animal wellbeing

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DUdley the hedgehog was found abandoned by the side of the road last June. He was a newborn baby, barely 48 hours old. It weighed only 37 grams. His eyes and ears did not open. A nice stranger knew exactly where to take her.

Sandra Lowe put on blue surgical gloves and got to work. She mixed a solution of milk, for nutrition, with cold fennel tea, to stop the bloating. Dudley had to be fed with a syringe every two hours. Lowe worked on him all night.

Newborns are the most difficult patients to treat. Lowe says, “When you get a call about a baby, you think, ‘Oh my God, that’s no sleep for me, for a fortnight.’ Her husband, John, helped with nighttime feedings. She didn’t expect him to survive. But against all odds, he did. She fired him a little over a month later. “We called him Big Dudley,” says Lowe. “A beautiful pig.”

Lowe, a 59-year-old retired psychiatric nurse, is the founder and medical director of Hope for hedgehogs, a 13-hut residential hospital near Ryton, Tyne and Wear, which everyone calls Lowe’s Hedgehog Hospital. Here, in a converted shed, up to 13 crippled and premature hedgehogs are cared for by Lowe and his team of volunteers. She says, “I tuck them in at night.” I know, it’s embarrassing, but I can’t sleep unless I make sure they’re okay. Do they have enough blankets? Does their heating pad need to be warmed up? »

In the hospital, the pigs (as they are called in the hedgehog world) receive dedicated medical care. “Sandra works tirelessly day and night caring for these sick pigs, feeding the babies, administering medicine and tending to injuries,” says volunteer Maria Gilroy. “It’s also very fun to work with her and she teaches us a lot.”

Sandra in her garden, where she has created a suitable habitat for pigs. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Dealing with these spiny mammals sometimes results in injury. Last year, Lowe had to undergo emergency surgery to remove a feather embedded in his thumb. “They kept me there all night and put me on antibiotics,” she said, appalled.

Lowe points out that the pigs aren’t intentionally hurting her. “They are gentle and submissive animals. The shy loners. They just want to be left alone. The pigs are mistreated, she underlines: “We took their habitat. We install plastic lawns so that they cannot feed.

Then there are the other dangers: “Slug pellets. Poison. Pesticides. Cars. Gutters. In 2020 hedgehogs were added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List for British endangered mammals.

Lowe also educates the community on how to create pig-friendly habitats in their gardens. “A lot of people spend £100 on a store-bought hedgehog house,” she says, “which is wonderful, but you’re better off giving that money to a rescue and making one yourself.” All you need is a plastic storage box: cut a five-inch hole in it and place bowls of cat food and water inside. Weight the box with bricks to prevent the foxes from turning it over, and there it is: a hedgehog feeding station can be yours.

Lowe’s Hospital is funded entirely by donations and, occasionally, by its own savings. Caring for pigs is expensive. There is food, heating pads, bedding and cleaning products to be paid for. On the day we speak Lowe spent £200 on drugs. When I ask her how much money she has invested in the hospital, she bursts out laughing. “You don’t print that!” she says. “My husband is going crazy.”

Lowe founded the hospital in 2018: a nearby rescue had to close and she offered her garden for a replacement. Since then, she has treated 153 pigs. Not everything can be saved; the deaths are heartbreaking, but Lowe tries to focus on the pigs that survived. Like Mad Marilyn: she had been to a few different rescues, not much luck, but after a year of careful feeding, Lowe got her to the point where she could be freed. “I loved Mad Marilyn,” says Lowe. “She used to lie on my lap and I could tickle her stomach. She was gorgeous.

Lowe’s operations are thriving but overstretched. As they only have one shed, pigs requiring intensive care are housed next to those resting before being released. In these busy quarters, many of these recovering pigs will have struggled to hibernate through the winter and have gained weight. “Some of the male pigs have breasts because they sit around stuffing their faces when they shouldn’t be,” Lowe says.

Wayfair agrees to provide Lowe with an 8ft by 10ft garden shed, to be used as a quiet space where recovering pigs can hibernate.

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“I’m so happy,” she said. “It will make a huge difference. It means we can save more pigs and get them out, and they can have babies. It’s just wonderful to see an animal that would have died being released back into the wild.

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