A Porcupine Story

Maybe it’s a small world for porcupines too.

I need a long preface to get to the point of this story. Please bear with me if you can but otherwise I hope to see you tomorrow.


I don’t have many good photos of porcupines to help illustrate this narrative, largely because I don’t walk up to the Russian Olives on the east side of Antelope Island where they hang out during the winter months. It’s against park regulations to leave the road and trails in that area but many photographers do it anyway. But several years ago I did find this porcupine along the causeway to the island and it cooperated for a few photos. That was the first and only time I’ve seen a porcupine along the causeway.

Back in the mid-80’s I owned a home in Sugarhouse (an older area of Salt Lake City) – one of those typical Craftsman style Sugarhouse bungalows with a huge front porch. One September evening my Springer Spaniel Jake literally went uncharacteristically crazy, barking at something on that porch. When I investigated I found the largest porcupine I’d ever seen (growing up in Montana I’d had many previous experiences with porcupines) on top of part of my barbecue. Long story short – I scooped “him” up (I don’t really know the sex) in a galvanized metal garbage can, put him into the back of my camper shell-covered pickup bed and went to bed, wondering the entire time what in the hell I was going to do with him in the morning.

By the time morning rolled around I’d hatched a plan. I’d take him to class with me and use him as a teaching tool in my Biology and Utah Wildlife classes at South High School and then call DWR and ask them where I should release him (that almost didn’t happen because during the night he had tipped over the garbage can in the back of my pickup and almost chewed his way out of my aluminum shell which resulted in several hundred dollars in damages – they are rodents after all and rodents are big-time chewers).

So that’s what I did. He was a huge hit in my classes of course and DWR had recommended that I release him up nearby Red Butte Canyon but I’d never been there so I asked a good friend for directions. That friend was Terry Tempest Williams who I worked with during summers at the Utah Museum of Natural History. At the time Terry was the Curator of Education at the museum. The museum was on my way to the canyon so after school I visited her office to get precise directions and she asked if she could come along. I was delighted to have her company.

We both had a wonderful experience releasing that porcupine!

This was long before Terry became a highly acclaimed author and well-known environmental activist of course (I’ll bet many of my readers have read some or even much of her work) and at the time she was writing an environmental column for the Deseret News called A Naturalist’s Notebook. One weekend my uncle Dennis Christensen called and told me that Terry had written a column about our experience releasing the porcupine. I didn’t subscribe to the “Deserted News” as we called it because I preferred the Salt Lake Tribune for reasons many locals will likely understand so I hadn’t seen the article.

Below is a copy of that article. It’s of poor quality but it’s readable if you have the inclination to wade through it  (I really am getting to a point here….).



Copyright Deseret News

Ok, here’s my point, finally.

In a comment on yesterday’s post blog follower April Olson happened to mention that she lives at the mouth of Red Butte Canyon and the creek runs right through her yard. She also said that “for years I had a porcupine eating my flowers. I still have a few spines it shed in my yard.” And later she said that porcupine visited her yard from 1989-93.

Well, that got my mind whirling. I wondered if it could have been the same porcupine that Terry and I released in the same canyon. After all, the average life span of porcupines in the wild is 5-7 years but they can live up to 30 years and in this area they’d likely be largely confined to that relatively small canyon for reasons of habitat. But I couldn’t remember what year the porcupine showed up on my porch so that’s why I dug up this old article, to see if it included a date. It does – September 22, 1985 – only four years before April started to see her porcupine.

So it could have been the same porkie. It seems reasonable to me that it might have been. And 30+ years later April and I make this connection on my blog, become good friends (we now know each other personally) and make this possible tenuous connection from long ago.

Maybe that’s a reach, I dunno. But I love thinking about that small world possibility. And I’ll admit it, I get the warm fuzzies from the thought that maybe, just maybe, Terry and I contributed to the longer life of a porcupine in the wild that surely would have turned out much differently if we hadn’t intervened.


PS – A note about the porcupine smell that Terry mentions in her article and that was so very evident in my classroom all day long (and in the back of my pickup for days after). Our North American porcupine produces a strong odor when agitated or threatened. It comes from a patch of skin called the rosette on their lower back and has been described as similar to strong human body odor, goats or some strong-smelling cheeses.

You can imagine how my students reacted. I had a blast with it…




64 comments to A Porcupine Story

  • Laura Culley

    I want to thank all of you for sharing your interesting stories, insights and experiences. In addition to the joy of Ron’s photography, storytelling, teaching and overall knowledge, there’s also the joy of reading through all y’all’s comments every day. I just wanted you guys to know that you’re a big part of why this blog is such a wonderful place to be every day!! Thank you SO much!

  • Carol Vavra

    Great story and thanks for sharing! As a veterinarian I am often at the other end of the porcupine, the hundreds of quills in the dog end, and rarely get to see how neat these animals are.

  • April

    Sorry my laptop is out of commission for a couple of days . I am on my phone with a small screen. I will have to read the news article at a later date. Wouldn’t it be amazing if it were the same porcupine? It would have to follow the creek down a little over a mile to find my yard. I have found Salt Lake to be a small world with many connections.

  • DianefromZion

    Hi Ron and the Caighead fans- especially Patty Chadwick. I listen to Bobby Kennedy often on the radio and one day the Craighead family name came up. Mr. Kennedy grew up with that family next door-apparently the dad worked for National Geographic and would take the whole family on assignments worldwide. Bobby’s brothers learned falconry from the dad and the brothers. Bobby Kennedy admitted great priviledge – living in his family but really really enjoyed imagining being an “honorary Craighead family member”. My Side of the Mountain is still a favorite read of mine come February…
    And finally, lucky me. I watched an adult porkie climb up a cedar tree in Gills Rock, Wisconsin about 15 years ago..Very koala like climbing style….Thanks for giving us your stories today.

  • Patty Chadwick

    She was also a very good artist…one thing she did sometimes that was different was to illustrate a story on a ROLL of paper, so the story literally unrolled before you…a technique I happily stole from her and had a lot of fun with…one of my favorite books of hers was “My Side of the Mountain”. I knew the setting, the author, the iustrator and got some good ideas from it.

  • This is a beautiful story. That porcupine was lucky to land on your porch! Having the wherewithal to put him in a safe(ish) space so you could later let him go into a more appropriate habitat puts you far beyond how most of us experience wildlife in our own back yard (or porch). My favorite thing about your blog? It teaches us to be better citizens able to share this space with all kinds of creatures.

  • Loved this story.
    Despite the envy it incited. On so many levels. I would love to see a porcupine. And to hug/be hugged by one. And love to meet Terry Tempest Williams (you introduced me to her writing). And rather a lot of your other readers/friends/fans.

    • Thanks, EC. I’d love to meet my readers too – you included. And Terry and her husband Brooke are very special people on so many levels.

      I guess your echidna (spiny anteater) is about as close as you’ll ever come to getting a hug from a porcupine down there in Australia… 🙂

    • Laura Culley

      Exactly EC…what a wonderful bunch of stories and observations. I love reading all the responses every day.

  • Alice Beckcom

    Ron, what an exciting post. I’ve never seen a porcupine nor have I been the victim of the quills. Wow, they must hurt!!

    I am not surprised that you made news with your story/adventure.

    I agree with your other readers that the porcupine eating April’s flowers must have been your ‘pal’ for a while.

    Thank you, Ron

    • I’ve never been quilled myself but I have had a couple of close calls, Alice. From watching animals that have had the experience it must be quite painful, especially when they’re being removed.

  • James Marsh

    Halloween fell on a school day so all the kids at the elementary school where I was working were ramped up. When I asked one third grader what he was going to be for Halloween he said: Pokipan.
    It was during the early days of the Pokiman craze but I couldn’t be sure what I had actually heard because A) my hearing isn’t that great and B) his still childish speech patterns frequently led to confusion…his and mine. But finally one of his classmates nearby–more accustomed to his idiosyncracies–intervened: “He’s gonna dress up as a Porcupine.” That child then rolled his eyes and walked away. I wish I could remember what Mr. Pokipan’s rationale had been. I’d long forgotten about the incident. And it was a shame I didn’t get to see the costume since I’d never before heard of anyone Halloweening as a porcupine. I haven’t heard of it since either. Who knows; maybe it’ll catch on. Pokipans can be very entertaining. This is a fine image of one of their tribe plus a good yarn.

  • Patty Chadwick

    Also had a pet one before I knew better..persuaded Dean Miller to enroll her as a batchelor of arts student so I coukd keep her with me while a student at the University if Mismi…she eloped with a wild suitor when we retutned home for the summer, Her name was Citronella, called her Nellie for short.

  • Patty Chadwick

    I don’t remember the smell of a porcupine…but sure remember the sell of a skunk…trapped and released 9 or 11 of them (forgot which) in a Have-a-heart trap borrowed from naturalist/author Jean Craighead George, who found the whole experience very funny. It all started with one skunk trapped in a garbage can and ended with me having to shake many more out of a Have-a-heart because they didn’t want to leave. Why so many? With skunks, the family that stinks together, stays together, or so I was told.

    • Gotta ask, Patty. Was Jean related to the Craighead Brothers – Frank or John? I don’t have many heroes but those two definitely qualify.

      • Patty Chadwick


          • Patty Chadwick

            She was a naturalist, author, falconer, storyteller, funny, interesting person…her, twin brothers did some interesting stuff with eagles….She lived in nearby town. As you entered her house, you were greeted by a little water fall…I was charmed and intrigued by it. We got acquainted when she wanted to “borrow” a robin I was raising for some book she was illustrating…a “bigger than life” person withba hearty laugh. She was very down to earth, inventive, knowlegable, charming, humorous and fun.

          • That entire family seems to have some very special genes…

          • Laura Culley

            The vast majority of falconers will tell you that reading her book, “My Side of the Mountain,” in their childhood inspired their journey into falconry. But there are other books, too. She ROCKED!

          • Laura Culley

            Ron, you should read some of her stories! What a family!!

    • Laura Culley

      What a terrific story Patty. I missed meeting Jean Craighead George…poor timing. Sigh.

  • Many years ago we had an unreleasable porcupine at the Alexander Lindsay Junior Museum in Walnut Creek. This sweet-natured, intelligent, funny animal lived in the area of the museum where other unreleasable animals were housed, and were on display for the public, along with a sweet, nervous turkey vulture who vomited when her anxiety overwhelmed her, a few owls, etc. Only staff were able to approach the animals close enough to touch/be touched. The porcupine loved me, and would make and hold eye contact, reach out his arms, lock them behind my neck, draw me in, and hug me. He wanted to be petted. His fur from nose to shoulders, where the quills begin, was soft, dense, and velvety. He also liked to swing upside down on the pine branches in his enclosure, and he loved apples.

    • Neat story, Martha. Your porcupine would be very easy to become attached to!

    • Laura Culley

      How very special Martha! So delighted you had that experience. I’m basically besotted by the vast majority of critters on this crazy spinning rock. Without them, life would be so very awful (if it was just us humans).

    • Marty K

      What a fabulous experience with the porcupine! I feel for the turkey vulture with the “nervous stomach,” though.

  • Patty Chadwick

    I really enjoyed image,comments and article. I used to see a porky in the top of a tree when I was riding the ski lift, and their “chuck, chuck, chuck” outside my tent was the sound I dreaded most when camping,,,I knew the food was hung high and nothing edible was left in my pack, but remembered too all too well what happened to a friend’s salty-tasting boots. I always kept mine inside at night after that. Also remember hamblecya camp in the Rockies and a poor dog with a faceful of quills and his painful patience as we pulled them out with a pair of pliers that we had, thank god! And pulling them out of a teenage girl’s butt with my trusty Swiss army knife’s tweezers while on a week-long backpacking trip in the Catskill mountsins…I still think they are pretty cute although I dread them more than bears….I wish I had been one of your students. I’m sure I’d have loved your classes.

    • Yes, they’ll eat anything that has a salt content. They’re infamous for chewing wooden ax handles that have become salty from sweat. Thanks, Patty.

      • Patty Chadwick

        Correction: their sound was more of an “unh, unh, unh”. Anyway, I sure dreaded hearing it circling my little tent,,,but, they never did me any harm, just made for some delayed sleep….the “chuck” sound was more typical of a mink…

  • Betty Sturdevant

    Your stories are such a great break from the nonsense I read in the Tribune first thing in the morning. There were several this morning about the environment. I love small world stories as well and believe they pertain not only to the human world but also the animal one.

  • Nicole

    What a fantastic story!

  • Dick Harlow

    Great story, which reminds me of a Porky story of my own, (when I was a kid always had a dog, you can probably guess what the story would be about) but too long and boring for this space!
    No doubt about it there definitely IS a connection!
    The small world we live in thing is because when individuals have interests that are similar, eventually the chance that you will meet either in person or on the internet is greatly increased. Living near each other, having similar interests isn’t whether you would meet, but when and I’d put money on it that the Porky was the same one you released that was eating Aprils flowers.

    • Dick, April loves birds, is a photographer, works with our local wildlife rehab center and she’s even a teacher. So yes, we do have a lot in common so maybe your theory holds true.

  • Susan Stone

    I love this story, and can easily believe that April’s porcupine is the same one who visited you. The world IS that small. I learned a lot from reading that old newspaper article. I had not realized that skunks are related to weasels, and especially had no idea that pine bark beetles and porcupines prepare a forest for fire. Fascinating concept that makes perfect sense, especially after seeing several years ago what the beetles have done to the lodgepole pines in Yellowstone National Park. It was nice to learn about porcupines.

    • Susan, I used to spend a lot of time on the weasel family (mustelids) in my zoology and wildlife classes so my students knew about the relationship between skunks and that family but most folks don’t. Except for sea otters all mustelids have anal scent glands.

  • Marvin Miller

    Thanks for another interesting story Ron. When I was a small lad, my brother and I had a temperamental buck rabbit that would always try and bite and kick us when we tried to feed him. One day we must not have latched his door very well and he escaped from his pen. For a while he hung around the barnyard fighting the chickens, cats and anything else that got in his way. Then we didn’t see him for a while. Several weeks later we found him down in our brush patch, filled full of quills and in a state of decomposition. He had picked a fight with another critter tougher than he was. I suspect his last few days of existence were quite painful.

    • Boy, that wouldn’t be a pleasant way to meet your demise, Marvin. That’s why I often wonder what happened to that moose I photographed with a nose full of quills. If they aren’t removed quills typically just keep working their way in deeper…

      • Laura Culley

        AND, there’s a hook at the end of each quill, which makes it real difficult/painful to remove!! That’s not a way I’d like to exercise this spinning rock!

  • Shirley Smith

    What a wonderful story, Ron! “Biology”… my favourite subject in school, that & English literature & language. Now, getting back to the Porcupine, he is adorable. So, do Porcupines dislodge the quills on the body if they are attacked from the front or from above by a taller animal or just use their tail as the only defense mechanism? I feel like a student all over again, it seems I am frequently asking questions wherever I go.

    • Thanks, Shirley. When attacked from the front porcupines will actually rush forward and imbed some of their shorter quills in the attacker. I’ve seen it happen.

  • Laura Culley

    Good heavens! I just love your posts! What an outrageously wonderful way to begin my day, and this morning, paired with a spectacular sunrise! Just WOW! I’m a happy girl! I love the photo…just love it. And your text? Yeah, thank you SO much for sharing that! Oh how I wish I’d have had you as a teacher. My life would probably have taken a much different path.
    So Terry Tempest Williams’ story brings up a question in my mind. How long does it take for a porcupine to replace the quills they’ve used against the threatening critter, embedding roughly a dozen into the nose region (that take hours to remove from my German shorthair, Reba the Silly Bird Dog)? Threats must happen relatively frequently in the wild, so I’d THINK they’d have to replace them pretty rapidly. Evidently, the answer to this question will be my learn-something-new-every-day thing.
    What a delightful morning! YIPPEE!

    • I wish I could scratch your itch with an accurate answer, Laura, but I don’t know how long it takes quills to grow back and a quick search turned nothing up.

      We’ve been having some spectacular sunrises and sunsets around here for the last week or so too. As a bird photographer I’m usually not a fan of clouds in the mornings but wonderful sunrises sure help to make up for it.

  • Marty K

    I’m going with the idea that it was the same little Quincey Q. Quillbert in both your yard and April’s yard. Definitely a “warm fuzzy” moment! 😀 I can also totally picture your students’ reactions — quills, odor, and all! Wheeeeee! This post has been a fun start to my day.

  • Joanne OBrien

    Thanks for the hopeful, heartwarming story. Now here’s a critter I haven’t seen in my urban Massachusetts backyard. It is so nice to hear a tale involving animals and humans that’s full of kindness and synchronicity! But I guess I’ve grown to expect nothing else from your blog 🙂

  • Judy Gusick

    Wonderful story, Ron! 🙂 Most of our experience is with the aftermath of a dog encounter with them! 🙁 In recent years we’ve had a couple of HUGE “blond” porcupines around – easy to spot for sure! Do the quills grow back like other hair?

    • Yes, they grow back, Judy. Quills are modified hairs coated with keratin.

      With dogs our technique for removing quills was to roll the dog up tightly in an old piece of stiff carpeting (with only their face sticking out) that we kept around for exactly that purpose. Horses are another story altogether though… 🙂

      • Judy Gusick

        We never rolled them up but that would be an excellent idea IF you can get the dog to cooperate! Not a fun project for sure. 🙁 We did capture a very young one once on a shovel into a bucket for relocation. Then there’s the stray quills they leave around……Joe got one in his arm that way while working in “the Big Sky garage”. 🙂

        • My uncle Floyd had a fairly small dog named Toby that was constantly getting quilled (and sprayed by skunks). He had absolutely no fear. He was a nasty sumbitch on his best days but when he was quilled he turned into a Tasmanian Devil. That carpet trick was the only way we could remove them safely without losing an arm in the process but catching Toby wasn’t easy because he knew what was coming. It sometimes took many hours before Toby would allow us to latch onto him.

  • Marina schultz

    Quite an adventure !! I’m still curious how you got it in can without it unloading it’s quills?? And how you got it into classroom ?? And no one got shot??😄

    • Marina, The porcupine was against the side of my house and I just laid the garbage can down and pushed it forward until the porkie was inside. Then I stood the can up with it inside. I just carried it into my classroom. Nope, no one was quilled – they can’t “throw” their quills like so many folks believe.

  • Very interesting and yes, I have wonderful associations of Terry Tempest Williams from having read her books.

    Porcupines walk heavy in the lives of folks around here (south central New Hampshire), too. I remember one summer night hearing a strange moaning outside my window. It was a dying raccoon, who had been sprayed with quills in the face.

    Of course they wreak havoc when they climb trees and chew branches, too. Mostly, though, they are happily (for them and for us) farther afield, where I see them lumbering through the meadows.

    I feel for your trash can!

    • Thanks, Alison. There’s no question that porcupines are considered to be pests in some areas. Like some other mammals they can be inconvenient to have around. But they’re wild, natural critters and I like them a lot, despite the fact that they occasionally made life miserable for some of our dogs and my old horse Star. And I once photographed a moose with a snout-full of quills. I still wonder how that turned out.

      If I remember correctly I trashed the trash can after that experience…