FREEPORT, Maine — Friends, fans and acquaintances gathered at the Maine Beer Company Monday night to toast the memory of the state’s most famous quilled ambassador, Henry the porcupine.
Henry died in August at age 11 after a short illness and was Cape Neddick-based Center for Wildlife’s most beloved animal ambassador. In his decade of work for the wildlife rehabilitation organization, he met and taught thousands of humans about empathy, ecology and conservation.
Henry also did important work dispelling myths about his prickly brethren while delighting onlookers with his friendly disposition, contented chirps and enduring love of sweet potatoes, which turned his substantial front teeth orange.
“He was charismatic,” said the Center’s Administrative Coordinator Valery Sousa. “That sounds funny to say about a porcupine but it was really true.”
Also on Monday, the Maine Beer Company released a special brown ale in the porcupine’s honor. The beer will benefit the Henry Tribute Fund, which supports medical research efforts for the North American porcupine. Henry had been a regular educational visitor at the brewery and even once stole an apple from the chief operating officer’s purse.
Henry came to the Center in 2013 when he was just six months old. Orphaned and rescued by a well-meaning but ill-equipped member of the public, the porcupette arrived emaciated from an inappropriate diet of doughnuts. Henry was also already dangerously accustomed to humans, something he’d have to get over if he was ever going to be released to the wild.
At first, staff would stomp and bang the door of his enclosure before feeding him in an attempt to make him frightened of humans. It didn’t work. Henry soon learned how to open the door with his clever front claws, then find his way to his human caretakers, looking for more food.
“We were, of course, all animal lovers and it hurt our hearts to stomp at him,” said longtime Executive Director Kristen Lamb, “so he soon became an ambassador.”
The Center currently has 28 non-releasable ambassadors who travel to schools, community groups, nursing homes and television studios, educating the public about their species and the center’s work. In 2022, the organization admitted 1,956 animal patients. That number includes 1,325 birds, 555 mammals and 76 amphibians.
All of the Center’s ambassadors have calm demeanors, but Henry actually seemed to like people, rather than just tolerate them. He’d go almost daily on woods walks, foraging his own food and following his keepers as a dog would do. Henry ate corn-on-the-cob like people do, rotating the ear. He could even be petted.
“And he’d do this little dance when he wanted food,” said fan Steph Polidoro. “It’s like he was meant to be out there, educating the public. It was his life’s mission.”
Most members of the public only interact with porcupines as road kill or the source of their dog’s snootful of quills. Henry had a unique ability to draw people in with his open-hearted cuteness, which then allowed the Center’s educators to lay out the facts.
“Like dispelling the myth that porcupines can shoot their quills and that they destroy trees,” Lamb said. “They’re actually good for forests, selectively opening up the canopy and planting seeds as they dig for roots.”
Over the years, Henry interacted with thousands of people in real life and even more online. During the pandemic, the Center’s Facebook Live “Fridays with Henry” was must-see internet viewing.
“People from as far away as California would get upset if we started late,” said Sousa. “When he died, the condolences nearly broke our social media.”
Lamb said her organization is unlikely to find another star ambassador like Henry.
“He had such a huge impact on so many people,” she said. “He was really a magical little being.”