Behind the Cover: April 2014

A hedgehog portrait is easy, right? In some ways, taking a picture of a tiger would have been simpler.

The cover of the April 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine features exotic pets.

A bear, a tiger, or a chimp? Not quite.

When editors were debating which animal would make the cover for its compelling story on exotic pets called "Wild Obsession," they wanted a creature that would immediately make readers smile, and then awaken their senses of wonder and curiosity: What are exotic pets? Who owns them? And is bringing a supposedly domesticated wild animal into a home ever a good idea?

In the end, the editors went for a hedgehog: adorable but obviously prickly, the perfect sweet-and-sour note for a story on a sensitive subject. It didn't hurt that hedgehogs have become trendy pets; one named Darcy has scored more than 400,000 followers on its Instagram page.

The trade in captive-bred exotic pets has its seamy side. For obvious reasons, the editorial team wanted to find what Illustrations Editor Kathy Moran described as "a responsible breeder who runs a sustainable business."

They found one in Brandon Harley, a college student who owns Carolina Hedgehog in Walterboro, South Carolina. Photographer Vincent J. Musi, who created images of a cougar, tigers, and a Burmese python, among other large creatures, for the story, made an appointment to see Brandon and his collection of African pygmy hedgehogs, a bunch of shy, tennis-ball-size critters.

Even hedgehogs demand time and care to come away with a keeper photo. "What you might think will take 45 minutes is going to take two days," Musi told Harley. "I'm going to rearrange your furniture and by the end you are going to hate me and be glad I'm done. But if we're lucky, we'll make a picture that will make you happy."

In some ways, taking a picture of a tiger would have been simpler than aiming at a hedgehog. "Usually getting eye contact takes distraction, like someone behind me waving meat on a stick in front of a tiger, or for a sheep's attention, rattling baby toys," Musi notes. "It's the exact opposite with a hedgehog."

The slightest movement or scrape of lighting equipment caused his tiny quill-covered subjects to withdraw their heads and, as Musi puts it, "turn into a pine cone. And it's in there for a long time."

Harley was a good sport. He brought out most of his menagerie and cupped them in his hand. (Their quills, not as sharp as a porcupine's, have been compared to the soft bristles of a hairbrush.) "We went through nine hedgehogs," says Musi. "If one got tired or stressed, it would lose the sparkle in its eyes."

The winning cover girl was Jade, a full-grown, 16 ½-ounce,11-month-old female used for breeding. Her offspring go for about $200.

Jade does look like she could be a household pet. A bear, a tiger, a chimp—all of which wait inside the magazine—are harder to imagine sharing a human home.