When folks build homes (or mansions) next to wilderness, they are often shocked to learn that the wilderness is, in fact, wild. Critters they once thought of as cute and charming are suddenly villainous and voracious, devouring flower beds, tunneling under irrigation systems, even munching on pricey trees dropped into the landscape by crane. And one of the most determined predators is the porcupine.
This lumbering, nocturnal pincushion of a rodent is experiencing some fine dining these days in Mountain Village, a gondola-trip up from Telluride, Colo. Mountain Village could be called the urban-wilderness interface on steroids: mega-mansions occupied a few weeks or months of the year. The rest of the time they are in the care of people like Mary Olson, a caretaker-landscaper from Norwood, an affordable town downriver from Telluride.
I know about Mary because she takes care of the landscaping at my home in Norwood. When she first told me about the porcupines of Mountain Village, I confess I had a moment of schadenfreude, a certain pleasure in the residents' predicament. Those people up there on the mountaintop, I thought, had brought on the curse of the porcupine with their own arrogance. Then I reminded myself that the porcupine does not discriminate; I, too, have had my share of skirmishes with various creatures that insist on using the land I call "mine" for their own purposes. So it was with mixed emotions that I accompanied Olson as she went on her "porcupine patrol" for clients in Mountain Village.
Our first stop: a palatial home featuring a massive front door and a doormat that reads, "Welcome to Our Cabin." Clearly, the porcupines have warmed to the message. Olson points to a 20-foot spruce tree with a trunk that resembles a neatly pared apple. A one-foot-high slice of bark has been removed all around the tree's belly, the trademark "girdling" of the porcupine. The animal can accomplish this in about 15 minutes, usually at night.
Olson spots at least 20 trees on this and the adjacent property that are likely to perish because of porcupine damage. "I can't protect every living plant," she sighs, "I just can't do it. There's an army of animals out there." Replacing these trees -- they cost about $40 a foot, and that doesn't include the planting costs and the rental of the crane -- will be expensive and disruptive.
Even so, she says, surrender is not an option. (Olson often finds herself using war terminology.) The properties we visit are dotted with the pungent cotton balls she has placed around plants and trees, each one doused with urine -- wolf, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion -- she's tried them all. She has had great success against deer, but the jury is still out on the porcupine.
Olson is hopeful that the cotton balls of urine, her "weapons of stinky destruction," as she calls them, might still work. "But how much wolf urine at $40 a bottle do I use? Hundreds of dollars a month and I have no guarantee it's working!"
Perhaps porcupines aren't deterred by the urine of predators because predators don't bother them a lot, for obvious reasons. It's no fun trying to dine on something covered in thousands of sharp quills, each tipped with a barb that does not lend itself to catch-and-release.
Olson really doesn't want to get into the trapping business, either, especially since porcupines have an excellent homing instinct, which requires they be transported at least 20 miles away. Meanwhile, Mountain Village is a tempting target, a veritable feast of expensive conifers planted by the owners. Porcupines love salt, and the trees from nurseries have been fed with fertilizers with a high saline content. As for putting chicken wire around all the trees, don't bother; porcupines may look clumsy, but they have no trouble scaling fences.
And they're stubborn. Olson tells of a porcupine that came to her friends' front porch recently, drawn by their porcupine-shaped boot scraper. In a misplaced fit of passion, the porcupine proceeded to mount the familiar-looking object. It says something about the quality of a porcupine's love life that it came back the next two nights for more of the same.
Given the limited joys of porcupine life, perhaps Olson's clients can be persuaded to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude. Or, in the case of their very expensive trees, die-and-let-die.
Judy Muller is a journalism professor at the University of Southern California and lives in California and Norwood, Colorado.