by Whit Gibbons

February 28, 2010

My 3-year-old 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.

Everyone 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.

Before picking 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.

Porcupines 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.

I talked 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.

A well-kept 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.

And there 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.

Since Nicholas 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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