This is the business part of a porcupine, the quills. In the top collage, the porkies in the trees are babies. The one in the middle is an adult.
Tough foot pads and claws help porcupines to climb trees.
Baby porcupine feet, teeth and 'product.'
Porcupines can be very destructive to trees. When they girdle the bark as in the lower photograph, it kills the tree. They are voracious eaters. The food they eat is low in nutritional value, so they must consume vast quantities. That results in lots of 'end product,' as seen above.
When there were six feet of snow on the ground last winter, the porcupines sat on top and ate the bark of these Spruce trees. These trees will die soon.
The sharp, hard quills are mixed in with stiff, guard hairs. The quills contrast with the hairs so that predators can see the porcupine in the dark when they are the most active.
"OUCH!"A couple of months ago, our dog got a face full of porcupine quills. It was the fourth time he has done it. They say that dogs don't learn from the misery of that experience and will do it again and again. Apparently so. Our dog doesn't attack them, as some dogs do. He does not have strong prey drive. He just sniffs them, but that's all it takes.
The common name "porcupine" comes from the French porc d'epine, meaning "thorny hog" referring to the more than 30,000 quills which serve as their main defense. They are docile creatures reported to make good pets (don't try this at home, kids). Porcupines do not attack dogs; dogs attack porcupines. Porkies have muscular, rolly-polly bodies like small pigs and smell kind of like old sawdust. Their quills are simply specialized hairs which raise up when the animal is tense, much like the hair on your arm raises when you are scared. An alarmed porky will rattle its quills to warn a predator. The quills also emit a strong hormonal smell when the animal is threatened.
Neither do porcupines shoot quills, as is the folk lore. They raise the quills up to make themselves look bigger to the enemy. A threatened porky will thrash its quill laden tail back and forth impaling its assailant. The quills come loose easily, much like hair. The outer tip has a reverse barb which hooks readily into whatever it contacts. The sharp quills cause tremendous pain, prompting the dog to paw at itself and roll its face in the dirt in efforts to remove the quills, only driving them deeper.
We live in old spruce forest, favored habitat for porcupines. We have met the porkies face to face in the dens they make in the piles of windfalls. They have denned under our house and I've seen as many as seven at one time! We are over run with them! This time, our dog encountered the porky at home under one of our decks. He yowled, then raced to the door, desperate to come in with what looked like a dead animal in his mouth. "Oh no you don't, Buster!" I yelled and slammed the door in his face. At the same instant, I realized his muzzle was bristling with quills.
We have a wonderful dog, but he does have his issues. Besides lapses in judgement, he also hates to be restrained. Though he only weighs thirty-eight pounds, it nearly requires a straight jacket to trim his nails. We have to take him to the vet for that. He gets so wrought up he trembles and pees himself. Not unlike myself, he requires sedation for almost everything. Nor will he take pills of any kind. No matter what it's hidden in, he will spit the pill. He won't take biscuits from the UPS driver, either. He makes the driver put the biscuit on the ground only taking it after the guy leaves, so that it never appears that he can be bought. He's no dumby, though he is very difficult when it comes to medical needs.
So, of course the latest quill debacle happened on a Friday night at six-thirty, when all good vets are at home working on their second martinis. Emergency veterinary services were more than an hour away. Quills need to be removed immediately. Some suggest that if you take a dog into a wooded area where you expect porcupines, take pliers with you so you can do the job right away. The longer the quills stay in flesh the harder it is to extract them. They also begin to migrate into the body and can kill an animal.
The dog was shrieking in pain and clawing at his own face. It was not a time for timidity. There was nothing to do but get the pliers, swig a mouthful of whiskey and pull. First, we offered the dog a couple of shots of whiskey, but he said no, he only wanted a bullet to bite down on. So we swilled his share and commenced. We pulled three quills before we had to get help. Brute strength was needed and the two of us weren't enough. I raced to our neighbor, Ed's house.He was standing at his barbecue grill tongs in hand, but did not hesitate. He tossed down the tongs, shut off the gas and ran with me to our house.
We put the dog in the bathroom so he wouldn't escape and because blood was coming from somewhere. It was tight quarters for three adults and a dog. The bathroom turned into a steam bath, sweat was pouring from all of us. The dog started blowing hair everywhere, which dogs do under extreme stress. He immediately slipped his collar and leaped into the bathtub to get away. We bound him in a blanket and started over. After the dog had seen the pliers, we couldn't get near his face. The strength of a terrified animal is astonishing! We had to blindfold him. He curled back his lips, snarled and bared his great, canine teeth in self defense. That may have been because he had quills in his mouth or simply horrendous pain. Either way, it was dangerous. A terrified dog in pain will bite no matter how loyal a beast he may otherwise be. Hell! I would have bitten someone myself under the circumstances! We were all fearful that we would be bitten or otherwise maimed. It's easy to injure a dog in a melee like that. Their shoulders can be dislocated or bones broken while you're wrestling them.
I got a golf club to put between the dog's jaws and teeth so he had something to bite besides ourselves. The plastic covering of the club was shredded immediately, but the metal held. Somewhere in there the dog bit down on his own tongue. Blood gushed all over the place as he screeched. The four of us floundered in a battlefield of blood, sweat and hair . Just when it seemed it could not get worse, the dog pooped himself.
We suffered two and half hours in the bathroom hotbox, flailing in dog poop, blood, sweat and fear. In the end, we pulled eighteen quills. With nothing left in any of us, we had to give it up and hope for the best. If the dog got through the night, I'd take him to a vet the next day. Exhausted, we all went outside. The dog was double leashed, though he didn't have the strength to go anywhere nor tangle with wildlife. He could barely stand up! We sucked deep draughts of fresh, night air and babbled light hearted chit chat, while reconnecting on a friendly level with the dog.
When this whole affair had started, my husband had just gotten out of the shower and was in his pajamas. There he stood in his P.J.s staggering as badly as the dog and about to collapse. I realized it was hours past when he had needed dinner. Ed made soft talk to the dog. "There, Perry. You'll feel better pretty quick. Have a little drink of water will ya? Here ya go, fella," he said, nudging the dog to the bowl of water. We were all plastered with blood, dog hair, and "other." Though we were out of the bathroom, I could still smell intense poo."Ed, I can't thank you enough," I said. "I'll owe you forever for this." "No, no you don't. Don't you worry about it," he said. "These are the things friends do for each other." I watched the dog teetering sideways. Awash in after crisis let down and love, I thought I might cry. My husband muttered, "Ya, Eddie, thanks. Oh God! I've got to sit down." As he sunk to the steps, I saw that he had a big smear of dog poop across the lens of his glasses.
Ed went home. The dog went to bed. My husband took another shower. I made dinner. While cooking, I pondered the nature and depth of friendships. Ed was a friend indeed and heroic, as was my husband. If I were to be stranded on a desert island, they are the two people I would want to be with me. I want people in my life who love me enough to do whatever it takes to help me. No matter what it costs, I'm worth it to them. Our dog will one day probably engage with a porcupine again. We love him anyway and we love him enough to rise above our own fears to help him through his serial stupidities. That's the kind of person I want to love me.
The question remains: why do dogs persist in contacts with porcupines? It's unlikely they forget the pain and terror, because dogs have good memories. It must simply be that there is something so enticing and attractive that it's worth it in the end. As a photographer, I understand. To get close enough to a porcupine to smell it and feel its chubby body, to photograph its teeth, quills and feet was risky. But I couldn't help myself. I did it anyway. Now, we'll see who loves me enough to hog tie me and pull the quills from my snarling face!