On March 1, hundreds of thousands of Instagram viewers mourned the death of a pygmy African hedgehog named Biddy whose owners, better known as his “parents,” had made him an international celebrity, although the word “celebrity” is too People Magazine to be associated with Biddy. Last year, in Chronicle 470, “Bear Theory,” I attempted to describe the special charm of the creatures on whom we mimetically bestow a human personality, and who as a result become sufficiently both dependent on us and independent of us for us to love them. With pets, the situation is somewhat different; as we care for and observe them, we try to explain their personalities in our own terms, but attributing human-like thoughts and feelings to animals, as some pet owners are wont to do, steps over the line and is less playful than silly. Yet Biddy, in himself a rather simple creature surely less intellectually gifted than a dog or even a cat, won the hearts of millions in a role that transcended his animal existence.
The genius of Biddy was in his mode of presentation. His “parents” (there really is no more appropriate term), inhabitants of Oregon, took him around to scenic sites, mostly in the mountains, and let him roam about in little “Biddeos,” or took carefully posed shots of him, often hand-held, against natural or monumental backdrops. This fine camera work was inevitably accompanied by short, witty messages from Biddy himself, in an already-established genre that we might call Twitter humor: you don’t have much room, so you put the punchline in a hashtag. Rob Lowe does this skillfully in National Review, and recently my friend Trevor showed me a generally hilarious rendering of the 175 letters of Les liaisons dangereuses calledDangerous Tweets: one per letter.
If we step back from Biddyworld, we know that this little hedgehog didn’t really compose those messages—don’t we? But where then did they come from? Or, if you like, who really was Biddy? Was he nothing but that little hedgehog? Or was he not rather a paradoxical entity whose worldly presence was indeed that of the hedgehog but who was magically gifted with human language through the love of his “parents,” channeling, as we say nowadays for evoked spirits, what the little guy would have thought had he been, not human, but a hedgehog with a human spirit.
Attempting to define more closely the nature of Biddy’s persona offers an opportune moment to reflect on the varieties of our attribution of personhood. We must distinguish, at least, between (1) human selves (2) fictional characters (3) bears (4) Biddy.
—A “human self” uses language in the first person, as I am doing now. No doubt in writing I take on a “persona,” which in some cases (not mine, I hope) can be quite artificial, but in any event, I am directly responsible for what I say, as is not true in the other cases; if I make a claim in a Chronicle, you have a right to be annoyed if it is incorrect or unsubstantiated.
—Fictional characters are another fairly straightforward type of persona. We’ve all heard and read enough stories to distinguish between first- and third- (and the occasional second-) person narratives, and although much theorizing can be done here, it’s not very relevant to Biddy; you wouldn’t be reading this if Biddy were a character like Mickey Mouse or (say) the little hedgehogs in The Wind in the Willows that we find in Badger’s house eating porridge (whereas in real life badgers are the most dangerous predators of hedgehogs).
—More complex and far less explored are what I call bears, “plush” or “stuffed animals,” the commercial availability of which is generally traced to Teddy Roosevelt’s bear spared on a hunt. To this category we might attach that of dolls, which differ from the latter historically, physically, and by their presumed human character. You wouldn’t speak of a hedgehog “doll,” unless it were dressed up as a human. Dolls, even if they have soft clothing, are traditionally hard, made of porcelain and more recently, of plastic/hard rubber. You can caress a doll, but like a baby, not like a dog or cat, who are (at least in most cases) furry. Years ago, one would have called bears a variety of doll, an extension of the soft, or “rag” doll (cf Little House on the Prairie), but today I think it’s clear that the dominance has switched. For one thing, dolls have traditionally been associated with little girls and their “maternal” behavior, and I don’t have to insist on how “cis-genderism” is regarded today.
I have already done a Chronicle on bears; here I would only insist on the category’s broadly extensible character, so that one can think of almost anything as a bear (perhaps even a doll). Bears are generally soft and cuddly, but that is not essential. Once one begins to treat something as a bear, it takes on whatever bear qualities are available to the imagination. Bears embody real personalities, and while all their human content comes from their human custodians, they are not “fictional” since they are not figures in a story being created for third parties. (One can of course tell such stories about them, but that’s not what bears are for.)
But let’s get back to Biddy. Biddy was certainly a pet, but his persona was more like that of a bear. Unlike typical cat or dog “speech”—for example, the many New Yorker cartoons that show what the dog is really thinking—there’s little focus in his Instagram posts on getting the reader to appreciate the specific way an animal would think. The fact of Biddy’s being of a rather exotic species, cute but never cloyingly so, apparently self-reliant and not exploitative of his “parents,” allowed them to create for him a persona analogous to that of a little boy—my wife thought, around ten. I can say as a bear aficionado that Biddy’s personality was not far at all from those of several of our own little hedgehogs and armadillos. But the difference is, of course, that Biddy was a real, live hedgehog. In this, as we shall see, was his glory and his tragedy.
The fact that Biddy became a celebrity, attracting many comments and establishing a worldwide dialogue with fans, is not to be neglected in our sense of sorrow; the end of Biddy is so to speak the end of an institution. But we shouldn’t put the cart before the horse. Only the most stupidly cynical would imagine that Biddy’s “parents” created his persona in order to win fame and fortune. I have recently noted the horrors of the Internet as a scapegoating medium, and anyone who dares to tweet knows that the least drop of blood in the Twitterwater will bring out the sharks, but the crowd-speak collective has its upside; far less problematically than the various dating/mating sites, Biddy demonstrated the Internet’s potential for sharing love.
We’ve all seen, or at least heard about, the zillions of YouTube cat videos and even hedgehog videos that are cute and harmless but ultimately cloying and dehumanizing, in that the animal is presented as either trying and not quite succeeding at being “human,” or else showing that whatever our desires and expectations, he/she really doesn’t care to be human. Biddy, on the other hand, and it is in this that he shows his true bear qualities, is just a person, as though someone forgot to tell him that no, hedgehogs aren’t persons, only people are persons. Although this is certainly true in the “natural” world, what Biddy shows us, or I should say, reminds us of, because we all know this, is that “we” don’t live in a “natural” world. We live in a world of signs, of culture, and in that world, hedgehogs, bears, and dolls, not to speak of Hamlet, Achilles, and my personal favorite, Arabella (“the female Quixote”), are perfectly welcome.
Now of course the idea of a hedgehog acting, not like a hedgehog-acting-like-a-little-boy, but simply in the spirit of a little boy is not something that would occur to a hedgehog; hedgehogs don’t “act like…,” they just act. What was special about Biddy was that his actions never seemed to be rehearsed or selected for their ironic commentary on how similar/different we all are, but were simply his own, and the clever comments that his “parents” appended to them were those that a small hedgehog might make if he had the mind of a clever little boy. We all knew that Biddy himself could not have had such thoughts, yet rather than being imposed on him, they always seemed rather a gift, of the sort a fairy godmother might grant to a little hedgehog she particularly loved, allowing him to participate fully in the human world instead of merely supplying it with cuteness and spectacle in exchange for food and lodging.
What we loved in Biddy was a reflection of his parents’ love for him, a love that surely involved every normal aspect of care and concern for a pet—including, clearly, heroic efforts toward the end of his life to help him survive—but in his case had in addition, whether he “appreciated it” or not—could a hedgehog “appreciate” anything but the kind of care and affection he might have received from other hedgehogs?—the love of a parent for a child, of an adult for one of the same species who will eventually become one himself.
Of course this was limited in scope; one couldn’t teach Biddy to talk, for example. Indeed, I doubt if his parents taught Biddy anything; it’s not that aspect of childrearing they seemed to enjoy. Biddy was like a little schoolboy, but one always on vacation. We enjoyed his travels, not at all like those of the gnome in Amélie (the Jeunet world is more hospitable to rats than to hedgehogs), but like those of our little (grand)son who cares enough, or rather, who is well-bred enough (kids don’t do these things spontaneously) to send us a postcard from places where we ourselves would like to go.
Alas, bears are functionally immortal (though losing one is genuinely traumatic); pygmy hedgehogs are not. One can tolerate a dog or cat dying after twelve or fifteen years; these little guys only last about four. Which is fine for, say, a typical hamster, but not for a little hedgehog with the persona of a little boy. The tragedy of Biddy, not for himself but for us, was that in order to truly integrate into his own life the consciousness he expressed and came to embody, he would have had to live something comparable to a human life span. Yet since he could clearly never “grow up,” a longer life would not have worked either; another few years, and the drama of the little hedgehog facing the world would have lost its edge. Imagine, for example, Biddy the Turtle remaining a little boy for 100 years; this would be less endearing than the plot for a horror movie. Better to burn out than rust out.
Be that as it may, Biddy’s living out his four-year life cycle produced in his fans the kind of wrenching sensation that might have occurred back in the 1930s if Shirley Temple had died of a childhood disease. There was nothing in his little-boy persona that reflected the four-year limit of his worldly existence. This was not a failing of his parents; any hint of Biddy’s mortality would have been maudlin and wholly out of character. He had to be a brave little fellow to the end, when they came up with the memorial hashtag #runstronglittlebuddy.
Our tragedy, finally, as people who gave a little piece of our heart to Biddy, is that he is gone, and we mourn him as we would a little boy who died too young. Mourning for the little guy is all the more real in that, unlike a dog playing “Lassie,” he cannot be replaced. We would not stand for Biddy II, and “son of Biddy” would be worse than incongruous. His parents must have realized this when they decided last year to give him a “sister”: a little dog. Another hedgehog would only have undercut his uniqueness; a successor hedgehog would have been a betrayal. Not of Biddy himself, of course, who might have enjoyed playing with another of his species, or mating with a female thereof. But Biddy had a role to play in our human world. I certainly hope he enjoyed it; no one will every play it again.
There will never be another Biddy, but the future, Internet and all, surely holds new ways of associating a human persona with a real animal. Meanwhile, there must be lots of new cat videos on YouTube. I wish Biddy were here to tell us what he thinks of them.
Appendix: Two Sonnets for Biddy
Biddy’s a tiny hedgehog
his folks hold in their hand
their trips throughout the land
on Biddeos they log
he’s cute but never helpless
his little hedgehog brain
explores each new terrain
secure in care that’s selfless
Biddy is no mere pet
this hedgie’s special charm
comes from a love so warm
that we never forget
that Biddy’s folks and he
are all one family
Biddy the hedgehog for two years
made people happy just to look
at him—his human family took
a thousand trips where he appears
in videos and photos posed
to show a hedgehog resolute
frolicsome gentle witty cute
inquisitive and well-disposed
His folks let Biddy share their soul
a little guy who on his own
would live a hedgehog life alone
their love made him part of the whole
and he became our little friend
whose life of love will never end