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Porcupines on a pedestal: They don't throw their quills, so settle down, people 

click to enlarge naturalworld_porky.jpg

In our part of the country, where trees are thought of as a cash crop, porcupines are not thought of as heroes, or worthy of being placed on a pedestal. I can recall back in the '50s when there were signs nailed to trees and poles all over the forest around Bend stating: "PLEASE KILL PORCUPINES" and porcupine poison stations were common in the forest. Government agencies and private timber companies still pay people to trap, shoot and otherwise make life miserable for Poor Old Porcy (I've replaced the usual "k" with the "c" so we don't start blaming the porcupine for the swine flu, and besides pigs don't have quills.)

In spite of the way most humans look at and treat porcupines, a baby porcy born at the High Desert Museum last summer made her first public appearance last week at an elementary school in Virginia, and was even featured in The Washington Post.

The young porcy was named "Magnolia" in a contest won by third-grader Leo Higbie, 9, of Purcellville, Va. The winner was announced during a surprise assembly with the porcupine and 400 students at Emerick Elementary School in Purcellville on Nov. 24. Makes one wonder how little Magnolia made the trip from Oregon to Virginia... Did she travel first class?

About a year ago, Wildlife Ambassadors of Paeonian Springs, Va., sent a female porcy named Honeysuckle (apparently a rehabbed "education" animal) to the High Desert Museum because she was too shy to leave her cage during school programs with a large audience. Becky Shore, executive director of Wildlife Ambassadors, sent her to the High Desert Museum in Bend with the understanding that any of Honeysuckle's offspring would go to Wildlife Ambassadors.

Honeysuckle shared an outdoor, natural habitat exhibit with the Museum's male porcupine, Thistle, but they didn't seem to like each other, which isn't unusual for porcupines. (Hah! Little did the keepers know!) Because of a physiology that makes porcupines look pregnant most of the time, no one knew Honeysuckle was pregnant. But on July 30 an intern discovered the softball-sized porcupine pup in her habitat.

Cathy Carroll, spokeswoman for the High Desert Museum, said, "I don't want to anthropomorphize too much, but it's like that couple you never think is going to work out but . . . it certainly did. For there to be any kind of successful breeding, the animals have to be well cared for and feel comfortable and secure in their surroundings." (You can say the same thing about people...)

According to the Post article, Becky Shore was relieved when Magnolia walked across a table and started sniffing and chewing on antlers she brought along as part of the show-and-tell assembly. Nonplussed, Magnolia returned to her cage, and nibbled on an apple.

Visitors to the High Desert Museum can meet Magnolia's parents, Thistle and Honeysuckle, daily at the Museum.

All this reminds me of my first real introduction to porcupines. It took place way back when most of you guys were just a gleam in your daddy's eye, and even before that... One winter day in the late '50s my brother Don and I were in the string of caves out by the Knott Landfill, exploring for packrat middens. (Earlier, I had helped state epidemiologists look for rabid bats in the caves, and fleas in packrat nests that carry the bubonic plague. We didn't find any rabid bats, but did discover plague fleas in packrat middens.)

Don and I came to a tight squeeze, where ceiling and floor were so close we had to remove our hard hats and lights and squirm along on our backs with our faces up against the ceiling. As we struggled along in that position I said, "Boy, Don, I'm sure happy you don't suffer from claustrophobia."

My brother, being my brother, responded with, "What the hell's claustrophobia?" Rather than explain it to him at that moment, I asked him how he felt. "I'm OK," he replied with a grunt, and then asked, "How the hell are you?"

That's all it took! As we lay there, face-to-ceiling, laughing our fool heads off, I thought I could hear soft rustling and grunting noises ahead of us in the darkness.

"Shhhh, listen..." I said to Don. As we quietly lay there, I could hear the strange noises coming closer, and with supreme effort turned my neck to see what was coming (something I cannot do today). When my flashlight jabbed into the darkness, red globes came reflecting back, going on and off like traffic lights.

I heard Don say, "What the hell?"

Then it hit me me. I knew what it was coming. "Don..." I whispered, "that's a whole herd of porcupines headed our way. Turn your head toward the wall of the cave and hold your hands in front of your face."

We both were wearing gloves, so if the porcys came too close and were frightened enough to swish their tails, we could protect our faces from quills with our gloved hands. Thankfully they all went grunting by without any damages to any of us.

(NOTE: Porcupines DO NOT "throw" their quills. The quills are modified hairs with one-way barbs on the end, and when a porcy slaps you with its tail the quills are quickly imbedded in clothing and flesh and are released from the porcy's skin.)

As they marched off toward the entrance Don asked, "Are they gone?"

Lowering his gloved hands he added, "What the hell was that all about?"

Normally, porcupines are solitary animals, females go their way and males go theirs, and "never the twain shall meet" - except... As we all know, it takes "two to tango" for mammals to reproduce the species.

My theory is that porcupines use isolated places like lava caves to get out of the cold on those really cold winter days, and also use that time for the boys and girls to get together for one huge, "Wham-bam, thank you ma-am." I didn't take the chance of looking, but I thought several of the porcupines were grinning and the grunting sounded more like singing as they went by...

Thank you, High Desert Museum for putting our Poor Old Porcy on a pedestal, they need it; for to maintain biodiversity, no matter what we think is "right" or "wrong," is the key to a healthy Planet Earth.

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