Animal lovers of all ages will adore getting a peek behind the scenes at the Oregon Zoo.
Would you pet a porcupine? If your answer is an emphatic no, then, fair enough. It is, after all, a huge, prickly rodent.
If, nonetheless, you are like my family and totally stoked at the idea, you are in luck: You can pet a porcupine, feed it, and learn all about this super-cool species, and many others, at the Oregon Zoo as part of their new Animal Encounters program.
The Animal Encounters program was started to give people the chance to engage with animals in an intimate setting. However, the zoo is very careful about which “animal ambassadors” it chooses for the experiences: Only animals that are comfortable with humans and will thrive in a small-group setting need apply, and their needs are the top priority during each encounter.
Program Animal Staff member Bree Winchell was our super-knowledgeable animal expert, and guided us through our encounter with Bebeto, the zoo’s prehensile-tailed porcupine (that means he can grab things with his tail). Bree was able to answer all our questions easily and with clear, age-appropriate answers for Grady (8), Clara (6) and Theo (4). Her friendly and open manner encouraged lots of questions! (“Are the quills fatal?” “How many quills do they have?” “Why is his nose so big?” “Do they come out of the trees to pee?”) We never felt rushed.
The small-group setting also gave us the opportunity to take in the facts we were learning about porcupines in a very practical way. For instance, Bree told us that the porcupine does not have quills on his stomach because otherwise he would get hurt when he curls up to sleep; she could then motivate Bebeto to stand by offering him a yam up high to demonstrate the shorter stomach fur. Being able to see his adorable little pig nose also helped us understand better about his great sense of smell, and why that’s important for the nocturnal porcupine.
Another cool thing about the program is it gives the zoo caretakers an opportunity to teach us about ways that we — including kids — can help protect these animals in the wild. Bebeto is a species of porcupine that comes from the rainforests of Brazil. This type of porcupine needs the trees to survive, spending most of their lives in the leafy canopy. Deforestation has a huge impact on them. Bree talked about choices that we can make as a family — like to buy shade-grown coffee and cut back on meat consumption — as well as things kids can do on their own — like recycle. (Also, if you know any jaguars or harpy eagles, you could ask them politely to lay off the porcupine attacks.)
But hands down, the coolest part was getting to feed and pet the porcupine. Bebeto was fed a steady stream of yams and peanuts during our encounter so he would stay happy and engaged. (We were asked about allergies before the peanuts were brought out.) Bree allowed us to come forward one at a time and offer Bebeto a treat, and then, while he was munching, everyone in the family got the chance to pet him carefully. Most important fact of the day: Start from the head and pet down! The quills felt like thick straw, or super stringy post-chlorinated pool hair.
Our meeting with Bebeto the porcupine was just one of the eleven opportunities. You can explore everything from barnyard animals to elephants, with varying price points. It’s $50 per person for non-members to meet a porcupine. The farm animal experience is the most affordable at $10 per person. The elephant encounter is definitely a very special treat at $150 for non-members. Each animal encounter focuses on different conservation topics and has different perks. For instance, in the tropical bird encounter, you get to take home a painting made by the macaw! That one’s at the top of my kids’ list. Along with the penguins. And the sloth. And … .
Learn more about the animal encounters and reserve your spot here: oregonzoo.org/encounters. (Zoo admission is not included.)