An Early Evening Front Yard Encounter
by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
This is the 6th or 7th year of drought here in Laramie–I’ve lost track. One evening in late July, my wife and I were sitting out on our little side porch hoping for a bit of breeze. Around 7 o’clock I told her that I was going to put water on the shrubs out in front. I placed a sprinkler on the hose that has a very low level of water distribution which helps minimize evaporation. I dragged the hose around the side yard and out across the front to an area where we have a lot of shrubs and the fallen stump of a spruce tree . The tree had been dead for 2 years and I hadn’t gotten around to having it removed, lazy blighter that I am, plus it’s a very expensive undertaking. Last November, we had a lot of wind and one night a quite violent windstorm which blew over this 60 foot spruce. We had great good fortune: the tree missed the house, fell across a section of our wooden fence, came to rest on the wooden stump of a large cottonwood which we had removed a few years before, and the tip of the spruce just barely brushed against the north side of our neighbor’s house. A friend of ours cut up the tree, which was dry and well-seasoned and hauled it off to use as firewood. The last 4 feet of the stump was however lying flat and full of dirt and he couldn’t cut that up without ruining his chainsaw, so we are letting shrubbery gradually grow over it. It was this area which I wanted to water and I put the sprinkler down and then looked up at the stump where I saw a nearly full grown porcupine! We looked at each other in utter amazement. I had seen porcupines before, but never had I looked one in the eye from a distance of only 6 feet! I went charging off toward the house yelling to my wife, “Get your camera! Get your camera!” My poor bewildered wife came out onto the front porch having no idea what was going on. Well, the porcupine had had quite enough of all this ruckus and had retreated into the shrubbery between the stump and the wrought-iron fence along the sidewalk. We could, by peering carefully, catch glimpses of him, but getting a decent picture was hopeless, so we left him to recuperate from his encounter with alien beings and went back to the side porch.
After about 20 minutes, we went out to the front again, this time very quietly and my wife had her camera at the ready. To our delight, he was sitting beside the stump having a nosh on a couple of wild rosebushes growing there. The rosebushes are courtesy of the local birds, but they always get them started in the wrong places, so when they get about 6 inches high, I transplant them to where I want them. These are near the fallen spruce and for several years were doing quite well, so we didn’t at all mind that they were providing an evening snack for this wonderful creature.
My wife got 10 or 12 pictures, including, of course, the one above. The combination of the camera flash and our attempts to move closer and closer finally either alarmed or annoyed him sufficiently that he shuffled off under the shrubbery again, pausing to give us a contemptuous display of his uplifted tail and a fan of posterior quills. I was so entranced by this display that I didn’t notice whether or not the quills rattled as I have read can happen with the large-quilled African porcupine. These African chaps mean business and go in for heavy armor. Their quills are thick, sharply-pointed and can be up to 15 inches long!
Both types can be formidable. The African is dagger-like, but the American quill is, though much smaller, barbed and the tip when broken off gradually works its way deeper and deeper into tissue.
A number of 19th Century mounters would make slides of cross sections of porcupine quills and, since they are essentially modified hairs, they can be quite attractive under polarized light.
Since I don’t have the equipment to do thin sections, I cut the slices with a scalpel and we’ll both just have to live with the results. I admire fine microtomy, but I personally have never felt that I wanted to make either the financial nor anatomical investment to do such work. If one drops a microtome knife and attempts to catch it, one can lose a finger or two, so this technique is best avoided by people like me who are rather clumsy.
After another 20 minute retreat to our side porch, we again ventured out to the front and there was our charming friend munching on the leaves again. My wife took a few more pictures while I went back into the house to get some lettuce. Herbivorous animals, such as, porcupines often get most of their water from the plants they eat. So, I thought since lettuce is 99% texture and water, it might be attractive to our visitor. I tossed out a few small pieces toward his vicinity on the lawn and he immediately took umbrage, turned around, gave us his tail display, and lumbered off into the shrubbery again. My wife was heartily annoyed at me for disturbing him with the lettuce but she went around to the sidewalk and did manage to get a quite appealing shot of him peering through the bushes.
By this time, it was getting dark enough that further attempts to photograph would be futile and so we went back into the house and left this fine fellow to his own devices. At the very base of the stump where the roots snapped off, there are a couple of sizeable holes about 3 feet deep and we thought he might take refuge there. I finally turned on the sprinkler to provide him with a bit of water should he want it. The next morning we went out looking for him, but he had wandered on–safely, we hope.
Had he still been there, we intended to call the Animal Control division of the police department, from whom we would have attempted to extract solemn promises that they would not harm the animal in any way and that they would relocate it to a suitable area in the nearby mountains. However, we subsequently learned that they don’t deal with wild animals and that we would have had to contact the Forest Service. Unfortunately both they and the police have something of a reputation for shooting animals or euthanizing them rather than relocating them. It is a dilemma, especially with large and potentially dangerous animals and even with smaller creatures there may be a risk of rabies or other diseases. In large cities, there may be rats, mice, pigeons, crows, gulls and, of course, the ubiquitous cockroaches. And I understand that they can present a major problem. Our situation is somewhat different; Laramie sits in a high (7,200 feet), dry plain, surrounded by mountains which to the West rise to 12,000 feet. So, within a 50 mile radius, we have everything from snow-capped peaks to alpine meadows with carpets of wildflowers including wild orchids to slopes heavily timbered with pine, spruce, and aspen protecting icy-cold lakes to hilly areas with buttes to flat plains with alkaline lakes surrounded by prairie dog colonies and cacti and then, sitting in the middle of all of this wilderness and wildlife, is our small town of 30,000. In the past decade, at least 2 bears, a mountain lion, a moose, coyotes, an elk, a number of white-tailed deer and pronghorn antelope have wandered into Laramie–not to mention our porcupine. In addition, there are some creatures that have taken up more or less permanent residence, but are gradually being driven out by development–ground squirrels, great horned owls, hawks, prairie dogs, rabbits, and in a field near the university Art Museum, a den of foxes. It is an utter delight to watch the young foxes wrestling and romping with one another. The male fox often wanders off a way when hunting prey. A friend of mine sees him from the back of his house and one day, standing in his kitchen, he was using binoculars looking for the fox on the rise above, but couldn’t locate him. He set down the binoculars and looked out onto the deck and there only 3 feet away was the fox sunning himself. He got this picture.
In the 40 years that we have lived here, we have observed significant changes in the weather patterns and especially in the last 10 years. The winters are warmer and drier; the summers have become much hotter and also drier. I start complaining when the temperature gets above 75 F. Occasionally, we would get a miserable day in the low 80s; now we get weeks in the high 80s to mid 90s. Those of you who live at sea level have 7,200 feet more atmosphere than we do to filter out the ultraviolet and absorb or reflect some of the infrared. The sun here is fierce and relentless.
These shifts have affected not only grumpy, old, retired professors, but the indigenous wildlife as well. We have encroached upon their habitats and now these dramatic aberrations in the weather patterns have combined to increase human and wild animal encounters in towns and cities across the country.
I was delighted with our encounter with the porcupine, but I was also concerned about its fate, because he was such a charming chap.
I was afraid he might have trundled off onto a street and gotten hit by a car or that he might simply have been overcome by exhaustion and been unable to make it back to a survivable habitat. Porcupines are basically docile creatures, slow moving, and have only limited defenses. Fishers or pine martens have been known to kill porcupines by making rapid frontal attacks and biting them on the nose and face. Dogs may suffer some very considerable discomfort from the quills, but still have been known to overpower and kill these quiet creatures. They can’t “shoot” quills; the quills of the American porcupines are backward barbed and so they stick in the flesh of anything or anyone that attacks them. Porcupines have poor eyesight, but excellent hearing and a highly developed sense of small. They also have powerful claws which make them very good tree climbers.
In our very brief encounter, my wife and I developed quite a fondness for this fellow. Silly as it sounds, I thought of him as a creature, not only contemplative and wise, but also as endearing and quite huggable–in spite of the spines.
All of the photographs of the porcupine were taken by my wife, Adrianne.
The photograph of the fox was taken by my friend and colleague, Ric Reverand.
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
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