DO YOU PICK UP A PORCUPINE?
February 28, 2010
grandson Nicholas asked me a question I could not answer. "Grandpa,
how do you pick up a porcupine?" Oh my, I thought, I wonder why he
wants to know. The reasons not to pick up a porcupine clearly seem to
outweigh the reasons to do so. Nonetheless, I told him I would find out.
knows that porcupines are overzealous acupuncturists that can, in the
blink of an eye, fill a body part of a person or other animal with sharp-pointed
quills. This most often happens when a porcupine slaps an attacker with
its tail and the needle-like quills, which are some combination of black
and white from the base to the tip, enter the skin and stick there. Real
porcupines do not sling quills through the air like some cartoon porcupines
do. The victim must actually come in direct contact with one of these
prickly rodents to be stuck by a quill.
up any animal, one should consider the full array of defensive weapons
in its arsenal. Of course one's first concern with a porcupine is the
quills, but what about biting and scratching? Are porcupines likely to
bite or scratch to protect themselves? Another defensive measure is to
release unpleasant smells from scent glands. Skunks are the premier example
of an animal that uses this defensive measure, but they are by no means
the only animals to do so. Before picking up a porcupine, it behooves
one to discover whether they have more than one method of defending themselves.
live in the western and northern United States and far into Canada. I
know that if they can get away from you they will run up a tree. And I
did have an encounter with a porcupine in Wyoming. I teased it with a
wool coat until it slapped the coat with its tail, leaving several quills
for me to take home. Other than that, I knew little about the natural
history of porcupines and nothing about how to pick one up by hand. So
I decided to ask an authority.
with Rick Sweitzer, a porcupine expert who conducted his doctoral work
on the spiny creatures when he was at the University of Nevada-Reno. He
is now on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley. He has
caught many porcupines. I asked him how he picked them up, and he told
me. I'm pretty sure that for most people the following description will
qualify as one of those do-not-try-this-at-home scenarios. But for anyone
who wants to make the attempt, here are Rick's step-by-step instructions
for how to catch a porcupine.
secret among porcupines is that the underside of the tail has no quills,
only bristly hairs. The first step is to get the porcupine cornered against
a bush or wall. Then use a stick to tap on the animal's back. Its response
will be to slap the stick with its tail, at which point the person moves
a hand to the ground (presumably with lightning-like speed) so that the
inoffensive lower side of the tail lands on the open hand when the tail
comes back down. Moving the hand slightly backward with the grain of the
quills, grab the porcupine around the tail and pick it up, holding it
away from your body.
you have it, the how-to for picking up porcupines. Rick advises that porcupine-picker-uppers
wear thick gloves, the operative word being "thick." A porcupine
quill would go through most leather gloves and pin them to your hand.
Biting and scratching are not a major part of the porcupine's defensive
maneuvers. Nor are bad smells a primary means of defense. Porcupines can
produce an odor, but it is nothing like that emitted by a skunk. The quills
are the main worry.
cannot yet read, I will have to tell him how to pick up a porcupine. But
I will suggest he wait till he's a decade or so older before he tries
out Rick's technique.
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