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How to Milk a Porcupine

The tree-climbing, barb-dodging adventures of a one-time research assistant.

By E. Dan Klepper

Everything I know about porcupines I learned from Woman-Who-Walks-With-Porcupines. Actually, allow me to be a little more specific. Everything I know about porcupines I learned by climbing a 15-foot papershell pinyon pine with a restraining noose in one hand and a pole-mounted hypodermic syringe full of narcotics in the other in order to capture a porcupine for Woman-Who-Walks-With-Porcupines. Not that she didn’t do plenty of her own climbing, noosing and narcotizing herself when she found it necessary. But, being a wise woman, she recognized that I was just gullible enough to believe her when she told me that climbing pine trees and capturing porcupines were fun activities. I discovered shortly thereafter that she was correct about both — the fun part as well as the, uh, gullible thing.

The North American porcupine is essentially a large rodent covered in barbed quills. Its Latin name, Erethizon dorsatum, means something like “irritable back,” in case you are a fan of the Necro lingua (which means, loosely, “dead tongue”). But enough of this boring, science-y stuff. Porcupines are also really, really, really cute. I’m sure you would agree if you found yourself face to face with one, as I did many times over the course of my gig as a porcupine research assistant. However, finding yourself face to backside with one can be a blinding, painful horror. Literally. Avoid at all costs, as I managed to do. I may be gullible, but I’m not stupid.

“How did you find yourself face to face with an adorable porcupine and, in reference to the title of your story, how do you milk one?” you might ask.

First, make sure the porcupine has been rendered immobile with a non-lethal dose of tiletamine and zolazepam hydrochloride. Then, retrieve the porcupine by hand from the end of the branch using a retractable noose secured around its tail and hind leg or nudge it into a fishing net once the narcotic takes effect. Slowly lower the porcupine to the ground. At this point you must work quickly but carefully as the drug’s effects don’t last very long. Weigh the porcupine by suspending the animal from a small scale that you have attached to its hind leg. Lay the porcupine on its back and arrange a bandana casually across its face and eyes. Remember, the porcupine is not asleep so it can still see you. It’s just unable to move, allowing you a window of opportunity to poke at it and then write stuff down. Check for parasites such as fleas and ticks or any other unusual pest so you will know exactly what is going to be crawling on you later. Do so by gingerly parting the quills and hair. Use a magnifying lens for this procedure and then return it to your pocket. It will come in handy later as you prepare for a shower. Decide whether the porcupine is a male or female (don’t ask). If female, then determine if she is pregnant or has already given birth by observing “evidence of lactation as indicated by the manual expression of milk.” You milk a porcupine as you would a cow, only gently and by using the tip of the thumb and forefinger. Oh, and wear proper eye protection.

Finally, once you’ve dispensed with all the scientific diddle-doodling, slip both hands under the porcupine’s armpits and gingerly lift the critter up to your face until you are nose-to-nose. Heavy leather gloves are a must. Then repeat the following over and over again with as much saccharine and sing-song in your voice as possible: “Aren’t you just the cutest little thing! Aren’t you just the cutest thing alive? You are just adorable!” To conclude, put the creature down immediately before it completely recovers from the narcotic then squirms around and tail-slaps the grin off your mug.

Woman-Who-Walks-With-Porcupines is better known as Linda M. Ilse, a wildlife biologist who is often noted for her work on interactions between feral hogs and javelinas as well as her research with the porcupines of the pinyon-juniper woodlands of the Edwards Plateau. From 1997 to 1999, Ilse conducted a study that addressed the “multitrophic interactions” involving North American porcupines, the papershell pinyon pines they forage on and the pine engraver beetles that bore into the pinyon bark. “Multitrophic” is just a smarty-pants way of saying “many foods.” A trophic level simply defines the position an organism occupies in the food chain. For example, multitrophic interactions look something like this: Porcupine eats pinyon pine bark, engraver beetle bores into porcupine-eaten pinyon pine, Cousin Goober eats porcupine, engraver beetle bores into bark around Cousin Goober’s tiny brain, and so on. (Although my cousin wasn’t a participant in this particular study.)

In order to understand the porcupine/pinyon pine/engraver beetle multitrophic interaction, Ilse utilized Kickapoo Cavern State Park as her laboratory. She captured, radio-collared and monitored 37 porcupines and analyzed 183 pairs of trees along 20 different cross-sections of the park’s 7,000 acres. Porcupines have expanded their range into Kickapoo’s slice of the western Edwards Plateau within the last 30 years but were rarely sighted until about 20 years ago. The papershell pinyon pines (Pinus remota) of Kickapoo, however, comprise a relict population from the Pleistocene, an epoch that began over a million years ago and ended just about 12,000 years ago, thus lasting almost as long as my marriage seemed. At one time a prolific species across the region, the papershell pinyon pine declined significantly due to increasingly warmer and dryer conditions. The species is now restricted to isolated populations in northeastern Mexico, Big Bend National Park and the Balcones Escarpment of the Edwards Plateau including Kickapoo. Its bark also happens to be one of the porcupine’s favorite winter foods. As a result, the pines may be more susceptible to engraver beetles due to stress produced by the porcupine activity.

“Yeah, whatever,” you might say. Funny, that’s exactly what I said. “Just get to the good stuff about porcupines,” you might add. Well, here it goes. The porcupine is the only North American mammal with quills. Its quills are actually modified hairs. In fact, porcupines are covered with an assortment of modified hairs. Some are used to sense information, the underfur functions as insulation, tail bristles assist the animal in climbing, and waterproof hairs shed rain. The quill, for those of you who have never suffered the consequences of dog ownership combined with quill removal duty, consists of a follicle, a slim “neck” followed by a broad, sponge-filled middle and a barb-tipped end.

Despite what your dog may tell you between sobs of pain and humiliation, the porcupine has no interest in attacking anything. They are not aggressive animals. In fact, they can’t even run very fast. Nor can they “throw” their quills. Quills are delivered in one of two ways; either by a collision with the porcupine or by a tail-slap. Porcupines have a clever “quill-release mechanism” and, if using a tail-slap to deliver quills, they have a system of connective tissue that usually prevents the quill from being driven back into their own skin.

Porcupine quills serve a number of functions beyond defense. They assist in tree-climbing and, due to their sponge-filled section, provide flotation for leisurely swims to snag tasty food items available only in aquatic habitats. The quill is also coated with its own antibiotic layer that prevents infection whenever the porcupine accidentally quills itself, a phenomenon that can occur when a porcupine tumbles from a tree limb.

In certain circumstances, released porcupine quills will continue to lead lives independent of their owner. The barbed tip allows the quill to work its way forward once it has penetrated into the skin. The quill can then disappear beneath the skin altogether. The quilled victim can only wait until the quill exits the opposite side of whatever appendage it entered and hope that it doesn’t lay any porcupine eggs along the way. OK, the egg-laying part is just an urban myth, but don’t try to convince Cousin Goober of its fiction. He thinks everything in “them bilogical lernin’ books” are lies perpetrated by aliens.

The porcupine’s quills also hold a special place in the history of American crafts. Quillwork is possibly the oldest form of Native American embroidery and has been used throughout the ages to embellish knife sheaths, baskets, tool handles, bags and clothes by tribes who shared the porcupine’s range.

Quills also appear in the lexicon of Native American mythology. One such story tells of an old woman who sits upon a mesa stitching porcupine quills into a buffalo robe. Alongside her rests a big black dog named Shunka Sapa. The woman keeps a fire burning nearby, one she first lit over a thousand years ago. The woman also has kept a sweet, red berry soup called wojapi cooking for an equal millennium. It simmers in an earthen pot hanging above the fire. Periodically the old woman must get up from her quillwork and stir the soup at which point Shunka Sapa begins to pull the porcupine quills out of the robe. As a consequence, the old woman never makes much progress in her quillwork. It is, however, fortunate for the rest of us that her work remains unfinished. According to the story, once she stitches the final porcupine quill onto the buffalo robe the world will come to an end.

Contemporary myths about porcupines have also been perpetrated throughout the country. However, all are about as trustworthy as the salvation said to be found in Shunka Sapa’s bad behavior. For instance, porcupines don’t compete for livestock forage nor do they band together and destroy crops. They are neither “varmints” nor “vermin.” There is no reason to trap, shoot or kill them, nor is it necessary to control their population with poison. Porcupines do have a very high salt drive. They will often chew through salt-saturated wood and wiring in regions where salt is used on roads during icy conditions. Porcupines also feed on bark, but their feeding activities rarely kill trees. However, the amount of damage they can cause depends on the species of tree and its limb structure. Porcupines are energy conservers, and if it is easiest simply to circle the tree via its branch formation while feeding, then a porcupine’s foraging activities can girdle the tree and kill it. Porcupines also love apples, so, in exceptional cases, they can impose significant damage to orchards. In forests, however, foraging usually causes some structural damage on individual trees but so do many other natural causes. Beetles may take advantage of porcupine-scarred trees but no more or less than those trees damaged by drought, lightning, pollution or any other environmental impact. Most claims of economic loss resulting from porcupines are typically exaggerated, anecdotal and lack any sort of reliable documentation. In fact, measurable economic impact caused by fire and human-related deforestation render the porcupine effect on trees inconsequential.

Woman-Who-Walks-With-Porcupines taught me many of these lessons while I was under her tutelage. Some of my other lessons required that I repeat the same mistake a number of times before I learned them. For example, if I found myself walking in circles for the third straight afternoon in a row with my radio telemetry signal beeping loudly but with no porcupine in sight, then it was likely that my collared porcupine was hiding from me — in a cave, directly under my feet. And once I found the cave opening nearby, I needed to be sure and check the entrance before climbing through the jumble of breakdown, squeezing through the small opening and crawling on my belly into the twilight. One never knows when one might find, say, a nest of young turkey vultures who may attempt to rectally evacuate a viscid shot of putrescence in one’s general direction to discourage one from crawling any farther. Lesson finally learned? It’s probably a good idea to come back during a different time of the day, when the porcupine has likely exited the cave and is hanging out in the daylight.

But I believe the most important lesson I learned was that science, even hard ground-breaking science, requires a bit of compassion. Ilse’s porcupines were not just subjects in a study to her. In order to understand more about them, we didn’t need to shoot them, dissect them or stuff them. Instead, we could capture them, examine them, watch them closely, learn something new from them and then set them free. Ilse’s methods helped me understand that porcupines, like many other creatures we know very little about, are sentient beings that are often misunderstood. Porcupines are no less an intrinsic part of this big, breathing organism called Earth than any other. By striving to understand the role that each part plays in nature, perhaps we will improve on our own role as stewards of the natural world.

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