Hanging out with a porcupine

I’ve talked before about volunteering at the local science center when I was a teenager (in my post The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time). Well, here’s another anecdote!

When I was a teenage volunteer, the science center had a North American porcupine. One of these guys:


North American porcupines are solitary, nocturnal herbivores. They’ll often climb a tree and not come down until they’ve eaten all the bark off it. And even when they’re not stationary lumps in trees, they’re slow-moving and they keep to themselves. Even in Canada, where North American porcupines are native wildlife, people don’t seem overly aware of these animals unless they live in a remote rural area. You get an occasional cartoon-animal joke about how dangerous it is to touch a porcupine, and that’s about it.

Because of this lack of contact, many people still believe the old myth that porcupines can shoot their quills like arrows. Which doesn’t make any rational sense at all, but I guess it’s just one of those things we humans tell each other and keep believing simply because someone else told it to us. At the science center, adults would often bring their children over to Ralph’s enclosure — which was just a thigh-high wall, open on top — and tell the child, “Be careful, he might shoot quills at you!”

I, the labcoat-wearing pseudoscientist teen, would often drop into the conversation at this point. I’d explain that actually, Ralph’s quills are just loosely attached and don’t have any kind of firing mechanism. You’ll only get jabbed if you grab at the porcupine, or scare him into swinging his tail at you. Dogs that get a face full of porcupine quills? Yeah, they’ve actually attempted to bite the porcupine, that’s why. Those quills are an oft-misunderstood defense, not some menacing form of attack, which is a good lesson to learn.


Reaping what you sow, and whatnot.

Actually, despite those barbed quills that embed easily in flesh, it was quite possible to pet Ralph. The porcupine’s quills point backward just like its fur and are mostly on the porcupine’s hindquarters, so as long as people were careful they could pet Ralph just like petting a big old housecat. Being around humans for so long, he had taken a liking to attention that’s not typical for a solitary animal. He had a big, flat-topped rock as part of his enclosure wall, and when he was feeling sociable he’d sit on that rock where people could reach him. I and the other labcoated staff would come over and show people how to safely pet him. One time, I was showing a middle-aged woman how to pet Ralph and he suddenly decided he liked this lady, and tried to climb into her arms. Which was pretty alarming since he weighed over 30 pounds/13.6 kilograms! Neither of us had the strength to lift an animal that big, particularly one covered in quills, and of course Ralph himself didn’t see the big deal. None of the other staff happened by because that would be far too convenient. It took a few tense minutes of prodding to get Ralph balanced back onto his rock, and he quickly forgot what he was trying to do and wandered back down into his main enclosure.

That was the biggest, most ambitious move I ever saw Ralph make. Other than that, he was very relaxed and set in his ways, accustomed to the noise and bustle of tourists around him. The analogy of a big old housecat always stuck in my mind. Sometimes I got the task of turning the mulch in his enclosure and giving him his daily dinner of assorted fruits and vegetables. While I was in there, Ralph would brush against my leg — exactly like a friendly cat does. Just … much slower. Pretty cute for an animal associated with danger and cheap jokes.

It’s just one of those life experiences I occasionally remember and think, “Huh. That was cool. I was really lucky to be a part of that.” I moved on, and the science center got another rescued porcupette after Ralph died. But I’m glad I got to meet Ralph and introduce him to strangers.

2 Comments on “Hanging out with a porcupine”

  1. Brian Barker says:

    I miss Ralph, I remember him! I think he’s gone to the big tree in the sky now… I met him right around the time you were born so it sounds like he had a good run if you knew him as a teenager :) Unless it was his offspring, and they just keep naming them Ralph…

    • Hi, Brian! Always glad to see another Science North fan around my blog.

      Ralph reached 17 years old last I heard, which is indeed old for his species! I started volunteering when I was 13, so I had a few good years with him. And Ralph’s replacement’s name is Quillan. Ah, puns. I haven’t met the new guy myself, but I hear he’s less easygoing than Ralph. (Then again, there are probably pet rocks less easygoing than Ralph was. :D)

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