Beware the tasty porcupine

Quills pose a danger to dogs; grilled 'spined pig' not too bad

Short, dumpy and grizzled, the almost black rodent ambled away peacefully in the moonlight. "Come and get me if you can," was his attitude. Nobody went.

Just down the road was another one, a noticeably larger version, but certainly no more concerned about being attacked than his nearby cousin.

And before we reached elk camp, there was a third member of the family, a healthy, happy and looking-for-love North American porcupine. Looking for love, I say, because late summer is the porcupine's mating period and I'd driven past no fewer than half a dozen on my way up through the Panhandle and into New Mexico. Those were all dead, victims of the porcupine's virtual single predator: the modern automobile.

You may wonder, as many people do, why we should be concerned with porcupines in the Hill Country, but they are common here, common throughout Texas actually, as many dog owners have learned through the years.

I've seen porcupines in my neighborhood and I've seen them run over on Interstate 35 just south of downtown at Riverside Drive. I've seen them in the South Texas desert on the King Ranch and in the sage brush country of the High Plains, in the mountains in West Texas and over into the big woods of East Texas.

If the mockingbird is our state bird, the porcupine could be our state rodent, ubiquitous, easy going most of the time and almost ready to give us a quiet show when we encounter him.

Sure, mess with him and you might come away with a handful, or a bootful, of quills attached to you, but mess with a rattlesnake and he'll eventually punch a hole in you. Same with a honeybee: sweet but a sting you won't forget.

Dogs somehow do forget, though. I've known several bird dogs that have endured hours on a veterinarian's surgical table as dozens of painful, barbed quills were pulled from their noses, mouths and throats and then gone right back in to get poked again by another porcupine. Their anger overcomes their ability to win that fight. The pictures are painful to look at.

Of course, porcupines — quill pigs to some — don't throw their quills. The stiff, modified hairs (which are hollow and thus used for decorative jewelry and fishing floats) are loosely embedded in muscle. When a porcupine flexes and flips his tail, the muscles force the quills deep into the flesh of whatever animal might be harassing the little guy.

A porcupine gets his name from the French "porc espin," meaning "spined pig." He's a vegetarian, though his North American diet of mostly pine and spruce material usually leaves his flesh unpalatable to human tastes. I remember from Boy Scout training that porcupines love salt and are always eating up your canoe paddle to get at the salt there, though it's never happened to me.

I've eaten giant porcupine in Tanzania, and it was wonderful. Cooks roasted the backstraps over a wood fire, and the result was a pink, lean, very porklike meat that tasted great. Better than hippo.

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