The time of year for letting go has begun. It’s bittersweet and never fails to tug at my heart. Since late spring I have been releasing squirrels and bunnies and little birds, but they are gradually let go in the yard and I see them frequently till they get their bearings and go off on their own. They are generally with me only a short while and I do not normally form attachments to them. Besides, how attached can you get to a squirrel?
Tonight though, the weather was cool and clear and it seemed the perfect time to take Pickles the porcupine and two of the raccoons out to the woods. Pickles has been my joy all summer.
She came to me, only a hour or so old. Her quills had not yet hardened to sharp little pins and her placenta was still attached. She was found by a mushroom hunter in late April and he called me as soon as he found the tiny black baby alone in the woods. He knew with the cord and placenta, there had to be something wrong. I explained to him that when a mother porcupine has more than one kit (technically called a porcupette), she will cast out the second born, even if it is healthier than the first. She does not clean it up; she does not even look at it. She simply shoves it out of the tree or log or whatever she is using as a maternity ward.
He said the baby was crying and he didn’t know what to do. I told him to slide his hand under its tummy and bring it right over. He was here within minutes.
Now, all baby animals are cute, but porcupines have a real lead in the market. They have long bristly hairs on their heads, short little noses like a guinea pig and the softest paws this side of a raccoon. Being nearsighted, they peer up at you with shiny blue eyes and give little squeaks and pips. In short, they are simply adorable.
I got her cleaned up and the cord cut and dressed, the gentleman who brought her was absolutely amazed that I handled her easily with my bare hands. He had put on welders gloves from the trunk before he picked her up. I made a warm bottle and within minutes she was snuggled to my chest making little noises of pleasure.
No one thinks of a porcupine being cuddly, but they are. They are also vocal and extremely playful. She loved to sit on my shoulder or lap while I worked on the computer and our favorite game was “Tickle the Pickle”. I’d tickle her tummy and she would squeal with delight. When porcupines are unafraid or content, they do not raise their quills. They lie flat against their body under the long guard hairs. After playing she would settle in my lap or the crook of my arm and snore happily. That’s how I discovered that you should never sneeze while holding a porcupine. I picked quills from my sweatshirt for an hour.
Pickles lived in my studio as do most of the babies in the beginning. Her cage was on a shelf behind my worktable and she got lots of attention. She was allowed free playtime to roam the counters and shelves and it generally went well, till I discovered she liked to eat crayons. They were moved out of her reach, she started nibbling the paper mache’ parade dragon I was building.By the time she learned to open her cage herself, nearly everything was moved out of reach.
Several mornings, I got up to find her in the kitchen trying her teeth on my dining room chair legs. (Oh well, a parrot chewed the top rail, so what’s the issue?) The cats and dogs are all used to having porcupines running about the house, so we rarely have problems there, but there was one squirrel who was also notorious for escaping his cage, I had to remove quills from his nose and paws. He quickly learned his lesson about porcupines and escaping his cage.
When she was no longer happy with her indoor cage, I moved her to a larger one outside. It was my old parrot’s cage and had plenty of room for limbs to climb, shelves for sunning and straw in the bottom to roll in. She loved it till she discovered that she was supposed to stay out there all night. She started working the latches on the doors. Just when I’d think that I’d managed to fix it to keep her in, I would come home from Karate or Kung Fu and find her sitting on the rail by the studio door waiting for me.
Once she was weaned and had a constant supply of food in her cage, she was more content to stay there, but she still insisted on play time in the grass or cuddles and kisses. She was definitely the star attraction and charmed everyone she met. It was like she was the porcupine ambassador, helping me teach people about how useful porcupines are in the wild. Without them, many animals who could not reach tender twigs in the winter would starve. Year round, porcupines, clip little twigs and branches with their succulent leaves and buds and drop them to the forest floor, where deer and rabbits gratefully find them. They have few predators, except bob cats, cougars and fishers, these animals have discovered that porcupines have no quills on their stomachs and quickly flip them over with a paw. I would explain that while porcupines do sometimes chew bark off of apple trees, they do little damage to the homeowner. That is, unless he has left out hand tools that have absorbed the sweat from his hands. Porcupines love salt. They utilize it to metabolize the potassium and calcium essential for their diets. Leave out a well used axe and the handle will surely be chewed.
Because she was so gentle, we were able to show people that porcupines cannot “throw” or “shoot” their quills. A person or animal must push against the quill for it to stick in their flesh. I can attest to this personally as all it takes is a careless or abrupt move to pick up a quill. Fortunately, baby quills come out as easily as acupuncture needles and seldom hurt.
By mid July, Pickles was getting pretty large for her age. I actually don’t know if Pickles is actually male or female, their genitalia do not differ till about 6 months. She seemed like a little princess to me though, so I just always assumed her female. Some evenings, I would go out for a visit and she would be sitting in her cage on her hind legs with her nose to the wind. A week or so later, she would balk and raise her quills as he turned her back to me when I would tell her play time was over. Our time was running short. Pickles needed the woods. I began giving her more twigs and leaves and less sweet potatoes and corn on the cob. This did nothing for my popularity, but began her journey to freedom.
This week, I decided that it was time for two of the older raccoons to go, so the smaller ones might have their cage. I like to get them to the woods as soon as they are competent, so they have time to establish themselves before winter. I gave them extra rations to fill their tummies and early this evening, we packed up.
The coons were put in the carrier first with little problem. One thing you can say about raccoons is that they are always up for adventure. We put them in the back of the truck and their little paws reached through every opening to see what they could get into. Not so with Pickles.
When I approached her cage, Pickles looked at me suspiciously. I opened the door and she turned her back to me and presented her tail like a prickly club. I put my hand out for her to grab, but she ignored it. I started talking to her and tickled her tummy. That broke the ice and she allowed me to pick her up without much protest. I put her in the cage she occupied as a baby and was shocked at how tiny it seemed with her in it. She knew something was up and wasn’t sure she like it. Still, she was agreeable and calm as I closed the back of the truck.
Now I may have mentioned before, that one needs to release a raccoon at least FIVE miles away or they may decide to come home. To confuse them even more, we take the long way to our destination and make extra turns. I don’t think it does anything to confuse them, but it makes us feel better. We went to one of our favorite spots on the Boardman River. It’s far from busy roads and there is fresh, shallow water, cool dark woods and plenty of food sources. James carried the coons in their carrier and I carried Pickles in her cage.
As soon as we set the cages down the coons were ready to party. We opened the door and the large female came charging out, the little male held back until she came running back for him as if to say, “Hey! What are you waiting for? Let’s go.”
As they were doing their initial exploring, I took the top of the cage off of Pickles. She seemed confused. She tried to climb back in her cage and pulled at the top half. By now the coons were halfway to the river and back and on their way again at full speed, so I lay on the ground with my shy little picky pig.
We talked and she sniffed the ground, she nosed me a few times and tasted the grass. She took a few tentative steps into her new life. The coons came tearing up and climbed over me. One of them stuck his nose in my ear and they were off in another direction. Obviously, they were having no trouble adjusting. I got up and put out my hands for Pickles to climb up. She did…all the way to my neck. We walked into the woods. We checked the trees and the water. We laughed at the coons tumbling happily in the moss.
Pickles started to click her teeth in excitement. We were next to a large white pine tree, with many easily reachable branches, I knew this was it. We went to the tree and I gave her one last nose rub with mine. She looked at me for a moment with eyes that were no longer baby blue and reached out for the tree. Resisting the urge to pull her back, I held her feet while she got her grip. She climbed. I worried that she would fall. She didn’t. She climbed.
Finally Pickles settled between two branches, high in the tree. She could see the river, the woods and the sun beginning to sink. She turned her back on the noisy coons who were having a grand time in a nearby tree and she closed her eyes. The separation was complete. She was wild now and I was a creature from a different world.
There was nothing left, but to go home. I don’t think the coons even noticed.
When I went to feed fawns and possums and coons and everything else tonight, I caught myself reaching for a sweet potato. Looking out the window at her empty cage, I felt a stab of emptiness. It only lasted a second, then it was replaced with the knowledge that three animals who would surely be dead, are now healthy and returned to the wild. They are where they belong and so am I. The letting go has begun.