The latest pet craze for the rich...
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London: They fit snugly into the palm of a hand and are as cute as a button.
And that's why the African pygmy hedgehog has - to the dismay of animal welfare campaigners - become the latest must-have handbag accessory.
They are, apparently, the latest pet craze for the rich, including footballers' wives and girlfriends, ousting the tiny dogs that were once carried in handbags.
In fact, women have told breeders the mammals are the perfect accessory because they require less regular attention than dogs.
Owners also love the fact the hedgehogs come in a variety of colours, from albino to apricot, chocolate and salt and pepper.
Some have even claimed they want to buy pets to match their handbags
But animal welfare experts are furious that the creatures, which cost ?250 (R3 071) each, are being marketed as fashion accessories.
Leanne Plumtree, of the RSPCA, said: "Pygmy hedgehogs are undoubtedly very cute, but animals aren't accessories and promoting them as such is irresponsible.
"These are exotic animals whose needs are very difficult to meet in a household situation and where that's the case, the RSPCA does not believe they should be kept."
Janet Thornton, of North West Animal Welfare Centre, added: "These are disgusting, deplorable people who swop and change their pets like their outfits."
Customers are travelling to Cheshire from as far afield as the Scottish borders to buy the tiny hedgehogs.
Steve Birchell, owner of Cheshire Waterlife Wildlife Centre, which stocks the creatures, said: "Our business is based on respect for animals and we ensure that anybody who buys a pet from us knows and understands the importance of proper care for their pet.
"We've been astounded at the popularity of these cute little creatures.
"Apparently they are all the range among the Wags because they are cute. They love being handled and they will sit quite happily in a handbag. What's more, they are also inexpensive to keep."
Diana Mather, an etiquette and style expert, said the animals were the "perfect present" and increasingly seen "gracing designer kitchens and peeping out from the handbags of our fashionistas". - Daily Mail