The Santa Clarita Valley and the surrounding area is home to many famous places and faces, and while it’s not too surprising to spot them on TV or in movies, it can be a fun game to try to recognize as many of them as possible.
Following his recent appearance on a television game show, The Proclaimer had the chance to meet the latest local celebrity and feed him some vegetables.
Was it mentioned already that this celebrity is a porcupine?
On Nov. 25, Alby the porcupine, who lives at the Wildlife Learning Center in Sylmar, dazzled audiences across the nation as he represented the United States as a competitor on FOX’s “World Pet Games.”
Alby is one of the Wildlife Learning Center’s eight North American porcupines and has lived at the center since 2014, according to general manager and Santa Clarita resident Danielle Burns, one of Alby’s handlers and who also appeared with him on the show. The seven-year-old porcupine is one of the center’s ambassador animals, meaning that he often travels across California to schools, public events, weddings, birthday parties and shows like the “The Queen Latifah Show” and “World Pet Games” to help people learn more about his species.
Not all animals are suited to being ambassadors, but Alby’s temperament made him a good fit for the program.
“Alby loves meeting people and is incredibly friendly and food-motivated, so as long as you have treats for him he will do almost anything,” said Burns, who also noted that his favorite foods are carrots and yams. “As soon as we’re in his area he’s at the door waiting for food, he lets us pick him up and always comes out on walks. Adults absolutely love meeting porcupines and the first thing they want to do is pet them, which isn’t a great idea. A lot of little kids are scared at first due to the popular myth from cartoons and things that they shoot out their quills, but it’s fun to teach them how the quills really work. A lot of the time people are surprised by how big they are.”
A few months before the shows’ air date, FOX reached out to the Wildlife Learning Center to find unique animals that might be suited for the show’s different competitions. Though he had no prior experience running, the network liked the idea of featuring the porcupine in the “Interspecies Race.”
“They reached out to us looking for animals that were a little different than cats and dogs,” Burns said. “I wouldn’t say he’s a racer but he walks pretty well.”
Burns said that in spite of the wide variety of unique animals featured in the “World Pet Games,” the other handlers were still surprised and excited to see a porcupine.
“Even if you work with exotic animals, it’s still exciting to see animals that you haven’t worked with,” Burns said. “Everyone knows what a porcupine is, but you don’t see them in person too often.”
And now for some porcupine facts:
- Smaller only than beavers, porcupines are the second largest rodents in North America. They can grow up to 35 pounds and are found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
- Their orange teeth continuously grow but they wear down by chewing on wood.
- North American porcupines have about 30,000 quills all over their bodies except for their bellies, since that would make it difficult for them to climb trees. Due to this defensive mechanism, they have very few natural predators. Quills are modified hairs made of keratin (like other mammals’ hair and human fingernails) and once lost they do grow back.
- Contrary to some popular myths, porcupines don’t shoot out their quills. Their quills are barbed at the end which allows them to stick into predators and makes them very painful and difficult to remove.
- Porcupines urinate on their quills and intentionally get them dirty, which not only makes them smell bad but also increases the potential that the wounds will become infected.
Alby was one of nine animals competing in the “Interspecies Race,” and though he and Burns got to practice with some trial runs, she did not know what animals he would be facing until right before the race. A large part of the preparation time was getting Alby used to the new environment and smells.
“He was able to get his scent in the area so he was nice and comfortable but he’s pretty good at adapting to new environments so it was not too much of an adjustment,” Burns said. “Some of the other animals were more nervous and needed a little more time to explore the area, but if Alby was a person, he’d be the very outgoing person that could walk into a party not knowing anyone and make friends with everyone. If anything, he was just waiting for his food.”
The porcupine was placed in the “medium speed animal” division along with a duck and an armadillo. Though the race looked dicey at the beginning, Alby’s consistent drive towards the finish line resulted in a spectacular last minute win.
“At first I didn’t really think we had a chance, I thought the duck was going to fly by us,” Burns said. “The way that it was set up, the walls on my lane were tall enough that you couldn’t see where the other animals were and you just had to hope your animal is doing well. He’s quick but he doesn’t run, which is why when they asked me, I said that slow and steady wins the race sometimes. His speed during his race is about as fast as he’ll go on a normal basis, but when they’re scared porcupines – of course [they’ll] do a little more of a run, but they’re not incredibly fast animals.”
With that first round win under his belt, Alby secured his place in the finals where he would be racing against a pig, which won the “faster speed” qualifier, and a tamandua, also known as a lesser anteater, that won the “slower speed” event. In order to compensate for the animals’ different levels of speed, the distances that they would have to travel were adjusted accordingly such that the pig had the longest course and the tamandua had the shortest.
In the end, despite a strong start and a valiant effort, Alby finished in second place while Henry the pig, representing Mexico, trotted away with the gold.
“Going in, [I] didn’t know what to expect at all or what animals he would be up against so to make it to the final three was great and I was really happy that we got second place,” Burns said. “It was a really fun experience and I think he enjoyed it because he got all kinds of food. I didn’t know if he was going to move too well since porcupines are nocturnal and we were filming during the day, but I think he represented porcupines well.”
The Wildlife Learning Center is located 1at 6027 Yarnell St, Sylmar, CA 91342 and is open every day for private tours and on Tuesdays and Thursdays to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. From Dec. 3 to Jan. 8, the Wildlife Learning Center is hosting their “Winter Wonderland” holiday event every Friday and Saturday from 5-8 p.m.
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