Instagram fame came quickly for Anna Mathias and her pet hedgehog, Lionel. In 2015, Mathias was a college student in South Carolina when she started a dedicated handle for Lionel, who had started to take over her personal account. A month in, she posted a photo of Lionel curled into a ball, sitting on top of a sprinkle-coated ice cream cone. “One scoop of spike cream please,” she wrote.
The next day, Mathias was at a movie when her sister called repeatedly; she hurried out, thinking there was some kind of emergency. But no: Pop singer Joe Jonas had reposted her picture for his millions of followers. Overnight, Mathias’s follower count leapt from roughly 1,000 to 8,000 and continued to snowball from there. Lionel made his way onto BuzzFeed listicles and the official Instagram account, where a photo of him sprawled in a little wooden chair has collected more than 1.4 million likes so far.
Today Lionel and Lilo, another hedgehog Mathias purchased in 2017, have 136,000 followers. That number that pales in comparison with other Instagram-famous hedgehogs (Azuki, 405,000; Mr. Pokee, 1.3 million) and “petfluencers” at large (Grumpy Cat, 2.4 million; Doug the Pug, 3.7 million; Nala Cat, 4 million). But it’s sizeable enough for Mathias, who lives in Charleston and works as a social media manager for the boutique chain Lovely Bride. Over the last four years, Mathias, Lionel, and Lilo have been tapped by brands like Wayfair, Cadbury, and Two Hat Beer to create sponsored content. West Elm, one of Mathias’s biggest partnerships to date, turned Lionel into a Christmas ornament benefitting the ASPCA.
For nearly two years, Mathias and her hedgehogs have been represented by The Dog Agency, a petfluencer talent firm that books campaigns and handles contracts for its clients. For a one-off post, Mathias typically charges at least $1,000, but she says that in the world of Instagram pets, “I’m a baby.” Animals with bigger followings can make as much as $15,000 per post, Loni Edwards, owner of The Dog Agency, told Vox in an interview. (Edwards has not yet responded to my interview requests.)
In the United States alone, the Instagram influencer economy — wherein brands pay individuals with significant followings to post about their product — is expected to grow to $1.7 billion in 2019. That’s up from an estimated $800 million in 2017, according to the influencer marketing firm Mediakix. As with food, fashion, and wellness influencers, petfluencing can be a well-paid part- or even full-time job.
Dogs and cats are a beloved though relatively common online staple, which helps explain why Lionel and Lilo are so popular: Hedgehogs are adorable — with their bulbous, spiky bodies and little faces — and unusual. Classified as exotic animals and illegal in certain parts of the country, they spark people’s curiosity. And social media rewards novelty.
Online, every hedgehog has its own vibe: While some appear in elaborate or hyper-stylized miniature sets, others offer more “natural” scenes. Mathias often takes iPhone photos of Lionel curled up in her outstretched hand against charming building exteriors. (Sponsored posts take more planning, and she is, it should be noted, constantly on the lookout for miniature hats to use in her photos.) Photoshoots don’t happen every day, but Mathias says Lionel and Lilo are pretty cooperative when it’s time to get to work. For one instant, they stop squirming and curl into a perfect little ball.
Hedgehogs, more than many animals, are a classic case of Instagram versus reality — the stark contrast between the exclusively beautiful, interesting version of life that people present on the app and the duller, more complicated world they actually live in. (With an abundance of fabricated existences to feel jealous of, it’s no surprise that social media tends to make people feel worse about themselves.)
On Instagram, hedgehogs seem perfectly happy to pose on ice cream cones and play dress up in tiny hats, but in reality, they’re nocturnal and notoriously shy, prone to curling up into spiky balls when they’re feeling nervous. And they often have a cool, even prickly attitude toward humans. Writer Becca James says that her current three-year-old hedgehog, Uff Da, is more friendly than her previous hedgehog, Pop Vicious, but adds, “I’d never go as far as to say that they’re affectionate.”
“They really want nothing to do with you because you’re not the darkness. They’re the gothest animals alive,” says Tom, who recently took care of a friend’s hedgehog for six months. (He asked to remain anonymous because hedgehogs are illegal in New York City, where he lives.) Still, he describes the time that the hedgehog fell asleep in his wife’s hands after a bath as “the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.” When he posted about the hedgehog on Instagram, those pictures way out-performed the rest. “Like, more likes than my wedding photos,” Tom says.
Joseph Hernandez, a Chicago-based travel editor at Thrillist, describes his hedgehog — Hedgewig the Angry Inch, inherited from a friend whose new dog didn’t get along with the critter — as “the grumpy burrowing type who doesn’t want or care to interact” and “like an old man shaking his fist at a cloud.”
“My partner and I are both grumpy gay guys, so we identify with him, but I think a lot of people think they’re going to get these beautiful little Instagram hedgehogs that are ready to be put in tiny hats and dioramas,” says Hernandez. “I posted an [unflattering] Instagram story a few weeks ago that was like ‘this is what the hedgehog looks like on most days’ and tried to debunk it.”
Though hedgehog owners say they’re remarkably low-maintenance pets, Instagram can also obfuscate aspects of their care that are challenging — like finding an exotic animal veterinarian when they get sick — and unsavory, like their bathroom habits. At night, when they’re up and about, hedgehogs will run for hours. And when they run, they shit: James and Hernandez say their hedgehogs often coat their wheels in droppings. (“It’s like when you’re running a marathon,” says James, referring to the sudden urge to empty one’s bowels experienced by long-distance runners.) The solution is frequent, thorough baths and cage cleanings, with foot baths and surface wipe-downs in between.
Of more concern, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a notice in January 2019 about a 17-case outbreak of salmonella tied to pet hedgehogs, which can carry the bacteria in their feces. (This wasn’t the first time salmonella was linked to hedgehog exposure.) The CDC encourages people to wash their hands thoroughly after interacting with hedgehogs and recommended that they not “kiss or snuggle” the creatures.
Chris Schindler, vice president of field services for Washington, D.C.’s Humane Rescue Alliance, expressed concern that the way hedgehogs are portrayed on social media could encourage lax care, leading to pet abandonment and further salmonella cases. The Humane Rescue Alliance opposed a 2018 move to legalize the animals as pets in D.C. The legalization effort failed, though hedgehogs were legalized shortly thereafter in nearby Fairfax County, Virginia. But they’re also currently banned in California, Georgia, Hawaii, New York’s boroughs, and Pennsylvania.
“Hedgehogs and small exotic animals are often impulse purchases, so when [people] see a video of them eating a tiny birthday cake with a hat, you’re not actually getting that when you get your pet,” says Schindler. “Social media has encouraged ownership of animals that isn’t realistic for what they’re going to end up with.”
After hearing that a few people had gotten hedgehogs because of Lionel, Mathias took it upon herself to post about the realities of hedgehog care on her website. “They’re real animals and come with a lot of responsibility,” she says.
Christie Riddle, a Virginia-based hedgehog seller, and Tamara Sevigny, a hedgehog and sugar glider breeder based in Connecticut, say they try to thoroughly educate potential buyers on hedgehog care. Both say that less than 1% of their clients ultimately ask to return their hedgehogs. Even then, Sevigny says, it’s mostly because of a move to a region where they aren’t legal or a building that doesn’t allow pets.
And for some, the hedgehog’s difficult, antisocial nature becomes part of their quirky charm. Brooke Bell, a Chicago-based hedgehog owner, theorizes that, as with cats, their apathy makes you want to work harder for their love. Mathias says that after she got Lionel, she fell in love with hedgehogs’ ornery side. Riddle finds their skittishness endearing. Tom appreciates that hedgehogs make it clear where you stand with them.
“These are not mixed signals,” says Tom. “I know the score. I know you don’t like me. I know that I just think you’re cute.”
On a recent Monday, Becca James swaddled Uff Da in a navy blue hand towel and brought him to a small park in Brooklyn overlooking the East River. She set him on the ground, and off he went, lumbering across the pavement like small, locomotive loaf of bread.
A pair of men came over, enchanted. A woman approached, carrying her dog, who strained forward to investigate this foreign creature. They cooed, they took pictures. Of course they did: With his round, quilled body, little snout, and bulbous black eyes, Uff Da is a magnet for the camera. A man in a black puffer jacket made a beeline for us while talking to someone on video chat; without missing a beat, he dropped to a crouch, flipped his phone camera around, and started filming the hedgehog for his friend’s benefit, keeping up his conversation the whole time.
Uff Da seemed oblivious to the humans creating content out of his existence as well as a boisterous flock of pigeons that suddenly took flight. Instead, he huddled between the feet of a stranger, who froze with a look of rapture on her face. Uff Da seemed indifferent. But in the pictures, he looked delightful.