Porcupine Staredown, by John A. Haeseler, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 48, Folder 27, Page 7, detail.

Science Service, Up Close: The “Porcupine” Letters

A 1936 exchange of letters about the prickly porcupine preserves both a contemporary scientific debate and the wit and wisdom of a young Utah girl with a beloved pet.

In the first act of Hamlet, the Ghost bemoans that, were he not “forbid” to describe his purgatory, he could unfold a tale that would make “Thy knotted and combined locks to part, // And each particular hair to stand on end, // Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.” Pity the poor porcupine! Shakespeare saw her defenses as a metaphor, with prickly spines raised in fear or alarm.

Three centuries later, a ten-year-old helped to reimagine those quills as a beautician’s tools.

The back story to an unusual image in the April 18, 1936, issue of Science News-Letter involved a lively scientific argument between zoologist Joseph Sedley Stanford (1891-1982) and Science Service biology editor Frank A. Thone (1891-1949). In the photograph, a porcupine appears about to grab the hair of a little girl, who is grinning, grimacing, and about to burst into giggles. The caption to “Ye Olde Porpentine Beauty Shoppe” explained that “Pook, pet porcupine of Prof. J. S. Stanford of Utah State Agricultural College, undertakes the somewhat Alice-in-Wonderlandish role of hairdresser to Miss Elaine Stanford,” adding that “Prof. Stanford says that young porcupines are easily tamed and make excellent pets.”

A porcupine stares into a camera and sits on a branch.

By the mid-1930s, loyal subscribers of the Science News-Letter peppered the news office with questions. Scientist-readers could be especially assertive when they believed that a news article contained errors or misleading conclusions. In his first letter on February 28, 1936, Stanford strongly disagreed with Thone’s recent assertion that porcupines were the principal enemies of Western timber. “Fire, insects, disease come first,” Stanford wrote, “and porky is a small 4th cause if even a 4th.”  He attributed the bad press to foresters who “don’t like porcupines.” In truth, “Porcupines are so easily killed that they are killed regardless of their proximity to any timber of value — or cattle (calves and colts are not so dumb).”

Thone thanked Stanford for his “candor” but defended the information source (a U.S. Forest Service employee) as “competent and scientifically honest” and claimed that the article had not implied that porcupines “are destructive in a major degree everywhere in the West.”

Their friendly debate continued in further letters, reflecting an ongoing struggle in the American West, as farmers, ranchers, foresters, and scientists each brought differing perspectives to the question of how humans should interact with wildlife. Stanford knew that prickly porcupines had insufficient lobbyists in the policy debates:  “With the cries of exterminate coming so frequently today from so called sportsmen and others who do not believe in control — if they know about it — one can, as I have, become rather sensitive when such a course is advised.” He did, though, praise the magazine in his reply (“May I add that we, dad, mama & the kiddies, read the S.N.L. articles and study the pictures and like them very much”), and then added a postscript that made the journalist’s news nose itch. “P.S. You may be interested to know that we received a porky 4 yrs ago when he was a small ‘pup’ and have him yet — a very interesting chap.”

A pet porcupine! Thone took the bait.

“My dear Prof. Stanford,” Thone wrote on March 14, “I envy you your pet Porky. I have always had a notion that porcupines should make good pets. Among other advantages would be a more or less automatic instruction of young children in the proper handling of animals, when they are in the kitten-squeezing stage! . . . More seriously: would you be willing to let us have a snapshot of one of the children playing with your Porky, for reproduction in the Science News Letter? It would make a really attractive picture.” Perhaps better education, Thone suggested, would produce “better mutual understanding ... with resulting eventual peace and large-scale restoration of American wildlife. 

Sketch of a porcupine in a book.

Stanford replied that “Pook” had usually been photographed with a miniature camera, so there were no suitable enlargements. Instead, he sent three Verichrome negatives, “the middle one of Pook investigating Elaine my (now) 10 yr old daughter who is afraid of nothing — it seems.” That was the photograph that caught the editor’s eye.

But it was ten-year-old Elaine Loda Stanford (1926-2015) who had the last (and best) word, in a heartfelt letter preserved at the Smithsonian Institution Archives

When ten copies of the magazine’s April 18 issue arrived at the Stanford house, the scientist handed them to his daughter “with the statement that she & Pook are now famous,” he told Thone. “She was a muchly pleased little girl when she saw the picture and the name Porpentine especially caught her fancy. She readily acted on my hint that she ought to write Dr. Thone to thank him so her letter is enclosed.”

Here is a transcription of the handwritten letter forwarded by a proud father (from Record Unit 7091, Box 179):

Dear Mr. Thone,

            I appreciate the nice magazines you sent me and I am sure I can make use of them. Daddy told me you would like to hear about some of my adventures with snakes, Pookey and other animals we have had and have. First I will give you all the names of the animals we have now. Pook, Deer Mice, Rabbits, Rat, Gopher, Frog, Marsh Toads and we had some pigons [sic] but they flew away about two weeks ago. Now evey [sic] year Daddy has arranged a second of June hike for all of us. One time we were a good way up. we sat down to rest on a rock pile. I had lagged behind most of the way, so I wasn’t very tired.

            I went up about three feet and nearly stepping on him, I saw a snake. I took one or two steps back, and was about to pick it up, when I decided to call Daddy. So I did and he told me it was a rattle-snake. I am sure that I could tell one now if I were to see it. I have had many more experiences but I think this one is most exciting.

Your Greatful Friend,

Elaine Stanford

Letter from Elaine Stanford to Frank Thone, 24 April 1936, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7091, Box 179, Folder 3, Image no. SIA2020-000005.

Letter from Elaine Stanford to Frank Thone, 24 April 1936, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7091, Box 179, Folder 3, Image no. SIA2020-000006.

Great, indeed. And not at all prickly.

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