By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – A small animal hutch sits empty in 13-year-old Josiah Edwards’ bedroom.
Josiah wanted a hedgehog, after learning about them online. His family in Armstrong County had already begun to prepare their home for the pet when Josiah learned about state laws regarding the animals.
As pets, hedgehogs, per Pennsylvania Game Commission regulations, aren’t welcome.
“I was like, ‘Seriously? How could this really happen?’” Josiah said.
Under current Pennsylvania law, residents can get a permit to have a pet lion, providing they meet certain other requirements. They can have wolf, or a bear.
But not a hedgehog, a small, round creature with long, dull spindles and nocturnal habits.
Josiah’s mother, Kathy, suggested he take his concerns to his local state representative. He did.
State Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, surprised by the law, sent Josiah an email Jan. 2, and they met in person several days later.
“The species poses no risk to Homo sapiens,” Pyle said.
Pyle is jumping on board with House Bill 575, from state Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Cambria. The bill is a rewrite of the state’s exotic wildlife possession law. It aims to eliminate the permitting process for exotic animals, outlawing future ownership for creatures such as lions and tigers. The move though, would legalize hedgehogs and other so-called pocket pets.
State law also bans sugar gliders — tiny, fur-covered, long-tailed, bug-eyed creatures that jump, glide and climb with little finger-like claws.
Pyle wants the PGC to offer “one good reason” these tiny creatures should remain illegal; they are neither venomous nor threatening.
He acknowledged the full plate in front of lawmakers. State budget pension reform and privatization debates are taking the spotlight, so this might not be the Year of the Hedgehog. But, Pyle said, the debate should be about more than a child’s pet.
“My constituent asked me to try to enact on law on their behalf, and when you boil it all down, that’s my job,” he said.
Josiah isn’t the first child in Pennsylvania affected by the state’s stance on pet ownership.
Their efforts triggered legislation sponsored by former state Rep. Edward Staback, D-Lackawanna. That bill was similar to Haluska’s move this session.
Initially, the future looked bright for would-be hedgehog owners, as the House unanimously passed the bill. But the Senate never took it up, and the measure died with the end of the session.
Chad Eyler, chief of the special permits enforcements division at the PGC, said the agency has no opposition to HB 575 and understands that people may be illegally harboring hedgehogs.
“Right now there’s somebody out there running a stop sign as well,” he said. “People break laws all the time, it’s just a matter of course if we find them out, and we take the proper procedures if and when somebody does violate.”
Penalties range from verbal warnings or citations to confiscating the animal and turning it over to a “top-of-the-line facility that takes care of those species for us.”
Outcomes may be different if the animal harmed a human or poses some other threat.
Rationales for the law vary. Some say illegal cross-breeding in the mid 1990s caused the PGC to crack down on the species as a whole. Others argue that since hedgehogs are non-indigenous animals, they could, theoretically, pose a threat to existing ecosystems should they escape.
But hedgehogs live and thrive in warm climates – they are illegal in California and Arizona. The species likely couldn’t survive a Pennsylvania winter long enough to establish a threat, hedgehog experts say. Delaware, New York, Ohio and Maryland, with similar climates, do not have similar bans.
Friends of the hedgehog are confounded by Pennsylvania’s laws. Gail Dick is a longtime hedgehog breeder in Montpelier, Ohio, in the northwest corner of the state.
She said she’s had frustrated would-be hedgehog owners in Pennsylvania contact her about the law, and the actions of the Allentown students encouraged her.
As for health or safety concerns, Dick dismisses the idea that hedgehogs, if properly cared for, are any less safe than other pets.
“If you learn about and study about the animals, and have gone to a breeder who was willing to educate you, they can make great pets,” she said.
Pennsylvania’s laws, Dick said, are at odds with federal licensing laws and regulations. PGC regulations are unlike those in almost any other state in regard to allowing much larger animals, such as lions, without a line item for hedgehogs.
“How is it possible to get a permit for these animals, but there is no way to get a permit for hedgehogs?” Dick said.
Back in Armstrong County , a 13-year-old boy is awaiting the answer. He’s waiting to see whether he can fill that hutch.
“I’m quirky,” Josiah said. “I like stuff like hedgehogs, and there’s hundred of other kids just like me who like that kind of stuff, and I want every kid to have the pet that corresponds to their type.”
Contact Melissa Daniels at [email protected]
For more on hedgehogs, check out this YouTube video of a hedgehog and a kitten getting to know each other.