Porcupines, Uma; a porcupine is my latest encounter in the wild. Fascinating creatures, and only beginning a new cycle, I am told by a fellow who is a veritable fount of knowledge about what and who lives in the bush around Watson Lake. Apparently their cycle is a 20-year one and they are only just beginning to be seen here again.
The first time I was introduced to this worthy gentleman I was tempted to dismiss him as someone who might find life more challenging than most; his forehead reaches his hairline about an inch too soon and he looks as though everything he eats turns into adipose tissue, an appearance that does not inspire any expectations in the way of conversation.
I am always glad to be proved wrong, to have a snap judgment revealed as such, and this fellow is someone who cannot merely identify local flora and fauna but can, and will, go into minute detail about it.
I was out walking yesterday, one of those aimless wanderings that have so often proved to be more interesting than I’d anticipated. I found myself on the edge of town wandering near a large lot full of litter and industrial debris, the sort of mess that I have come to think of as the nasty thoughts of Watson Lake personified.
The creature was beside the road, moving with a gait I have seen only outside of pubs—a sort of lumbering waddle. Do animals get drunk, I wondered, and if so, what do they drink?
It was quite simply one the strangest animals I have seen, be it drunk or sober.
Though I could not even imagine what it might be, it didn’t look dangerous, and it certainly wasn’t exactly quick-moving, or at least not at this moment, so I slowly approached it to get a closer look, taking the precaution of picking up a good-sized rock in case it turned on me.
It looked like a large hedgehog, I thought, complete with long prickly bits all along its back and its thick tail.
Just before it headed into the bush, I saw my wilderness guide walking with his dog; I ran up to him, pointing to the spot where the inebriated critter had disappeared and asking him if he had seen it and if so, what was it?
A porcupine, he told me, and no, it was not drunk or injured; that is how porcupines move.
They are rodents, originally from South America, he went on, recognizing my interest and glad to share his knowledge; they have been in North America for three million years.
They can smell, hear and taste very well, but their eyesight is poor, he went on.
Porcupines taste good, says the man who looks as though he is a believer in the if-you-can-chew-and-swallow-it-it’s-food school of culinary thought, but the spines on their backs are quills and easily loosened, making them not the first choice of a hungry predator.
The quills imbed into flesh and swell with air—they are difficult to remove and an animal can die from starvation if it gets a mouthful of quills.
Oddly, the quills are coated with a natural antibiotic and rarely cause infection.
Another one of Mother Nature’s peculiarities: why not make them poisonous? She seems to have no issue with other bizarre and brutal forms of poison, with mushrooms, puffer fish and Rush Limbaugh, for examples.
The animal doesn’t hibernate but remains active year round, feeding mostly at night. They eat the inner bark of spruce in the winter and buds and young green leaves in the spring. It is seldom one sees a porcupine in daylight, I was told.
They are vegetarians, with a craving for sodium and thus are often cursed by man, as they have been known to chew plywood for the glue and the handles of tools with perspiration on them and even some paints.
Although they climb trees to roost and feed, they are not accomplished climbers. Thirty per cent of the animals in one study showed evidence of healed fractures indicating they had fallen out of trees.
What was She thinking of? Do these inexplicable things occur during moments of inattention, a blip on the radar of creation? Perhaps She possesses a cruel sense of humour.
How do they mate? I ask, thinking of the quills covering the back of the creature.
At this, my informant turned a deep, damp crimson and abruptly turned and walked away, muttering something about having to go and collect his mail. I guess he was either expecting something in a plain brown wrapper at the post office or he didn’t know about love among the porcupines.
The World Wide Web was not so reticent and there I learned all I could about the sex life of the prickly ones.
I discovered that like humans, porcupines have more sex than is necessary for reproduction. With the song Muskrat Love playing in my head I went on to learn more about their romantic practices.
No wonder they have sex more often that strictly necessary; all coupling is confined to the months from September to October.
The males will compete, and fight for the favours of a desired female; kind of typical of most species’ mating preliminaries, but then it gets kinky. Really kinky.
The winner splashes the female with urine! The golden shower is not confined to humans! Next I’ll be hearing about spanking among adult animals, or some mammalian equivalent of the Kama Sutra.
If the female is not ready, or doesn’t find the more dominant male her type, preferring the more intellectual sort, she merely shakes off the urine and continues on her way.
If she does accept him, they have animal sex but unlike the usual near-muteness of porcupines, they become noisy, emitting a variety of moans, grunts, screams and barks rather like the nightly orchestration Pete and I were subjected to in Mexico last winter.
The rest of the time they are solitary bachelors and bachelorettes, neither needing nor wanting a social life. They will, on rare occasions, gather to share food but there is no dinnertime conversation, no exchanging of recipes or stories of how the kids are doing—they totally ignore one another. Hmmmm. Not a bad practice; I, too, have been to places where the food was delicious to a degree that conversation was a serious interference with the pleasure of eating.
The rearing of the young, after a gestation period of 210 days, is rather brisk, with the single pup born quite self-sufficient and complete with quills. The mother nurses the baby for three and a half months and then it is time to empty the nest and get on with the (silent and solitary) business of rodent life, recognizing neither kith nor kin.
It doesn’t sound all bad, does it Uma? There’s a kind of monk/nun-like quality to the life, barring the wild sex and the brief spell of raising young.
At any rate, it was a nice break from the Minoans and stepmothering books.
Sorry I wasn’t more sympathetic on the telephone last night. I am never certain of the correct response to the selling of one of your horses: my congratulations because you’ve made a nice return on your investment of time and knowledge in selling a horse, or my sympathy because another horse is gone from your stables and your life. You never sound certain yourself which it is.
Do you have porcupines in southCal? If so, they would be different than these northern ones: I cannot imagine any living thing there being silent or solitary.
Heather Bennett is a writer
who lives in Watson Lake.