THE PORCUPINE GETS AWAY WITH MURDER
For years vacationers have been putting up with the depredations of this bum of the forest for fear of a law that doesn't exist. This marauding jokester, who can kill a bear and make a cottage look like a street closed for repairs, is protected only by his thirty thousand quills
ERETHIZON DORSATUM, a publicly pampered, privately persecuted, perverse and antisocial character of the Canadian and northern U.S. forests, commonly called a porcupine (from Latin words for "pig" and "spine"), looks like an uncombed head, has the personality of a keg of nails, fights with his tail, hides his head when he's in trouble, floats like a cork, attacks backing up, retreats going ahead and eats toilet seats and aluminum pots and pans. He's stubborn, thick-skinned, dirty, wasteful, dim-witted, lazy, lousy and lethal, but he gets away with murder because of a "law”
that doesn’t exist: anybody touching a hair of his head will not only get jabbed with dozens of quills but will get stuck with a fifty-dollar fine. Alleged reason: the porky’ is the only’ animal a starving and exhausted wanderer can kill with a stick.
It’s an interesting point, one that has clung firmly’ to the public imagination, and has even worked its way’ into thick hard-covered textbooks—but it’s as phony as a flying quill. The porcupine is not protected by any’ province in Canada P.E.I. and Newfoundland haven’t any porkies at alb, has never been protected, and it’s as hard to find people who
have eaten his meat textbooks say’ it’s like coarse beef as it is to find someone who’s seen the Indian rope trick.
The whole legend has given rise to a sort of Farce of the Far North that has more characters working at cross purposes than Up in Mabel’s Room. While flushed and defiant campers, cottagers, trappers, guides, hunters and prospectors, with an eye peeled for the game warden, are surreptitiously shooting porkies. furtively burying their bodies in shallow graves and generally behaving like someone in the opening chapter of a murder mystery’; and while occasionally
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
Drawn for Maclean's by
more responsible bodies present briefs to the Department of Lands and Forests, as the Northern Ontario Outfitters’ Association did a few years ago, asking for relief against the protection of porcupines—the government frantically issues reports naming the porky as a pest, imports the fisher, the porky’s natural enemy, into districts where he’s become too numerous, occasionally pays bounties to keep the porky population down, and wishes it could lay its hands on the guy who started the legend about the porky and the poohed-out pedestrian.
New Brunswick pays a fifty-cent bounty to
anyone submitting an affidavit reading in part: “I hereby state that I killed . . . porcupines, the snouts of which I now exhibit. . .” sworn before a forest warden or forest ranger, and a certificate, signed by said warden or ranger reading in part, “I hereby certify that as requested by law I received the snouts of « . . porcupines . ” The legal precautions
are necessary. Two years ago, Colchester County, N.S., shortly after announcing that they’d pay half a buck each for porky snouts, found they’d paid out seventeen thousand dollars. Somebody figured out that this represented enough porcupines that if they walked three abreast, four paces apart, they would stretch for twenty-one miles, and concluded that snouts were being smuggled into the country or were being made up from miscellaneous animals’ feet, and called the whole thing oft.
It’s a sad commentary on the porky’s personality that, law or no law, people are always ready to do him in.
One of the main reasons for his unpopularity is that he will chew his way through anything chewable to get a taste of salt. He hardly ever gets enough. With the single-mindedness of a schoolboy with a Double-Dip Cherry Custard Dandy, with walnuts, the porcupine chews up cottage floors, walls, supports, rafters, tent pegs, table legs, boats, axe handles, rake handles, doorjambs, oars, spades and anything else with the slightest salty flavor, particularly in the form of human perspiration. He will chew up the aluminum bowls used by trappers for soup bowls, in which the porous metal has become impregnated with salt, and has even been seen eating the mud and sand on river banks, on the principle, evidently, that it’s not what you have to swallow that counts, but the salt you get with it. Another occasional source of his favorite flavoring is the salt blocks put out in the pastures for cows. More than one cow has put her nose down to shunt aside the strange beast at her block and has come up bawling, her soft nose bristling with quills.
Nohody knows why the porky is so mad over salt. It has been suggested that he doesn’t feel well when his salt gets low. But, whatever the reason, once he gets his mind on salt he goes after it like a woman with her eye on a bargain. He gnaws his way with a set of orange-colored teeth that he sharpens by passing them alternately inside and outside of one another like someone getting ready to carve the Sunday roast, chewing blissfully and making more pointless noises than a disc jockey on a good day—sounds that have been variously described by ear witnesses as “chuck” “chauk” “coo” “diahp” “wheyah” “wheeyee” “por” “moa” “peeah” and “tow,” all of which are probably porky language for something like “pass the salt, please.”
The damage a porky can do on his salthunting forays is considerable. In 1946 a Sault Ste. Marie lumberman and two other men went into the bush to fish Stuart Lake, twenty miles north of Bruce Mines. They intended using a cabin built the summer before by a lumber company for men watching a dam. They knew the cabin was empty at the time and didn’t bother taking a tent. They fished till dark when it started to rain, then searched out the cabin. They found that three porcupines had taken possession by chewing a hole under the door. The cabin was a shambles. The porcupines had chewed up everything: table and bunks were ruined, droppings formed a carpet on the floor. The bunks were full of shed quills and the place smelled like an old bear’s cave. The men slept outdoors, gratefully inhaling great gobs of fresh air along with the rain. No one has been able to live in the cabin since.
The porcupine isn’t particularly afraid of man, which makes him even more of a pest. A logger near Dawson Creek stepped out of
bed one morning onto a porcupine who had come in to gnaw at his bunk during the night. The logger pulled seventy-two quills out of his bare foot before breakfast.
One night at Camp Billie Bear, near Huntsville, three members attending the nature school of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists were out at night listening for owls. It started to rain hard and the trio ducked into a small cabin for shelter. They heard a rustle in the dark, became aware of something ambling to the doorway, and in the dim light saw a porcupine. The porky squatted there in the doorway keeping the trio trapped in the cabin for over an hour after the rain had stopped, when he finally wandered off about some business of his
A hunter in the Quinte district had been hunting for grouse for several days with no luck and was getting pretty disgusted. He located a thorn apple tree with indications that grouse had been feeding there. After a long wait a grouse arrived. The hunter took careful aim. He was about to pull the trigger when something tugged at his boot. The gun went off into the air and the grouse flew away unharmed. The hunter looked down to see what had ruined his big chance. A porcupine was gnawing at his boot—for salt.
Worse than that happened to a woman at a cottage near Pigeon Lake in Haliburton County last summer. The porky isn’t fussy what he eats as long as it’s well salted and he considers toilet seats a delicacy; many « sleepy cottager has nearly fallen in through a hole several sizes too big after a porcupine has been having a midnight snack. This woman, when she hurried out in the dark, took a porky by surprise. The porky put his head between his paws and started slapping with his tail. Residents are still talking about the scream that echoed and re-echoed into the pale moonlit night.
Like the city of Toronto, the porky has an almost mystic power of arousing strong feeling. People either violently like him or violently dislike him. It seems impossible to take him for what he is. Many people turn profane at the mention of him, call him a quill pig, a pine cockroach, a balsam bum, tell with delight of the number they’ve killed, dwell with relish on the fact that he’s frequently full of worms. Others, top authorities on porcupines, say he is clever, intelligent, friendly, affectionate, makes a wonderful pet and isn’t the least bit stuck up.
To give old Erethizon credit, he couldn’t care less whether he’s popular or not. He doesn’t ask any favors from the Canadian or any other government. He just wants to be left alone.
He plods along regarding the world through cynical shoe-button eyes, rattling his quills, singing softly to himself when he’s in love, and minding his own business. He doesn’t want any trouble, and never gives any unless asked for it. Then he gives plenty. He has never started a fight, but he has finished millions of them.
He does it with his quills—but not by shooting them. Remarks like, “There I was and there was the porcupine up a tree shooting quills at me,” originate with deer hunters who have been playing “who’s got the bingo” too late into the night. The porcupine never threw anything in his life, including a fight—unless you count, as some jokers do, a couple of loose quills flipped a foot or two from his tail like straws out of an old broom.
The porky is just a pincushion in reverse. He fights by getting his head under a rock or a log, raising his quills so they’re nice and handy, whipping his quill-filled tail at lightning speed and waiting for someone to come and get it. Although there is something a bit amusing about his means of defense, which
rates the porky with
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Continued from page 19
I the cactus as a comic-strip gimmick.
there is nothing funny about the result, i Every day, somewhere in the woods, some animal or bird of prey, mistaking j the slow-moving porky for an easy meal, pounces on him and leaps back screaming with pain with hundreds of quills in his mouth, neck, tongue or
Dogs are always getting it good and many an infuriated dog owner has 1 sworn eternal and everlasting vengeance and death to the porcupine. At that, the dog is luckier than most I animals. Although he deserves what he I gets for pouncing, yapping and bawling on the porky just because he looks easy to lick, he always has „ dog’s best friend, man, standing by to pull the i quills out. Other animals pay for their : mistake with days of agony, frequently j with their lives.
Porcupine quills range from two to four inches long and look something like a stripped chicken feather with a black tip. They are loosely attached at one end to the porky, needle-sharp and ready for business at the other,
! with hundreds of tiny barbs, visible ; only beneath a powerful glass, that work the point through the flesh at the rate of about an inch a day. The porcupine carries about thirty-four thousand quills concealed in his hair everywhere but on his stomach and the , underside of his tail. They’re tough I enough to stick into hard wood that would buckle a nail.
Last summer a farmer’s wife near Dagmar. Ont., found a porcupine in the woodshed at night and belted it with a broom handle. In the morning she found the broom handle bristling like a bottle brush. The porcupine’s quills grow so abundantly that nobody has ever seen even a partially bald porky, even just after he's given someone the full treatment. Last year near Parry' Sound four men, including a veterinary surgeon, worked two and a I half hours pulling the quills from the face of ° hound that had attacked a porcupine while on a deer hunt. They counted more than one thousand quills.
The quills are not poisonous, as many people suppose, but will cause festering and infection the same as any other open wound and if they hit a vital organ they cause instant death. Worse than that they cause such painful swelling of the tongue and throat that many animal victims of porcupine quills die of starvation. A few years ago two timber cruisers working near Longlac, Ont., found a black bear lying dead below a rapid surrounded by fish that he'd caught with his paws but har' been unable to eat because his jaws we e so swollen and infected fron porcupine quills. He had starved to death. The paws of bears that have been shot are often full of quills. Any bear that has had experience with a porky remains terrified of him for life Bears will shy away from a garbage dump that a porky carcass has been thrown on.
There are many species of porcupines all over the world but there are only two species in Canada: the typical Canada porcupine of the east and the western porcupine which, except for a slightly more yellow hue, looks exactly like the eastern one and is just as stupid, although it has never been admitted by anyone from the west, where everyone thinks it is a story Invented by Toronto.
The porcupine looks like a beaver
that has been up all night, and usually appears as an untidy looking bundle moving around a tree as slowly as a return of overpayment on income tax. Although his life span is only twelve years he always seems an old party. He has middle-aged spread, wears conservative black, he’s a bit grey on top, and he moves as if he wasn’t as young as he used to be. He climbs with a nasty scuffling sound, using his tail the way a hydro lineman uses his spurs. He has a blunt face, short soft underfur, very long coarse outer hair, concealed m which are the quills, which are specially developed hairs themselves. He looks just like his wife, who is very dowdy and looks just the same all seasons: in fact, the whole family is about as dull as you can get.
But then the porcupine doesn’t have to be bright. Like the turtle, the armadillo and the skunk, he hasn’t had to depend on speed, skill or brains to survive, and has just relaxed. Some animals seem to have no fear whatever of the quills and wade into him like a punchy fighter, taking everything he can dish out and going around with quills in their head. The occasional bear or panther will put up with a fist full of quills for a taste of porky meat, and wolves have been found to have quills bristling thick in their throats. But the only animal who can take the porky regularly and without getting hurt is the fisher, a big lightning-fast member of the weasel family.
Stories about the fisher’s peculiar immunity to quills, which even include one about the quills arranging themselves in neat harmless little bundles in a fisher’s digestive tract, are as mythical as most things about the porky. A quill is a quill, and flesh is flesh, whether it’s on a fisher, dog or human. But the fisher does attack the porky without hesitation and in a deft businesslike way, getting his paw under porky’s unprotected stomach, flipping him over and disemboweling him.
The porky has very little possessive sense. He lives in a cave, but he lets it get dirty with old quills and droppings and if he finds a tree that he likes he’s liable not to go home for days. Because of his quills he floats like a cork, but his slothlike gait makes forest fires even deadlier to him than to most animals.
He sometimes gets stuck with his own quills, but he’s pretty handy at getting them out with his paws and teeth. Baby porcupines are born fully equipped with quills, but are bom in a membranous sac. They can climb up a tree in a day or two, but it’s weeks before they can get down without help from Mamma.
When the porcupine is really mad he’ll sometimes back toward his enemy,
his tail threshing. Occasionally when someone climbs a tree after him he’ll start backing down. Last year a guest at a summer camp near Lake of the Woods passed up an evening in town with friends for a quiet evening at the camp with a book. Disturbed by a noisy porky he crawled up a tree after it with a flashlight. The porky started down. The man swung with his flashlight, knocked the porky off the tree, lost his balance, dropped the flashlight, lost his own footing, fell through the dark, right onto the porky. He was still working at himself in a mirror, and only part way through the job, when his friends arrived home after midnight.
There are all kinds of theories about the best way to get the quills out, including a fancy one of cutting the ends off and letting the “compressed air” out, but so far no air has been found in them above atmospheric pressure, and the only way still seems to be the painful laborious process of pulling them out with pliers.
The porcupine’s chief food is the bark and twigs of hemlock, although he also eats willow and other trees and thoroughly enjoys an occasional lollypop of lily pads. But it’s his main course, hemlock, that gets him into trouble because he kills many trees by girdling them, but not nearly as many as he’s charged with. One porcupine will stay all winter in three or four trees. Not only that but he doesn’t always kill the tree he’s feeding in because a large part of his fare is made up of leaves and twigs off branches he has cut down.
Another thing, a porcupine has terrible table manners and strews the place where he’s eating with twigs, which are a prized find to winterhungry deer who can’t reach the upper branches. A weak and unfit deer can pull through the winter because of the clippings. And, finally, the total damage done over five years by seventy-eight porkies to a 4,062-acre study area in the Anna and Archer Huntington wildlife experimental station of Newcomb. N Y., was thirty-five cents per acre—the annual damage, a little over seven cents an acre, or about a twentieth the cost of Î deck of canasta cards.
All in all, like most forms of wildlife, the porcupine isn’t nearly as bad as he’s frequently supposed to be. He won’t even wreck places for salt, some authorities say, if provided with a salty stump to chew on, and he's as typical of the Canadian bush as birchbark, blueberries and camp-cooked
He doesn’t like company, but there’s nothing really wrong with him if you just don’t press the point. ★