By Nicole Rivard
Sometimes plan B turns out better than the original, especially if it involves a rare wildlife sighting.
Last month, my friend and I were planning to hike in Gay City State Park in Hebron, Connecticut, because we heard it was haunted and that seemed thrilling, although the trail itself was moderate. At the last minute, he suggested a more rigorous adventure—hiking Bear Mountain at more than 2,300 feet, the highest peak in Connecticut.
After climbing consistently for at least two miles before meeting the Appalachian Trail, you can imagine the stunning views of Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts from the top, which include broad valleys, shimmering lakes and rugged mountains. We got lucky as it was peak season for Connecticut’s state flower—the mountain laurel—so there were pink and white bell-like flowers as far as the eye could see.
We even met a woman hiking the Appalachian Trail who had started her journey in Georgia back in February. I was blown away.
However, the most awe-inspiring part of the day was our encounter with a porcupine and her porcupette. As my friend’s dog scampered ahead of us, we suddenly heard rustling and saw movement alongside the trail. I set my gaze on the forest floor, but at first I didn’t see anything. I was about to move on when I saw a figure moving slowly up a tree. I thought it was a raccoon but was astonished to see a porcupine. In my 48 years on the planet, I had never seen one in the wild!
The way she moved reminded me of sloths you see in documentaries. I later learned that porcupines are slow, attaining a maximum speed of two miles per hour.
The wonderful thing about wildlife watching is you become so still and present. So, we began taking in the nature around us, and that’s when we spotted the tiny black porcupette in a nearby tree. It was mesmerizing to look into the eyes of these mysterious creatures. I could have stood there for hours, but it was getting dark, and we needed to start our descent down the mountain.
The experience made me want to find out more about porcupines. During my research I came across wildlife rehabilitator Gerri Griswold, who is also director of administration and development at White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, Connecticut. She explained that Connecticut is in the southernmost range of the North American porcupine’s territory. Our populations are relegated to the northern tier of the state with very few exceptions. Many Connecticut residents don’t even know that porcupines live here.
When I asked her the most fascinating thing about porcupines, she replied: “Lordy! Where do I begin? If forced to choose, I would say it is the fact that they are an herbivore who live a solitary life. That little porcupette you encountered with its mother lives alone during most of the day. It plays by itself, entertains itself and waits for its mother to return to feed it.”
In the summer porcupines eat leaves, flowers, berries and grains. In the winter, they eat primarily evergreen needles and the inner bark of trees.
“Unlike other herbivores who live in flocks or herds, porcupines can afford to live alone because of the 30,000 BFFs they tote around on their bodies,” Griswold added, referring to a porcupine’s quills. Yes, porcupines have as many as 30,000 quills!
“A porcupette is fully armed shortly after birth—their quills are soft when they are born [but then harden within a few days with keratin]. I am certain the mother is extremely grateful for that,” Griswold said.
A porcupette stays with the mother for six months—which is a long time for a member of the rodent family—and then, just on the cusp of winter, is dispatched into the world.
It’s a myth that porcupines can eject their quills like arrows, according to Treehugger.com. These modified hairs are loosely connected, letting them detach easily so the porcupine can escape while its attacker deals with the consequences. New ones begin developing within a few days after the old ones are shed or removed, and they grow about one millimeter every two days until fully developed.
The end of each quill has a barb like a fishhook, making it difficult to remove. People and pets who have been quilled should receive professional care to ensure the quills are removed correctly and completely. If you can’t get to a doctor or vet immediately, a good tip to alleviate swelling is to clip the ends off the quills, which relieves some of the pressure that builds up inside as the hollow quills absorb water and body heat.
If you’re in porcupine habitat keep dogs on leashes. “We are helping our dogs by keeping them on leads. The North American porcupine has very few predators, and a dog doesn’t hold a chance of harming one,” Griswold said.
Porcupine predators do include bobcats, great horned owls, martins, wolverines and fishers, who are the most adept at flipping them to expose their tender bellies.
Porcupines near and far
Griswold pointed out there are about 40 porcupine species living worldwide. The New World porcupines live in North (only one species) and South America and have the barbed quills. They are also capable of climbing trees. In South America, the species have prehensile tails. The Old World porcupines who reside in Africa, Europe, and Asia live on the ground. In some species their quills can reached a length of 24 inches and are equally dangerous although they are not barbed.
Some other fascinating things about porcupines: They are skillful swimmers, and they have long life spans for rodents—the North American porcupine can live for 23 years. Their quills are coated with potent natural antibiotics that have been shown to strongly inhibit the growth of bacteria.
Griswold admits she can go on and on about porcupines. She has been educating the public about them for decades. She wants children and adults to appreciate them and realize that they are mostly shy, nonaggressive and harmless.
“We don’t have huge population in Connecticut, so if someone sees one, I hope they will just sit back and enjoy them. They are extraordinary creatures,” Griswold said.
I couldn’t agree more.
Since this was such a rare sighting and I’m drawn to animal symbolism and nature symbols, I couldn’t help but look up the porcupine in a book I have called Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals.
I discovered that a porcupine’s medicine is “the power of faith and trust.” Seeing a porcupine is a reminder to not get caught in the chaos of the adult world of fear and greed and to keep your heart open to the things that gave you joy as a child.
Looking back, I certainly felt a sense of magic and wonder during our encounter with the porcupines. While my friend and I originally set out to for a spooky hike, in the end the bigger thrill was leaving the forest with a feeling of childlike innocence and playfulness of spirit.
I hope you get to feel the same way this summer if you find yourself in the great outdoors. Nature is full of wonderful surprises.
Nicole Rivard is editor-in-chief and media/government relations manager. She brings 18 years of journalism experience to FoA’s Action Line and to the front lines— protesting and documenting atrocities against animals exploited by the carriage horse, fur and hunting industries, as well as the Bureau of Land Management’s mismanagement of America’s wild horses.