There was bad news on the canine-bite front last week. In Yellowstone National Park, a 43-year-old woman was attacked by a coyote while cross country skiing.
The woman fought off the coyote and was taken to a hospital for treatment of wounds on her arm and head.
The coyote was later dispatched by park staff and is being tested for rabies.
I wondered, “How could they be sure the coyote killed was the one that attacked the skier? And if they couldn’t be sure, would it be safe for the woman to eschew a rabies shot if the coyote tested positive?”
Apparently, this coyote was easy to identify as it had a muzzle and mouth full of porcupine quills. Snowcoach drivers had reported the pincushioned coyote acting aggressively in the days before the attack. The quills probably made it difficult to kill and eat, leading to the coyote’s unusually aggressive behavior.
I’ve mostly avoided porcupines over the years, but the large rodents can be a pest. They’re fond of bark and eat it away, girdling even mature fruit trees. They’re also a real problem for bird dogs, especially the short-tempered type. In the fall, bird hunting groups on social media are filled with photos of dogs with quill studded muzzles. These “encounter” images are almost as common as tailgate shots of a limit of pheasant.
It’s prey drive that gets many dogs in trouble in the first place. They find a porcupine, get aggressive around it, get a face full of quills, then get really angry. The dogs may leave a dead porcupine behind, but it’s pretty much the end of a day’s hunt. The barbed quills can be removed, but a trip to the vet is a necessary, though costly response.
Quills left under the skin can lead to infections, or worse. Quills may migrate deeper into tissue and cause serious injury to a dog. The barbed shafts of the quills mean they are unlikely to back out on their own.
Doll and I had our first encounter with a porcupine this fall. I saw her get a little interested as she nosed around a slash pile, and when I came up behind, she was standing about five feet from an agitated rodent. She’s never been too aggressive around unfeathered critters, though she chased her share of cats when she was younger. If the cats had only stood their ground and hissed, my softy English setter would have quickly put her tail between her legs and slinked off. But when offered a running target she would always give chase.
The porky had its back to the slash pile, and was flashing some of those unpleasant quills. The display is a defensive technique known as aposematism, which means it was displaying the nasty business of its back end as a warning to Doll that this was a tussle she really didn’t want. The hissing, arched-back house cat is also employing a form of aposematism, as is a defensive skunk when it raises its tail, or a poison dart frog with bright coloration that warns, “Eat me and die.”
Aposematism was an appropriate response for the porcupine. It had no way of knowing this canine wasn’t a German shorthair crazed with bloodlust or a starving young coyote that hadn’t learned better.
Doll’s pacifist tendencies served her well with the porcupine. She glanced over her shoulder toward me as I walked up. That glance is one I’ve seen before when she’s come upon something she’s uncertain I want. I called her off, then shoed her away from the slash pile and up a hill in search of more sharptails.
“Find birds,” I urged as I pointed hopefully in a birdy direction. “Find birds.”
Birds provide all the adventure we need.
Porcupines are nothing but bad news.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.