Like many four-year-olds, Freddie has a stubborn streak — particularly at meal times. And his ‘mum and dad’ have, they admit, been guilty of indulging his foibles a little too much.
‘It was our fault his problem started in the first place,’ admits Ellie Carmody, 21, from Manchester. ‘We wanted to treat him one day, and we got him a portion of McDonald’s chicken nuggets. He absolutely loved them. But we made a rod for our own backs because after that he went completely off his normal food.’
So her boyfriend Will Saunders, 32, is dispatched to buy Freddie his favourite nuggets, night after night. Will clearly went above and beyond the call of duty, too, in presenting these chicken nuggets exactly the way Freddie liked them.
‘Freddie didn’t like the skin as much, so Will ended up picking it off by hand, just leaving Freddie with the chicken,’ Ellie admits.
Blimey. That is devotion. Alas, their efforts to keep Freddie happy backfired. ‘It got to the point where he wouldn’t eat anything else.’
It would be a difficult enough situation if Freddie were a demanding child, but he isn’t. He’s a hedgehog, an African Pygmy hedgehog, to be precise. He may be small but he has a big role in this house.
Freddie the African Pygmy hedgehog (pictured) refuses to eat anything but chicken nuggets
Ellie acquired Freddie when a friend who owned him moved abroad, and says she and boyfriend Will Saunders fell in love with him instantly
As Ellie, who works in retail, says: ‘Everything revolves around Freddie.’
King Freddie is one of the ‘stars’ of a Channel 4 series called Embarrassing Pets, which serves up an astonishing array of problem animals — and (whisper it!) their equally challenged owners.
Britain may be a pet-loving nation, but this show suggests we’ve let the creatures take over. The amount we spend on pampered pets is rising, up to £7 billion a year.
‘Pet owners are increasingly treating their cats, dogs and even small mammals like members of their family,’ says a spokesman for market research firm Euromonitor.
He puts it down to single people becoming increasingly lonely and couples delaying marriage and children so that pets are often the choice for their love and affection.
The scale of this TV series — which involves a team of vets and animal behaviour experts to advise on issues — highlights how loopy we all are about our pets. It runs over four weeks, with episodes airing on a daily basis — starring 60 problem pets.
Not surprisingly, dogs feature heavily. There are dogs with halitosis, dogs who like to rip up carpets, dogs who steal underwear, and a particularly poignant tale of a dog with an obsessive licking habit.
King Freddie is one of the ‘stars’ of a Channel 4 series called Embarrassing Pets, which serves up an astonishing array of problem animals
Titch is a Jack Russell and Yorkie cross who leaves every surface covered in drool. When they bring in the experts, however, a poignant story emerges. His owner recently died and his obsessive behaviour is put down to extreme grief. Sob.
It’s the more unusual animals that leave viewers scratching their heads, though.
So we meet a tortoise called Dandelion with a habit of attacking people’s feet (it can move astonishingly quickly, for a tortoise), a sheep called Shaun who seems a tad psychotic, and an army of birds who have turned their homes into no-go zones.
The series features not one but two hedgehogs. The owner of the first is concerned because he has been pulling out his own spines. Can a hedgehog self-harm? Possibly, but the vet believes it’s more likely caused by tiny mites.
Ellie took Freddie along because she was at ‘the end of my tether’ with his eating.
‘One of his big treats used to be those little Dreamies cat biscuits, with the soft insides, but the more he wanted the chicken nuggets, the more he rejected even these. We were worried that there was actually something wrong with him, physically, that he couldn’t manage hard food.’
The problem — and this is a recurring theme with this jaw-dropping series — was more that Freddie had started to believe he was a human.
Who can blame him, when it turns out Freddie also gets to watch TV and is spoiled with Christmas presents?
Ellie acquired Freddie when a friend who owned him moved abroad, and says she and Will fell in love with him instantly.
Bird company: Angelica Hambis and her screeching cockatiel Rosie, who ‘has an attitude problem’
‘He’s our baby,’ she says solemnly. ‘He knows I’m his mum and Will is his dad.’
Freddie rules the household. ‘He’s a bit of a diva,’ confirms Ellie. His cage sits in the living room, and every night (he’s nocturnal, so tends to get up about 10.30pm) he is allowed out to scurry around the sofa.
‘He likes to hide behind the cushions,’ says Ellie.
One is his cushion, to be fair. ‘It was his Christmas present. It’s got his face on it.’
In his two-level cage, he has his own duvet and a hamster wheel on a mezzanine level. Needless to say, the experts have their work cut out with Freddie — and Ellie and Will. First stop is convincing them hedgehogs don’t necessarily see McDonald’s as a treat.
‘It’s a common problem,’ says one of the show’s behavioural experts, Caroline Clark. ‘I’ve never come across a hedgehog liking chicken nuggets before, but owners can get into habits that aren’t necessarily in their pet’s long-term interest.
‘The key is getting them to understand how the animal would behave in the wild.’
Juliette Stevens, 50, attended the Embarrassing Pets clinic with her alpaca, Gus. Juliette has a herd at her Derbyshire farm, but Gus isn’t like the others.
‘He thinks he’s human, always has,’ she confides. ‘It turns out his mother wasn’t able to feed him at birth and he was hand-reared. This means he actually thinks he’s a human. When I put him in the field with my other alpacas, he ignored them.’
While Juliette is tempted to treat Gus as a human herself (‘he’s such an affectionate soul, when he’s in a good mood, that I can imagine letting him share my bedroom’), she’s also become concerned because of his bad behaviour.
Bannister vandalising parrot Rocco, who can open a beer can with his beak and eat food with a fork
‘If he isn’t getting enough attention, he will attack,’ she says. ‘He will have a go at people — hissing and spitting at them. And alpaca spit isn’t just spit. They regurgitate the contents of their stomach and hurl it at people. It’s quite disgusting.’
Gus does this to the neighbours. He’s also attacked other alpacas. ‘If he was a human, he’d be a human with an Asbo,’ Juliette says, quite cheerily, in the circumstances.
In Winsford, Cheshire, we meet Charlie, who is billed — no pun intended — as the ultimate Diva Duck. Charlie came into the life of his besotted owner, Charlotte Collett, 13, when he was just an egg.
‘Charlotte was at a sleepover on a farm, and the egg started to hatch — and there was Charlie peeking out at her,’ explains her mum, Carli, 43.
‘She came home and said: “Mum, I’ve got a duckling. Can we keep it?” I said we could —for a few weeks — but as he got bigger, he was adorable, and so he stayed for good. He followed Charlotte around. He wouldn’t leave her side. He thought she was his mummy.’
This is a recognised phenomenon, says Caroline Clark. ‘It’s called imprinting.’
In Winsford, Cheshire, we meet Charlie, who is billed — no pun intended — as the ultimate Diva Duck
Carli admits: ‘We call him the most pampered duck in Cheshire. We built him his own pond. He doesn’t really get to come into the house — ducks have no bowel control, we learned that the hard way.’
Alas, ducks have instincts, and Caroline quickly assesses that Charlie is frustrated. While his instincts are telling him to forage for food, and mate when he pleases, his environment isn’t allowing that. Solution number one is to throw away his food bowl.
‘In the wild they expend a lot of energy looking for their own food,’ explains Caroline. ‘The first step was to try to establish a version of that.’ Cue his family having fun ‘throwing lettuce and spinach around’, as Carli puts it.
What about Charlie’s aggressive behaviour? He had taken to attacking visitors and — mortifyingly — getting amorous with his teddy. The family are gently advised that by providing him with his toy when he was badly behaved, they were rewarding his behaviour, and compounding the problem.
‘Aggression is usually a symptom of another problem, and quite often it’s about an animal being frustrated,’ says Caroline. She likens her job to ‘putting a jigsaw together’. Some puzzles are more difficult to fathom than others. Everyone is baffled by the case of lovable collie Mac. Until recently he was a dream dog for owner Claire Curran, 38 — one who loved his walks. Then one day, something happened.
Charlie came into the life of his besotted owner, Charlotte Collett, 13, when he was just an egg (pictured: Charlotte and mother Carli Short)
‘We still don’t know what. Maybe we will never know. He disappeared one day and was missing for about an hour. Someone found him and rang my number, as it was on his collar. When we got him back he was a nervous wreck,’ says Claire.
Overnight, Mac had gone from being a confident dog to a collie with the collywobbles.
‘He wouldn’t stop shaking. We couldn’t get him into the car, and when we did, we couldn’t get him out again. He’d slink behind me. He didn’t even want to go out in the garden. It was as if he’d been spooked by something.’
They never did find out what happened to Mac — and rebuilding his confidence is painstaking.
So is treating Rosie the cockatiel, whose owner, Angelica Hambis, 19, is in despair. Trainee jockey Angelica, who lives in Enfield, is a natural with animals. But Rosie is a law unto herself. ‘She has an attitude problem. It’s a girl thing. She doesn’t want to do what she doesn’t want to do.’
Rosie’s issues — ear-splitting shrieking, and a refusal to be handled — seem to stem from trauma, though. Angelica got Rosie via an advert on the Preloved website when she was one, and was horrified to see the conditions she lived in. ‘It was in the middle of winter. It was so cold and she didn’t even have a blanket over her cage.’
She installed Rosie in her own living room, near the TV and by a fish tank, so she had plenty to look at. Rosie has trust issues, though.
‘She has some sort of phobia of my hands,’ Angelica reveals. ‘Every time I put them near her, she bites, hisses at me and runs away to the back of her cage.’ Another bird behaving badly is Rocco the parrot, who lives in Urmston, Manchester, with owner Mike Long, 54, but clearly still thinks he’s in the rainforest.
Rocco, five, is Mike’s constant companion, and even accompanies him to the pub. ‘He walks up and down the bar. He loves all the attention,’ says Mike.
Rocco, who has his own Twitter account, can open a beer can with his beak and eat food with a fork. He also has quite a vocabulary, even if his language can be as colourful as his plumage (‘he watches a lot of football,’ says Mike). But his screeching and biting has driven the family mad.
So far, Rocco’s main victim has been the bannisters in the family home, which have fallen foul of his talons. But as Caroline explains: ‘In the wild, parrots would strip the bark off trees. The nearest equivalent is, unfortunately, the bannisters.’
A lot of Rocco’s bad behaviour, however, is put down to a more human trait — attention seeking. ‘We were told that by responding to his hysterics, we were encouraging him to screech more,’ says Mike. The solution? ‘When he plays up, we ignore him. It’s already starting to work.’
As the owners in this series are fast discovering — it’s often their behaviour under the spotlight.
The Embarrassing Pets series is available on ALL 4 on Channel 4.