In the late 1970s, an English accountant stumbled across an injured hedgehog. A lover of animals, like many of his compatriots, he was immediately concerned and took the little creature to the local vet to see what treatment could be applied.
“I can’t do anything,” the vet said. “I suggest I put it to sleep for you.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” the accountant replied.
Determined to help the distressed animal, he then found the local branch of a major animal welfare organization, but the reaction was the same. So the accountant took the hedgehog home and cared for it himself. In the 1970s, Britain, and many other countries, had an extensive network of societies, organisations and veterinary surgeons to care for pets and domestic animals. But wild animals that were injured or sick were left to their own devices or simply “put to sleep” — a euphemism for killing them, as that was seen as the only alternative to prolonged treatment.
Filling a Gap
The accountant, Les Stocker, quickly saw the cause of the problem. The veterinary profession, fully occupied coping with domestic animals and with little training or experience with wild animals, had insufficient time or resources for wild casualties. “For example, if you bring your pet dog in for treatment by a vet, you take it away afterwards to get better at home. But no one comes to take away a wild animal to give it time to get better.”
Since his chance encounter with the hedgehog in the 1970s, Stocker and his wife Sue have devoted their lives to filling this gap in the United Kingdom. At first, wildlife care was provided “as a hobby”, using a small shed at the back of their house in Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. But the hobby grew, particularly in the early 1980s when a severe drought prompted hundreds of people to bring distressed animals, many of them hedgehogs, to the Stockers for assistance. Les Stocker eventually gave up accountancy and he and Sue Stocker have been providing care for wildlife full-time ever since.
A Growing Endeavour
The Wildlife Hospital Trust is the registered charity set up by the Stockers in 1983 as their work with wild animals rapidly expanded. The specially built hospital that the trust supports, about the size of a large, two-storey villa, was opened by Princess Alexandra, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1991, and several extensions have been added since then. With 23 full-time staff, 50 volunteers and between 8,000 and 10,000 trauma patients a year, the hospital has become a world hub of care for wildlife. Twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, someone is available to answer emergency phone calls — many from overseas — from people trying to help wild animals suffering in one way or another. Located in the village of Haddenham, in Buckinghamshire, an hour’s drive from London, the hospital is affectionately known as St Tiggywinkles after a hedgehog character in a book by Beatrix Potter, an English writer of stories for children.
The wildlife hospital and Les Stocker’s 10 published books on first aid and the rehabilitation of wild animals are now a blueprint worldwide for caring for sick and injured wildlife. Stocker has had a huge influence on what is a rapidly growing area of interest.
The hospital itself has a triage section, an operating theatre and various wards for animals of many kinds, from snakes, foxes and badgers to swans, owls and bats, and, of course, a separate ward for hedgehogs. Stocker and his staff aim to give animals the same sort of care that is provided for humans. “We’re all part of the same big picture,” Stocker explains as he walks through the hospital checking on the latest arrivals and on the condition of the most serious cases of the 400 to 500 wild animals.
The fruit of his concern for wild animals — and what makes his project an overwhelming success and inspiration — is the 28 years of knowledge that Stocker and his staff have built up. For many of the diseases and injuries facing wild animals brought into Tiggywinkles, as the Stockers and staff refer to it, there is no textbook solution or remedy. So, without any medical qualifications or academic study, Les Stocker has found solutions, though often in consultation with vets or particular individuals or societies specialising in one species or another. The results of this knowledge, of countless phone calls to animal specialists in the U.K. and abroad, of thousands of attempts to heal wild animals brought to Tiggywinkles, are distilled in Stocker’s books.
For advice, in terms that anyone can understand, on how to treat a bird with a fractured wing, how to help a dehydrated grass snake or a dormouse with abscesses, thousands of people across Britain and overseas now reach for their copy of Stocker’s Practical Wildlife Care. The 330-page book contains detailed explanations of the treatments, along with photos and helpful background advice. Asked how he came by all this information, Stocker simply shrugs his shoulders and says he and his staff have been writing down accounts of the treatments they have provided over the past couple of decades, and noting what works and what does not. “If you’ve got a passion for something, you learn about it,” he explains. “An animal will fight for life, if you give it a chance. It’s the same as with a human casualty. And when you see the bird or animal go off into the wild when it’s better, you feel as if you’ve really achieved something.”
But Stocker points out that he is not a scientist and not a vet. Tiggywinkles in fact works with a network of specialist veterinary surgeons. Stocker and his staff provide the initial care — first aid — for animals when they are brought in; if surgery is necessary, a vet takes care of that — Stocker neither wishes nor is legally permitted to carry out operations. His work continues after the intervention by the vet, as he and his staff take care of the animal during recuperation, which can take up to a year. Animals that do not recover sufficiently to be released into the wild are sometimes kept as permanent residents, and in a few cases, where the animal is suffering badly with no prospects for improvement, Stocker and the vet decide on euthanasia for the patient, “carried out as humanely as possible”, he explains. A dentist is sometimes called in for foxes and badgers with dental problems.
Caring for the animals
While Stocker concentrates on caring for the animals along with his staff, most of whom have worked for Tiggywinkles for at least 10 years, Sue Stocker and their son, Colin, take care of the administration and fund-raising. “We had no social life for years,” Stocker says. “We were too busy concentrating on the hospital. For many years we worked at the hospital every day of the week, though in recent years we’ve taken weekends off and staff members take over. Recently I went out with some of the accountants I used to work with before I got into the wildlife field. They’ve all got posh houses and expensive cars now. But I don’t envy them — it’s been a wonderful 28 years.”
While the outlook today is better for wild animals than it was in the 1970s and 80s — vets, for example, are much more aware now of the need to help wild animals — there is still a long way to go, according to Stocker. “I’m disappointed that no one else has built a wildlife hospital like ours in the U.K.” He estimates that every year in Britain five million wild animals are injured or fall ill. There is now a network of wildlife rescue centres across Britain that work with Tiggywinkles, but not enough to deal with the numbers of injured animals. More wildlife hospitals are needed, not only in the U.K., but around the world. The few wildlife hospitals abroad are all far smaller than Tiggywinkles.
The Humble Hedgehog
Stocker has never forgotten the animal that set him on his path towards wildlife care. Tiggywinkles includes a museum, Hedgehog World, with hedgehog figurines from ancient Egypt and elsewhere that are several thousand years old, and dozens of exhibits showing a surprising number of references to hedgehogs in many different cultures.
Tiggywinkles is also home to a library of books on all facets of wildlife started with the funds from Stocker’s Rolex Award.
The Rolex Award that Stocker received in 1990 played a key role in bringing him international renown and support. “Rolex was the first to recognise our work,” Sue Stocker says.
In the years since, Tiggywinkles has brought him numerous honours. In 1992, Queen Elizabeth II honoured Stocker by making him a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Princess Alexandra has become the patron of the Wildlife Hospital Trust and the Countess of Buckinghamshire is the trust’s president.
One of the honours of which Stocker is proudest is an Honorary Associateship of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, given to him in 2002. The citation for his associateship stated that Stocker “has probably done more to improve the quality of veterinary care for [wildlife] species than anyone else in the country”, and pointed out that he had presented papers and speeches on the need for wildlife care to the European Parliament, the British Veterinary Zoological Society, the British Veterinary Nursing Association and the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.
At any time up to 20 students are studying and working at Tiggywinkles on a 12-month government-accredited course in animal welfare. Tiggywinkles also has extensive cooperation with universities, such as Bristol University in England, whose researchers are given access to the animal patients at the hospital, a valuable resource for scientists who need to study wildlife close up. The hospital has the world’s biggest and widest selection of wildlife in-patients.
Keep it Going
Approaching retirement age, Stocker shows no sign of wanting to stop work. In any case, the trust that he has put in place will ensure that Tiggywinkles continues after his death. “It’s here forever,” Stocker says.
Arguably more important are his many books, particularly “Practical Wildlife Care”, which is now in its second edition and has been reprinted every year since it was first released in 2000. And he is determined to continue reminding the human race of its duty to care for all its neighbours.
“I enjoy this too much,” he says when asked about a possible retirement date. “What can you replace this with? Bowling? Knitting?”
Published in 2007