HELENA — Most people don't consider porcupines to be cute and cuddly, but Sasha is out to change that.
She doesn't have much to say when she gets up on her stump. But the watermelon-size rodent is absolutely charming, preening and posing for crowds like a model on a runway.
"She's charismatic," says Sam Lavin, a volunteer at Montana Wild, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Park's education and conservation center in Helena. "She's a little diva and soaks up attention once she's on the stump."
FWP is a firm advocate of not interfering with or humanizing wild animals, and they've rehabbed and released other porcupines. But Sasha's story is somewhat unique and she's become an ambassador animal for FWP, along with the raptors and other birds housed at the center.
Lisa Rhodin, the FWP wildlife rehabilitation manager, said they were contacted by a long-distance trucker from White Sulphur Springs a few years ago who found Sasha when he was hauling hay. Her umbilical cord was still attached when she was discovered.
"We figure the mom gave birth and was run off when they started baling hay," Rhodin said. "He rescued her and his wife and kids tried their best to take care of her but they weren't really good with her nutrition. She was four months old when she came here and would literally fit in your lap. She was about the size of a volleyball."
Rhodin said they debated what to do with the porcupine, but eventually realized that she already was so habituated to humans that she wouldn't survive in the wild.
"She wasn't appropriately afraid of people," Lavin added.
Making Sasha into an ambassador animal also was appealing since most people don't know much about porcupines and they're surrounded with myths.
"We also realized how much personality she had," Rhodin added. "We see this as a great opportunity for people to see a porcupine up close and personal, and understand how unique they are."
Lavin laughs as she brushes the long hairs that cover the quills underneath on the porcupine's back, noting that she can only move her hand in one direction when petting Sasha. Both she and Rhodin have been "quilled" a few times, but usually not on purpose by Sasha.
"Even though I've been working with her for two years, I still have to think about what I'm doing with her," Lavin said. "You can't cuddle her and she's still a wild animal, even though she's a little diva."
As the two women are talking, Sasha is constantly moving. She's a vegetarian, and this morning she's enjoying nuts, veggies and fruit. Porcupines also eat pine needles and the tree's cambium layer, which is the soft part under the bark.
Initially, Lavin hands Sasha chunks of yams and lettuce, which she dexterously grasps with her long claws before putting the food in her mouth. Eventually, she tires of Lavin's pace and grabs the blue cup in her paws and sticks her face deep into it, seeking out the remnants of any former contents.
After finishing her meal, Sasha turns around on her stump and shows off her quill-studded tail, which is her most dangerous attribute. Rhodin and Lavin note how porcupines are slow to anger — a porcupine attribute long admired by Native Americans — and they'll typically warn predators three times by sticking up their quills before defending themselves.
Then look out for that tail.
"The tail is really muscular and they can flick it so fast that a human can't see it," Lavin said. "That's where the quill throwing myth comes from."
They recommend that the barbed quills be pulled out as soon as possible, because otherwise they sink deeper into the skin. Rhodin said the quills have a natural antibiotic on them, which prevents them from injuring other porcupines when they mate, but also causes an itching sensation on human and dog skin.
"Pull the quills out as soon as possible with a pair of pliers," Lavin said. "You can take a dog to a vet to be anesthetized if needed."
Rhodin adds that the pet owner should have someone restrain the dog while going to the vet so the dog doesn't try to get the quills out and inadvertently drive them deeper into the skin.
Porcupines are nocturnal, so most people won't ever run into them. But evidence of their presence often can be found on gloves or ax handles, which they chew on in search of salt.
"That's why ranchers don't like them very much," Rhodin said.
By this time Sasha is tiring of the attention, and tries to climb off her stump. Lavin says she's going to let Sasha sleep for the day; at night she wanders around the rehabilitation center, climbing on her jungle gym and nibbling on a salt block. When she's content, she hums.
"It's a neat vocalization; when she's happy she has a pretty song she sings to herself. It's kind of a murmur," Rhodin said. "It's kind of charming."