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Nature plays no favorites when carrying out natural order

September 30, 2012
By Walt Young , The Altoona Mirror

A couple of weeks ago I was setting up my camera and tripod in the parking area of the Lower Trail near Canoe Creek in preparation for a short walk to take some wildflower photographs and other scenery along that section of the trail.

Those plans were interrupted when I noticed a raccoon emerge from the woods just a few yards from where I was standing. Usually, having some form of wildlife at such close range with a camera at the ready would be a welcome photo op, but as most experienced outdoor folks know, seeing a raccoon in the daytime should immediately raise a red flag.

Raccoons, of course, are almost exclusively nocturnal creatures, so one that is moving about during daylight hours is likely to be sick or injured. And because raccoons are a species most often infected with rabies in Pennsylvania, a high degree of caution is always in order with any encounter with one of these animals.

I quickly observed that something was indeed wrong with this coon, and I could even hear it whimpering softly as it hobbled closer. When it finally noticed me, the animal stopped for a few seconds, allowing me to snap a few photos before it circled well away from me and disappeared into some high weeds on the opposite side for the trail. As my camera zoomed into focus, however, I saw in the viewfinder the reason for its distress - a face full of porcupine quills. A closer look at some of the photos revealed the raccoon had numerous quills embedded around its nose, mouth and both eyes.

Raccoons are intelligent and agile animals, so at first I was somewhat surprised to see one of them had the bad judgment to tangle with a porcupine. But this particular raccoon also appeared to be a young one, which undoubtedly accounted for such gullibility. Unfortunately, those dreadful spikes it now carried as punishment for that indiscretion probably assured it wouldn't grow too much older. Porcupine quills are a simple but effective defense mechanism. Besides being needle sharp, individual quills are tipped with minute barbs, making them extremely difficult to pull out once they are embedded into the hide and flesh of a would-be attacker. In all likelihood, that young raccoon has been doomed to a lingering death from a combination of infection and starvation.

Such a gruesome fate is not a happy thought, nor one I offer up nonchalantly. No one likes to see any animal suffer needlessly, but in nature, such situations occur constantly. That is the natural order of things. And anyone who truly loves and appreciates the wonder and beauty of nature also understands that nature can appear to be utterly cruel and ruthless when carrying out that natural order. I've also found it much easier to understand and appreciate the workings of nature by not trying to attach human emotions and behavior to what happens in the natural world. Animals are not people with fur on them, in spite of all the drivel we are subjected to from the cartoon machine at Disney, the animal-rights crowd, know-nothing Hollywood phonies and so many other assorted whiners who should get a little farther from the sidewalk once in a while before they spend any more time telling real folks what is happening in the real world.

Although most of us would find it difficult not to feel some compassion for the injured raccoon, to be completely objective about the situation, it's also worth considering the perspective of the other player in this mini-drama. I have no particular fondness for porcupines, and generally regard them as destructive pests when they damage outbuildings or desirable trees with their heavy-duty gnawing. Two friends of mine who have lost valuable hunting dogs to porcupine encounters absolutely despise these prickly rodents.

Porcupines are anything but aggressive. They are nearsighted and quite slow moving. When threatened, a porcupine usually tries to shuffle away from the intruder, but any animal big enough to do it harm could literally run circles around it. When cornered, a porky displays its quill-studded backside, almost daring its antagonist to attack. Despite common folklore, porcupines cannot shoot their quills, so getting impaled by them is usually a self-inflicted injury.

I doubt that young raccoon intended to attack the porcupine. Maybe it was the first porcupine it had encountered and was merely curious. In any case, the coon got too close and paid a terrible price for it. But that is indeed the way of things in the wild, and nature plays no favorites.

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