Our book today is from 1966 – it’s David Costello’s The World of the Porcupine, part of Lippincott’s great old line of “Living World Books” covering nearly a dozen iconic and intriguing North American animals (should you be trolling online, Leonard Lee Rue’s volumes on the beaver and raccoon are particularly good as well, as is The World of the Great Horned Owl by Ronald Austing and John Holt). The subject of this particular volume, Erethizon dorsatum, had been an object of study for Costello for many years before he wrote his book – and object of study and sympathy.
Those of you who’ve never encountered a porcupine in the wild or in person might wonder why this critter would need a writer’s sympathy. After all, the porcupine is not a skunk (to the best of my knowledge, there is not “Living World Book” on the poor misunderstood skunk) – its quills might make it a figure of some concern to owners of over-curious dogs or cattle (using pliers to pluck thirty quills out of a howling beagle’s nose is not, trust me, a pleasant experience), but that concern is never the reflexive disgust many urban Americans feel for, say, the skunk or the bat. And porcupines aren’t endangered or especially popular in the black market meat trade. So why the need for sympathy?
Costello clearly feels it, just as clearly as he feels affection for his prickly charges. His descriptions throughout the book are delightfully personal and immediate, as when he discusses a fact about porcupines well known to anybody who’s ever been around them – the fact that they never shut up:
At times, even its voice leads to its undoing. Like a mumbling old man it sometimes announces its presence around camps at night and in the woods during the mating season. The porcupine does have a voice, and it has many variations and meanings. I have heard them murmuring beyond the shadow of my campfire from Yellowstone National Park south to Arizona and west to Oregon. Some of their sounds have been almost inaudible grunts. Others have been a pitiful whining, which by no means meant that the animal was in distress.
I have never heard a porcupine give the coo-coo-coo sound or the weak high yipping bark that others have described. But I have cuddled their babies in my hands and heard them murmur and grunt like an overfed puppy dog.
(That bit about cuddling is not exaggeration: I once knew someone in the Midwest who had, in addition to three house dogs, a 20-pound porcupine as a pet. The sedate creature would waddle from room to room, mumbling like it had lost its car keys, matter-of-factly hauling itself up onto its owner’s lap for a nap – in every way an adorable, completely adapted house pet)(I of course spent much more of my time with the aforementioned dogs – for what it’s worth, once they actually started talking to me instead of slurping my face, they had only one unanimous topic in mind: would I please, please help them to kill and eat that porcupine?)
So again one might wonder: why the need for sympathy? Why the special pleading tone throughout Costello’s book?
The reason stems from another well-known quality of the American porcupine (the larger and more aggressive African variety is an entirely different kettle of fish), a quality Costello is at some pains to declare a myth. He himself uses delightfully euphemistic phrases like “experts in the art of relaxation,” but his book is too accurate to avoid the imputations that legions of hunters, trappers, gamesmen, and amateur observers have put upon this species. It makes Costello defensive:
In spite of the porcupine’s quills and its deliberate actions, it is not the animal moron so often described in the hunting magazines and forestry literature. In fact, it is a rather sensitive creature which responds to patience, kindness, and firmness when handled by people.
Costello points out that captive porcupines have been observed solving intricate lock-and-key puzzles as fast or faster than cats or monkeys solved the same puzzles. He talks at length about their extensive vocal repertoire. He testifies to the agile wits of the creatures he’s owned himself. But time and again in his accounts, other people – people who don’t know each other, people with no reason to lie, will make nearly identical-sounding comments that almost always feature phrases like “dull, witless, and generally unaware of its surroundings …”
The World of the Porcupine will certainly have you rooting for these lovable butterballs who just happen to be covered in 30,000 razor-sharp and easily-detachable quills. You may even end up believing Costello about their misunderestimated cognitive abilities. Me, I’m not convinced. I observed that porcupine in the Midwest in close proximity with three dogs for several days, and I have to say: they came off looking like a trio of Rhodes scholars by comparison. I’m the biggest fan of Canis familiaris there is, but even I have to admit: any animal that can make three dopey farm-hounds look smart probably deserves its reputation for being the dimmest bulb in the chandelier.
Still, should you encounter it (or any of its shelf-mates) at a dusty flea market some day, don’t miss the book. It’s great fun, regardless of contested intelligence quotients.