The rescuers always remembered raising the porcupine fondly. They took him in as a baby and watched him grow into adulthood. And although that was a year previous, they still saw him all the time. Then one day when the animal finally returned, the rescuers couldn’t believe what he had with him.
The story begins with a potato farmer working his land in the South African town of Hoedspruit. Now as if farming isn’t tough enough in itself, the cherished crops that were being cultivated are also a prime target for hungry animals. And among those animals are porcupines, which love the salt found naturally in potatoes.
More generally, as well, farms make an attractive buffet for these creatures, since tool handles can be covered in residual, salt-filled sweat. Additionally, porcupines eat the sap from wood. And farms are a great source for both of these things. Because of all this, then, the prickly ones can be a nuisance on a farm and damaging to a farmer’s livelihood.
As a result, many farmers leave traps out for porcupines with the intention of catching or killing them. And that’s how a baby porcupine became trapped in one potato farmer’s cage back in 2015. However, the bighearted farmer couldn’t bring himself to kill the so-called “porcupette.”
Instead, he left the baby in the care of the DAKTARI Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage. DAKTARI is the brainchild of Ian and Michele Merrifield, a couple dedicated to helping African wildlife. They use their passion to educate children on conservation efforts and local animals.
The organization’s official website states, “Having a safe place to rehabilitate injured or orphaned animals has always been part of the vision of DAKTARI. It has also grown into an integral part of the education of the local children.” And since its founding in 2006, DAKTARI has done just that.
The farmer had contacted DAKTARI because of the organization’s passion for orphaned animals. And although it hadn’t been home to a porcupine before, DAKTARI happily accepted the farmer’s captured porcupette as its first. The Merrifields called him Spikey and began to research how to care for him.
They had to learn pretty much everything on the fly, too. “He had to be bottle-fed,” Ian Merrifield told The Dodo in 2016. “But we had to estimate what he would need. We tried to do research online but there wasn’t a lot of information.”
The couple did, however, have experience with caring for small animals and guessed that the basic approach with porcupettes was similar. “We used mammals that we cared for before as a baseline,” he explained. “And we added egg yolk and cream to normal cow milk.”
But their homemade baby concoction needed one last ingredient. “We added protexin, which is a bacteria that they need to aid in digestion,” Merrifield explained. Spikey, moreover, loved the homemade formula, and at first he accepted nothing else. As he grew, though, so did his appetite.
Spikey was fed on a diet of diced fruit and vegetables in porridge, which apparently he couldn’t get enough of. “He really liked eating; eating and sleeping were his whole life,” Merrifield recalled. And, apparently, the best way to a porcupine’s heart is through his stomach.
The porcupine fell in love with his human parents and adored affection from both them and DAKTARI’s volunteers. And although petting a porcupine sounds dangerous, Spikey isn’t as bristly as his name suggests. Indeed, the front and underside of his body is covered in soft fur.
Merrifield explained, “The volunteers would stoke his belly, under the arms, and behind his very human-like ears. Spikey would jump on their lap and nuzzle their neck.” Thanks to the love and care he received at DAKTARI, then, over the following year, Spikey grew big and strong.
Then, one day, he was old enough to fend for himself. The time was approaching when Spikey would have to leave his family and go back to the wild. “We just decided he would be happier free,” Merrifield told The Dodo. “And if he had any problems, he could come back for food.”
And despite being released from DAKTARI’s care, Spikey did return. “We aren’t sure if it’s because he needs the food or just enjoys our company,” Merrifield joked. Whatever the reason, though, they had made a friend for life, and he was a gift that just kept giving. Yet there was a twist in Spikey’s wonderful tale.
During the year after his release, Spikey visited DAKTARI with something the Merrifields never expected: “he” brought some porcupettes of “his” own. It would seem that sexing porcupines is harder than it may sound. “We’d thought Spikey was definitely a male,” Merrifield told The Dodo.
“So, we were a bit surprised when she showed up with babies,” DAKTARI’S co-founder concluded. But it was a welcome surprise, and everyone was overjoyed to meet the porcupettes. Merrifield believes Spikey was proud of her babies and wanted to show her previous family what she’d made.
Unlike Spikey, though, the new porcupettes were a little more cautious around the humans at DAKTARI. They preferred to remain in the shadows of the building instead of going inside like their mother. Spikey also brought a male friend along, most likely the father of the babies.
“It’s wonderful seeing Spikey live a full life in the wild, and having a family of her own,” Merrifield said. “I feel like a very proud parent.” And he has every reason to. After all, it was thanks to DAKTARI that Spikey grew into a healthy and happy adult.
DAKTARI isn’t just saving one life at a time, though. As a result of educating children on conservation and the proper treatment of animals, the staff are helping so many more. Together, they’re working to change the lives of both humans and animals in Africa for the better.