Looking up the valley as the fog mystically cloaked the forest. Night was falling with a fine mist that dampened the trail silent. It was too late to be in this neck-of-the-woods though there was no hurrying uphill outta the woodlands. I remember the dogs seemed nervous as we rounded a silver beech when a pack of porcupines surrounded us. Shooting quills into the nose of one canine when the other dog lunged at our attackers and took a dozen quills to the paw; before the porcupine reloaded and with sniper precision, shot several more spiny quills into the back of the dog’s mouth. My adrenaline kicked in yet had no idea what to do as I watched a back-full of quills explode from the porcupine. The projectiles dispersed like buckshot and felt the stinging pain and poison entering my body. As I laid there fading, I never thought I’d be quilled to death by vengeful porcupines.
I never thought that because porcupines don’t shoot quills filled with poison and travel in packs! This is just a couple of the misnomers that give porcupines a bad rap. If you spend any time on trails in Northern Michigan, you’re sure to encounter this member of the rodent family that is grossly misunderstood. This docile creature, like us, simply doesn’t want to be threatened. I have sat beside them in the wilds sharing breakfast observing behaviors many times. Over three dozen extractions of hundreds of quills from my canine friends and plenty of discussions with veterinarians have made dealing with this little-introverted animal quite common place.
The “quill pig,” as its Latin name suggests, has 30 different species of cousins across the globe with Africa’s crested porcupine quill’s nearly a foot long. The North American porcupine will have as many as 30,000 quills that grow back like hair when shed. Also known as a spine, it is as sharp as needles with backward facing barbs. This is what makes them so painful and hard to extract. Essentially a hair follicle encapsulated in thick plates of keratin embedded in the musculature of the skin. The hollow interior of the quill is filled with spongy tissue that covers all parts of the porcupine’s body except the face, belly, inner thighs and underside of the tail.
The protein keratin is responsible for our own structural development of hair and nails too so if a porcupine could shoot quills we should be able to do the same with fingernails…perhaps we don’t share the same mind-control capabilities as porcupines!? Standing to attention at the first hint of danger the quills easily detach from the porcupines’ skin by the gentlest of touch. Unless quills are swallowed, there is no immediate life threating danger. Left unattended for less than 12 hours, serious infections can start to develop. So it is best to let a vet perform the extractions on your canine. Although I do recommend…rather dare you, to give yourself a little poke…and then immediately flush with peroxide for this is the only way you’ll ever be quilled.
Porcupines kill numerous trees while feeding; you can witness the damage in any Northern Michigan forest. Still, I contemplate what this
creature has done to deserve being shot out of trees or purposely run over. They’re not much of a moving target and although you don’t see porcupine offered al carte in the States, the Vietnamese are eating them into a threatened delicacy. Skillful predators such as the American fisher, puma, wolverine and bobcat, kept them from overpopulating the woodlands while deforestation and over-hunting and trapping eliminated most of their natural enemies decades ago.
Fox, coyote and wolf alike learn not to prey on them for the same reasons our dogs do; it is related to their breed characteristics and how the owners condition them. Prey driven dogs typically keep going back for more; I lost one Shepherd after her seventh attack on a porcupine. You can tell by the way the dog has taken quills if the encounter was casual or violent. A dog trying to get a good smell will cause a porcupine to lift its quills in fear which detach when they poke the canine’s nose. My heart grows heavy for dogs I see take them in the mouth. Chances are this problem won’t cure itself, and every encounter will become more costly.
Humans have various reasons for alienating them although in this neck of the woods you’ll hear mostly seasonal home owners complain that the quill pigs are eating the siding of their cabins, while locals will curl their lips in anger demanding they are responsible for killing the forest. Both are human caused problems, not porcupine. Glues in certain particle boards, pressed lumber, tongue & groove, and various other wood products attract the porcupine to the cabin’s exterior which is vacant more months than it’s occupied in a forest that wildlife calls home. A tree decaying caused by a porcupine sustains far more life than a tree cut down for human consumables. A fine example of Darwin’s evolution of a species and humans Darwinistic behaviors.