Hoogeveen – Hedgehog fanatic Judith Dunkirk has been working to learn more about hedgehogs for several years. A bunch of animals who she says are woefully underrated and in desperate need of attention. Not only the European hedgehog, but also Chinese forest hedgehogs and many other species of hedgehogs have been in decline for years. One by industrialization, the other by export as pets or simply because they are never seen and therefore not counted. Hedgehogs are found all over Eurasia and Africa, but people know too little about animals to help them. As far as she is concerned, it is about to change.
Freelance in science
There have been several articles over the years on how there is an abundance of freelancers in all industries except science. the article of Universonline.nl is a good example. Yet Judith took the plunge. She started as an amateur in 2011 and over the years she has developed more and more projects to learn more about hedgehogs. “It is sometimes difficult to launch projects as a freelance in science. There is no entitlement to government grants and generating your own income to co-finance projects is a challenge. Yet there are plenty of opportunities too, if you know where to look. Choosing a target group and motivating people to help with project development saves a lot of money and you create a group that you can lean on financially, for example through donations or the sale of products from which you invest the profits. in a project. If you keep doing this long enough, you will naturally stand out for the businesses that are happy to sponsor. A good overview of your goal, a good dose of knowledge about your target group and above all endless passion and motivation are, according to her, necessary to become a freelance in science.
However, she is not quick to ask people for funding: “Unless I have a direct goal that requires money, I don’t accept donations. If people want to help protect the hedgehogs I would advise them to support Dutch Hedgehog Protection or ask a local shelter for what they need.
Late knowledge of hedgehogs
According to Judith, not many people actually have the knowledge to help hedgehogs properly, and that’s not surprising. “Science in the field of hedgehogs is very late. The majority of all studies are based on the Western European hedgehog we know in the Netherlands as the wild hedgehog, but the focus is on medical health and conservation methods. There are studies or studies on the natural diet of the hedgehog, but they are rare. In recent years, studies of white-bellied cones, for example, have become more popular, but they have also focused primarily on medical health. Leaving aside all other aspects of animals, you actually have little knowledge in estimating the basic needs of animals. We believe that hedgehogs are primarily insectivores, but the amount of prey and carcasses that hedgehogs eat is vastly underestimated. Certainly in the case of African species, where the quantity of edible plants can be very rare and therefore of insects too. According to Judith, it’s time to change that. There may be more knowledge about the different species of hedgehogs and the differences in their habitat and the possibility of food consumption.
The trip to Uganda
Recently Judith in the Hoogeveen current explained in an article what her job is and how she manages to make ends meet as a freelance writer. She has now found a place for next season to begin field research on the European hedgehog. “Field research is a very good way to observe animals directly and to be able to do analyzes. In this project, I mainly want to focus on observing the natural behavior of hedgehogs and recording their food consumption. In fact, I mostly lie on the floor for a long time with night glasses to observe the movement of the hedgehogs, and then analyze the behavior on the computer with special software designed for ethology projects. Ethology is the science of animal behavior. You can also immediately take into account whether the animal ate, at what time, in what habitat and what exactly was eaten. Lots of factors that can influence the way an animal lives from day to day. Judith says she wants to start with European hedgehogs first, as there is already basic research on this subject and the results of her field research can therefore be verified. After that, she wants to continue with other species of hedgehogs, like the white-bellied cone.
The white-bellied cone is a popular pet not only in the Netherlands, but around the world. However, little is known about animals and this makes it difficult for many caretakers to meet their basic needs. For Judith, that’s why this particular strain is so high on the priority list. This is why she wants to travel to Uganda in 2024 or 2025 to carry out this field research in four different places in the country, each with different landscapes. Uganda is a country very rich in flora and fauna and also has a very stagnant climate, which means that the seasons do not differ much in terms of temperature and rainfall. She made this trip with a few other interested people, including two graduate biologists and a veterinary assistant.
According to Judith, the big advantage of this research is that it can be applied to all types of hedgehogs. By making the design general while asking for specific data, you can easily compare species and draw new conclusions. This makes the differences between species easier to see and this information can be explained more easily to organizations that benefit from it, but also, for example, to keepers and hobbyist breeders.
Until she travels to Uganda, however, Judith continues to work on the microscopic examination she has set up. In this research, she collected and studied the thorns and hair of different species of hedgehogs and tenreks, in order to map the differences in structure and pigmentation. “The structure of the spines of a white-bellied cone is already used, for example, basebalhelmen, and the wings of an airplane are also based on the structure of thorns. We just don’t know how much hedgehogs differ from each other in structure and it can be an easy way to tell species apart. In terms of pigment animals also differ tremendously and of course the difference in pigment can also indicate variations in color. “
Life’s work or just a hobby
“For me, it’s really more than a hobby. Of course that’s how it started, but now it really has become a passion and I can see myself doing that for the rest of my life. Over the years, I’ve established myself as an independent scientist doing non-invasive research, which means I don’t have to cut or torture animals. In many cases, I don’t even have to disturb the animals or a study can be done entirely digitally with the help of my target group. Additionally, I have been raising animals for many years and have built a good reputation in this regard as someone who is truly there for animals and is constantly improving and developing. I think that adds to the pleasure I get from it, that there are few people who are not excited when I talk about my job. So I think I can describe it as the work of a lifetime now, I don’t see myself moving into another job anytime soon. Although I now have a side job to finance the projects.
Judith would prefer her website The Hedgehog program designed entirely as a research and education oriented website. She is already planning to stop breeding for next year, when she also wants to convert a room in the house into a practice space for research. Next year, she also hopes that her first studies will be officially published in a scientific journal. And what does the future hold for us? Hopefully a world in which hedgehogs are protected and helped even better!
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