A Dreadful beginning


My last column, a month ago, was likely the final installment in a series featuring Fretful, a wild porcupine who had become my companion. After visiting me most evenings all winter, he was defeated in a fight with a younger porcupine and driven from his territory. Given his age and his condition, I realized there was a good chance I would not see him again.

I did not have a great deal of time to mourn Fretful, for he disappeared in April, the month when wildlife rehabilitators begin to get calls about orphaned wildlife. Even before Fretful left, I had become responsible for a brood of four squirrels. By the time the phone rang on May 10, I had 20 squirrels. When I heard the stranger’s voice on the other end, I feared I would soon have more. Instead, the woman began explaining that her daughter was driving from Rupert (in Vermont) to Massachusetts and stopped for a porcupine that had been hit by a car. While her daughter watched, the dying porcupine gave birth. Could I help?

I called the daughter, Kim, and we arranged to meet. I made a call to one of my favorite problem-solvers, and instantly lined up a pint of frozen sheep colostrum. I found Kim, a lovely young woman, sitting in her car with the newborn porcupine draped sleepily over her arm. As Kim handed over her charge, she explained that she was a fishing guide, and showed me the tool she wore around her neck that she had used to clip the umbilical cord. If a poor creature was to enter the world in such a way, at least she had the astoundingly good fortune to be found by such a kind-hearted and competent benefactor.

Thus began my return journey into the life of a porcupine. Dandelion the Dreadful, as she would soon become, was likely conceived in mid-October. As is typical of her kind, she was born with her incisors erupted, eyes open, a coat of black fur, and a set of tiny quills that had hardened and were ready for action by the time I received her, just a couple of hours after her birth. She weighed over a pound, big for a porcupette.

One might safely assume that newborns have no preconceptions of the world -- they just take it as it comes--but Dandelion clearly had the idea that food comes from something warm and fuzzy, not a syringe -- even a syringe with a natural rubber nipple. She would have nothing to do with a meal thus presented. That first day, my assistants and I were able to testify to the effectiveness of her little quills as we tried to wrestle some nourishment into her. At last I had no choice but to tube-feed her. For the entire first week of her life that is how she was fed. Oh, I tried all kinds of nipples and flavorings. She would stubbornly turn her head and push away the syringe. She became cooperative as soon as I inserted the feeding tube into her mouth, relaxing, and even falling asleep, as I filled her up.

On day five she discovered earlobes. Aha! Warm, surrounded by fur ... Over the course of the next five days, with the assistance of tolerant earlobe donors, Dandelion began to drink from a bottle positioned next to an ear. By the end of two weeks I was able to stop tube feeding her. Dandelion will be four weeks old by the time you read this, and I am guessing she will still need to be sitting on a shoulder next to an earlobe before she will believe that milk can come out of a bottle.

It is fair to say that this small porcupine is a pain in the neck. It is worth all of the trouble to watch her play. Porcupine frolics are both like and unlike the play of all young mammals. If I were to be analytical about it, I would note that Dandelion’s play behavior is preparing her for the very serious dangers and conflicts she will face as an adult. Therefore, a bout of play begins with a flaring of quills that turns her into a prickly sphere with a tail. Then, in the herky-jerky manner of a wind-up toy, she totters about emitting fierce whines. Three slow steps to the left, then a short backward charge followed by an off-balance 360 degree spin, and then she’s off in another direction. Backward and pivots are the favorite moves of Dandelion the Dreadful, and likely to be her most effective deterrents when she encounters predators as an adult. Oh yes, the tail thrashes, too, and when she is really excited she moves forward with little bucks and pounces on any proffered hands or feet. I would challenge even the most-curmudgeonly biologist to keep a straight face in the presence of such an onslaught.

Based upon what I have seen of Dandelion’s development, observed with Fretful, and learned from reading, I can imagine much of what her life would have been like with a less dreadful beginning. Those are details for another day. Suffice it to say that by the end of her first four weeks she is an adventurous climber, and while awake is always seeking new climbing challenges. Mostly she is asleep. While the many squirrel orphans sleep nested in soft fleece beds, Dandelion slumbers the hours away draped over a branch in her climbing area.

This afternoon I took her out of her enclosure. For the first time she seemed aware of the vastness of the world. She flared her quills at strange noises and followed on my heels as I walked. I led her around the side of the house to the patch of violets that Fretful always liked. As the Dreadful followed me she made the same insistent whine-moans Fretful made when he followed me, an experience so utterly familiar, yet undeniably new. The great wheel turns.

Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at patti@beec.org.


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