Porcupines, plywood, and interspecies peace

Bear snacks

Last summer, when a mother bear and three cubs raided our apple trees at dawn, Cath and I watched, spellbound. Some broken branches and a few dozen apples were no great loss—nothing compared to the privilege of watching bruins in our front yard.

In winter, when red squirrels pilfered sunflower seeds from the bird feeders, we watched again. When I chased them off, it was merely to give the finches and chickadees a turn.

I like living peaceably with my fellow creatures. I begrudge them little.

The main exception to that peace is my hunting. A few weeks each year, I set off into the woods with bow or gun. Most of that time, I’m still watching in quiet admiration. I may not get (or take) the chance to kill. If I do, it is for food, not spite.

Lately, though—reflecting on some of the responses to one of Holly’s recent posts over at NorCal Cazadora—I’ve been thinking about other, less-frequent exceptions to my gentle interspecies relationships.

I’ve been thinking, for instance, of the three or four woodchucks that have burrowed in deep under our garden fence in the past twelve years. I killed them reluctantly, again for food: for the green beans and broccoli my furry friends were happily gorging on, and sometimes for their meat, too.

Less comfortably, I’ve been thinking about porcupines.

I have nothing against our spiny neighbors and enjoy seeing them in the woods. The harm they inflict on our apple trees is minor. The damage they do to building materials (whether part of our house, or tucked under our shed) is usually tolerable. The risk they pose to our black Lab, Kaia, is minimal; between her sense of caution and my calling her off, she has never made full contact.

Some years ago, however, things went too far.

It wasn’t any one thing.

It wasn’t just that two porcupines had been visiting nightly for weeks and that Kaia finally got quilled, in broad daylight, no less: one paw bristling with forty small, black needles.

A taste for laminates

It wasn’t just that the porcies, attracted to the resins in laminated wood, had finally gnawed right through the back corner of the plywood doghouse under the front porch, and were making more frequent forays up onto the porch to gnaw at certain spots on the decking (something salty spilled there years ago?), on the siding next to the front door (something special in the stain used there?) and on one of the 4×4 posts that hold up the porch roof (who knows?). One night they sampled a pair of rubber boots.

It wasn’t just that they were keeping us awake in the middle of the night, with chortling conversations in the trees just outside our bedroom window, or with sounds of their gnawing reverberating through the framing of the house. Yelling and throwing pebbles drove them away only briefly.

It wasn’t just that I had seen them around our vehicles of late, reminding me how they had nibbled through a brake hose a few years earlier: a problem I discovered on the way to work the next morning, when my foot went to the floor without slowing my pickup at all. I was grateful for a long driveway and a hand brake. The truck—our only vehicle at the time—was out of commission for three days while a replacement hose was located.

It was all those things added together.

Finally, late one night, wishing we had a few more fishers around, I suppressed my neighborly instincts and shot both porcupines.

Hating the killing, I told myself that I should cook them up as Bob Kimber describes doing in Living Wild and Domestic. But, in the middle of the night, I didn’t have the oomph to try butchering my first porcupines. So, with apologies, I slung them into five-gallon buckets and took them deep into the woods where no dog would find them.

Late the next night, I woke and heard noises. Not porcupine noises, surely.

Yes, porcupine noises. Groaning, I steeled myself, rolled out of bed, and went to fetch the .22.

By week’s end—surprised both by their numbers and by my knack for the dubious skill of holding both rifle and spotlight—I had killed six or seven.

I was not a hunter those nights. I was an executioner, disposing of fellow creatures whose only crimes were a burgeoning population, a territory that overlapped with ours, and a few unfortunate gustatory preferences.

I can think of only one upside to that grisly week. It worked. Though porcupines still abounded in the woods, they stopped trying to dismantle our house.

Relieved, I put away my black hood.

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Joshua says:

    Those are always tough, no matter the reasons. I’ve been offing red squirrels in my walnut tree for similar reasons (the horrible, horrible mess, substantial loss of walnuts, loud noises all day long, throwing walnuts at us/our animals, and giving my dog fleas), and it’s a little bit easier knowing that they are non-native invasives.

    Until I need to dispatch a wounded one that I knocked out of the tree. Then, it’s sad.

    I used to do some quilling back in the day, and I’d have been excited about getting some of those quills. Who knows? Maybe in a couple of years I’ll be asking you about them.

    One good thing – it sounds like the population is doing fine. If porcupines are an edgelands creature out there, then maybe your presence was creating an unnaturally high population for the local woods. You might have been doing a lot of animals a favor. But, I don’t know that for a fact.

    • Tovar says:

      Hard to say if our presence boosted their population in some way. We had seen porcupines now and then over the years—presumably including the one that did in the brake hose—but never in these numbers. The house has been here for 40 years, occupied by us over the last dozen.

      I know folks who quill, too. I’ve heard you can get a nice bunch by throwing a towel over a porcupine and letting him scramble away to safety. That would be my preferred method, I think.

  2. Cory Glauner says:

    I feel the same way. My family runs a ranch and there are a lot of beavers in the stream. The neighboring ranchers declare all out war on the beavers and have no dams on their land. However, on dry years the stream stops running and those ranchers are left with no water for their cattle. We have plenty of water behind the beaver dams. Then the rancher downstream asks us to tear down the dams on our place so that he can have water… he doesn’t even consider that he is the problem, not the beavers.

    That said, sometimes the beavers try to build in places that would cause major problems and their dams have to go. Just life I guess.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Cory.

      Good analogy with the beavers there. All around, I think a “live and let live” policy usually proves beneficial.

      If I ever kill another porcupine, I hope to make use of the meat.

  3. Great post, Tovar!

    I think it’s inescapable that sometimes we have to resort to extreme measures to protect our space, or our animals, and the intruding animals *will* respond.

    This summer, one of our neighbor cats was getting too close to my dove-trapping operation, and Hank chucked a rock at her one day. Normally friendly, she now keeps away from our yard. Kinda makes me sad, because normally we love to see her.

    When I bought a house in the ‘hood in Richmond, Virginia, I had a horrible mouse problem. I solved it by poisoning them – not ideal, because it’s hard to find the bodies sometimes, but we didn’t have pets or children). After just a couple months, word got around the mouse neighborhood that our house was not the place to be, and they never came back.

    That said, it’s still a bit wrenching, because animals often become nuisances specifically because our style of living has created an abundance of what they love and/or need. In other words, their intrusions are often our fault.

    Even so, we have to draw lines. One last story, one I heard recently on the radio: A primate researcher was working with Jane Goodall and was having a problem with one young chimp, an aspiring alpha male named Goblin: He kept picking on her – smacking her, punching her, generally being a bully. One day he did something or other that was a last straw, and without thinking, she punched Goblin in the face. Goblin fell to the floor crying, and quickly ran to the side of another male, trying to gain his sympathy and enlist his aid. The other male simply patted him on the head, and that was it, Goblin never messed with her again.

    She was in shock that she’d done such a thing, but her instincts told her to draw a line, and it worked. So perhaps this is what we’re supposed to do.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Holly.

      You said, “their intrusions are often our fault.” That’s often a key piece, I think. We go around changing habitats in ways that attract certain creatures, or encroaching on other creatures’ territories. Of course there are going to be conflicts!

      • I kinda picked that up from Omnivore’s Dilemma, with reference to plants. That book was the first thing that made me understand that modern farming (and even gardening) practices designed to make unnaturally robust plants is the reason we have so many pests we have to kill. Haven’t touched Miracle Gro since then.

  4. Tovar

    Sometimes I ask myself what would Tony Soprano say?
    ‘When they gotta go they gotta go, whatcha gonna do?’

    I too have heard that porcupines are good eating. I have a lakota medicine wheel made from their quills but they are tiny in comparison to the quills we collected at the farm in Tuscany. I’m hoping to bow hunt one for the pot next time I’m out there.

    The African chaps tell me that digging them out and dispatching them with a spear is the safest way though.


  5. I remember shooting a porcupine out of a tree with my dad, while on an unsuccessful deer hunt in the UP of Michigan. He told me they did a lot of tree damage, but I still felt guilty killing it. This is 40 years later. Now, I have trapped rats in my garden, and even got a squirrel in a live trap (freed to munch again). If they hadn’t been decimating our tomatoes, I would have let them slide, but there were quite a few, and I didn’t want the possibility of having them move underneath the house, or bring fleas to my dog.

    After coming close to breaking an ankle in a ground squirrel hole, and having a whole creek bank collapse with me on it, due to being undermined by many of their tunnels, I’ve decided to join those who put down an occasional bunch. When I see them invading horse pastures in huge numbers, and putting those horses at risk, I see them as a pest. Prairie dogs, out in the wild are a different story, but when they cross my boundaries, invading my space, I get territorial. One thing though, I look at it like pest control, not animal target practice.
    I’ve seen some of the videos of exploding ground squirrels, “22 killed” and that’s not my bag. I just want the area cleared of all of the damage to the grounds, the squalor of their burrows when everything seems to have a hole in it, and be able to walk around without the ground collapsing; all of this applies to developed land, not to the wild. Out there, I see them as hawk food, owl food, and eagle food, and I won’t bother them. Nothing makes me happier than to go along a remote highway, and see all of the hawks perched on poles, some munching on squirrels.
    I’m also considering going coyote hunting, since I’ve seen them in pairs in my own urban neighborhood, and have seen the signs put up when cats and dogs “disappear.” However, I’m not sure about this one, since I know that they perform a service much like the hawks out in the wild. Any comments on that would be appreciated. I’m definitely a dog person, so I’m not too thrilled about having my dog eaten, or seeing stories of toddlers being attacked. Is it worth picking up a gun?

    • Tovar says:

      In so many of these cases (our houses, crops, gardens, even “our trees” in the forest), it comes down to our definition of what is “ours.” Once we define it as a kind of property, we start to feel that we can (and should) defend it.

      Personally, I prefer to give some leeway here, allowing permeability in the property boundary and accepting that what’s “mine” will sustain damage from other creatures, weather, and so on. But there I guess there is a level beyond which my tolerance does not go.

      Coyotes are a tough one. Personally, I’ve never had an interest in hunting them. Sporadic hunting, as I understand it, only knocks the local population down briefly, whereupon they respond by breeding more prolifically and bouncing right back. Every situation is different, I imagine.

  6. Another great post.

    My husband kills squirrels in the backyard when they poach our fruits and vegetables. As they are urban beasts, we usually don’t eat them and I do feel bad for the waste of life.

    We humans are immensely powerful with our advanced brains and technology and tools. The best of us use the power wisely and reverently.

  7. Arthur says:

    I’m not condoning senseless killing, but, when it comes down to it, we are the top of the food chain. And while we need to be careful, and not kill just to kill, it has to be done at times.

    I wouldn’t feel any sense of guilt for killing an animal which was causing damage to my home, family or property; it’s just the way it has to be.

    We were given dominion over all animals, and while we strive to protect them, at times, we also have to kill them.

    It’s the natural order of things.

    Great post, Tovar.

    • Hi Arthur,
      Your statement, “We were given dominion over all animals” is a statement of religious belief, one which has been used to excuse all sorts of excesses in the past. I’m not comfortable aligning myself with that statement. My feelings tend to be more primal in nature, as a part of it, not above it or separate from it. Not that I’m asking you to abandon your belief system, but rather to consider what it says about responsibility. I’m pretty practical and somewhat jaded in my approach to this issue of protection of property and projects. It comes down to what can I tolerate around me, and what do I need to change, because I can’t tolerate it around me. I am not willing to accept this authority on the word or practice of others, I am willing to commit to a course of action for which I will bear the responsibility…totally, because it was my chosen path.
      Do you see what I’m saying, and why I choose to take issue with your perception of permission from a higher power? It is the natural order of nature to be territorial, and to take steps to protect your turf, I give you that. But I don’t need to feel as if it is my God-given right. A bear might end my life, defending it’s turf, and I wouldn’t deny that that is the natural order of things, either. As a part of the natural world, I don’t need to look any further.

      • Tovar, have you read Dominion? I’ve started it, but I got irked and moved onto other books I’d enjoy more. It’s a book about animal rights that’s rooted in the notion that God gave us dominion over all the animals, and it focuses on our responsibility to them, rather than our “right” to use them. I agree with the wrongs it identifies (especially factory farming and much that has arisen from our desire to subjugate them), but it loses me when it says we shouldn’t eat them.

        I’m reading it because I know the book was highly influential with a particularly Christian subset of vegans (including my own political foe, an animal rights lobbyist in Sacramento). I find it interesting (and do hope to come back to it), because I believe the concept of dominion was simply our way to rationalize our new relationship with animals when we transitioned from being among them to using them for agriculture. (We HAD to feel guilty about that – how could we not?) Saying dominion is God’s will is a great way to codify the rationale, IMHO. (Sorry, Arthur! My sister is disappointed in me for holding this position too.)

          • Holly,
            I haven’t read it, and doubt I will. I have formed my opinion over many years of viewing different cultures, and being partial to no particular faith. I also found that some of the readings that I’ve done recently, as a result of the book reviews on certain blogs, like “A Hunter’s Heart,” and “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” have reinforced my belief that I can only respond as someone who is a part of nature, not above it.
            When I fish, I find myself looking around and taking in the sound and scenery as an animal, if that makes sense to anyone.
            When I hunt, I blend in with the sounds and scenery, often taking an hour to circle a clearing in the woods. I am part of the scene, and taking the same precautions not to be discovered as the other animals I encounter, but I pride myself in being able to blend into the background so well as to fool the other residents of whatever place I’m in.
            I disappear, if that makes sense, because I am within nature, not above it. That is a wondrous feeling, and is the main reason I do these activities. Eating what comes of it is definitely a bonus, but is not the reason I go. It is for the return to where I came in, and to view where I’m bound, that I am compelled to participate. Dang, I forgot my GPS!

            • I’m in the same boat, though I came to hunting for the food, and it’s been my discovery of the forgotten human life that has hooked me deeply.

              I do want to finish Dominion, because I am in the business of publicly arguing in favor of what we do. “Know thine enemy.” But I don’t read it with fear I’ll be swept away by its persuasive powers; I read to learn what influences others.

              • Yea, well I capsized my boat in June, so that’s not the best metaphor. However, since I’m in the business of educating the younger set on basic concepts, these lofty pursuits that we deal with here are mine for the subjective experience, so I can pick and choose.
                I am quite aware of your need to be familiar with the other side of the coin, so to speak. The ancient Greek Sophists often argued passionately for one side, then when they had won the argument, they switched, and argued until they won for the side they had just defeated, so well did they know the “whole story.”
                While my profession isn’t writing, I’ve been published, and my editor was good at forcing me to look at all sides of the issues. I hope you do the same for yourself; it will keep you young and crazy!

    • Tovar says:

      Arthur, Richard, and Holly: Thanks for all the thoughts on “dominion.”

      I find it helpful to remember that this idea—not only that humans have dominion over other species, but that such dominion is “natural” or “given”—is not universal. Modern U.S. American culture is steeped in it, at times articulating it in terms of religion, at times articulating it in terms of science (evolution, brainpower, technology, etc). In other cultures, humanity’s relationships with other creatures are described in fundamentally different terms.

      I hear what you’re saying, Arthur, though my perspective is more akin to Holly and Richard’s.

      I’ve seen Scully’s work in various places, Holly, but haven’t yet read his book in its entirety.

      • Yeah, I need to come back to it. I believe it’s important to be well-read on both sides of the debate. But it is hard to read stuff you disagree with vigorously when there are some really intriguing and exciting books on one’s shelf, waiting to be read.

  8. sam says:

    Having to kill pests is part of living in the country. Everybody has a story or two. We had some severe damage done by woodchucks, where they made a tunnel that connected onto a french drain. In doing this, they changed the path of the drainage which caused an area of the driveway to be undermined as water flowed underground. I was literally walking across the driveway and fell through up to my waste. I probed it with a long birch pole and found it to be 12 feet deep. This groundhog I caught in a Havahart and took it somewhere. We’ve had other problems more recently with a different groundhog digging under the house’s foundation and no luck using the trap, so we resorted to the rifle.

    In general I think ground hogs aren’t very popular with farmers and people with horses due to livestock breaking legs in holes. It’s more or less a shoot on sight policy.

    One a different topic: Eating wild vs industrial food. I think some have the notion that wild is better. I would say that isn’t necessarily true. Take lake trout from Champlain for example. Women and kids are recommended to eat only one meal per year. Then you have places like the Penobscot, Hudson, etc. Same thing with regard to hunting. Would you want to eat deer meat from populated places like Connecticut where deer basically live on chemically treated lawns and gardens. The same could be said for VT and deer that frequent farmers corn fields. When you eat a wild animal, you don’t really know what you are eating. Just something to consider…

    • Tovar says:

      A 12-foot hole! That is some serious erosion.

      You’re on the money about wild foods. When I took up fishing again, a couple years before I started hunting, it saddened me to realize how toxic many of our local fish have become, mostly due to methylmercury from various sources of combustion. Where I usually hunt deer, I figure the meat is fairly healthy, as they have little local access to farm fields. But I refrain from eating deer liver—both because I don’t like it and because it tends to accumulate heavy metals like cadmium.

  9. Tovar — I think it’s very hard to find a first principle here. Animals are clearly part of our moral calculus, but we don’t accord them the same moral status as people. And the animals themselves have a scale, with cockroaches anchoring the “kill with impunity” end and elephants on the “preserve if you possibly can” end.

    It’s hard enough to find a first principle for human-on-human morality (I go with the greatest good for the greatest number, but that’s not without its problems), let alone human-on-animal morality. (The whole God thing aside, of course. If you believe God thinks you ought to behave a certain way because he says so, there’s nothing to talk about.)

    So, we try to take life only for a real purpose, and we try to do it humanely. I think that’s about the best we can do.

    • Tovar says:

      True enough, Tamar, though knowing that’s “about the best we can do” doesn’t necessarily make the doing easy.

      Your two guidelines for killing animals—doing it “for a real purpose” and doing it “humanely”—are obviously ones I share. It’s when people deviate from them that my hackles go up.

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