Nigel has a face only his mother could not love. Born three months ago in the wilds of Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Nigel was as agreeable a prehensile-tailed porcupine as ever there was. His mother was not. “His mom was not letting him nurse,” said Maureen O’Keefe, senior staff biologist at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. “He was bottle-fed from day one.” He was bottle-fed by hard-core zoo professionals who were not ashamed to be charmed by his snuffly nose and his cuddly ways. His nose, they agreed, looked like a big, soft eraser. But, being hard-core zoo professionals, they knew that, even though they had named him, they could not keep Nigel. They started calling their friends, asking if they might have a spare coendou habitat. Point Defiance had just the space, O’Keefe told a friend at the Fresno zoo. “He arrived six weeks ago, and recently got out of quarantine,” She said. “He has adjusted fabulously.”
By that, she means he is relaxed in his behind-the-scenes quarters and is learning to use his body. He climbs. He walks on branches. He experiments with his grasping tail. He is learning to trust his long whiskers for news of what is within six inches of his head. “They help him navigate in the dark and get around at night,” O’Keefe said of the impressive whiskers. He dines on fruit salad and rodent chow. “Nuts!” Nigel would say, if he spoke in English, rather than in soft growly meeps. Nuts are his favorite, and he has mastered the body language for obtaining walnuts, pecans and almonds: He works his way into a keeper’s arms, then explores pockets and packets until he finds some. Hard-core zoo professionals will tell you that, technically, nuts are training tools, the instruments keepers use to coax Nigel to learn and practice the natural behavior his mother never taught him. “They have this prehensile tail, so he can hang upside down,” O’Keefe said. “He is really designed for life up in the trees.” Those trees would be in South America’s rain forests, where coendous eat fruits, vegetables and nuts and avoid novice ocelots and jaguars.
As far as O’Keefe knows, no one has ever counted a prehensile-tailed porcupine’s quills. But she thinks they, like the American porcupine, have about 30,000. “If they feel threatened, they will rattle them,” she said. The coendou does not shoot quills. It merely releases them into the face, paws or whatever of whoever is trying to eat it. A critter with any kind of memory or good sense will not try twice to dine on that species of tasty rodent. Though nocturnal, Nigel will work days at Point Defiance. “He has a cute personality,” O’Keefe said. “He’ll work out great as an interpretive animal.” He will appear on the World of Wonders stage, making his grand debut at the 1:30 p.m. shows this weekend. When it is warmer, he and his keepers will go on strolls through the zoo to meet the fans. Here, those fans will likely see Nigel grow from six pounds now to his full 12 pounds over the next 12 to 15 years. That is a good deal for Nigel, who – provided he survived his mom – would have had about half that lifetime worrying about getting flipped by ocelots in the rain forest. True, he will not be getting a companion. That is not part of the job description in Tacoma. It is not in the Amazon, either. Coendous are solitary animals in the wild. Nigel, on the other hand, is all about friends, especially if he thinks you have a pocket full of nuts.