Penny the Porcupine

Written and photographed by Hilette Hatting

Long, lustrous whiskers grace the side of the door. A wet nose comes round the corner and black button eyes peer up at you. Shy at first, but then curiosity gets the better of her and a beautiful animal emerges in all her glory wearing an impressive cloak of black-and-white quills. Meet Penny the Porcupine.

How prickly Penny joined the family

In March 2015, the Daniell Cheetah Project (DCP) in Kirkwood received a call from workers doing construction at a nearby prison. While digging, they found what seemed to be a porcupine hole. Upon closer inspection, they found a baby porcupine in the hole – no mother or brothers or sisters in sight, just this little porcupette all by herself. DCP took the orphan in and today this beautiful young lady, now the size of a medium dog, forms part of the farm family.

Penny is not your average porcupine. Besides being playful, she is intelligent, witty, and a little bit naughty. She lives on the property with Maxie Van Wyk, a staff member and DCP tour guide for the past seven years. Maxie hand-reared Penny with bottles and bottles of kitty milk; she was very small when they got her and slept in a little box next to Maxie’s bed. One winter night it was so cold that Maxie worried that the heater wouldn’t keep the tiny baby warm enough, so she picked her up and popped her under the blankets with her to keep her warm. Penny adopted Maxie as her human mom.

Penny’s favourite things

The bond between Maxie and Penny is astonishing. Although Penny sleeps during the day (porcupines are naturally nocturnal), when Maxie comes home she runs towards her to greet her excitedly. Then it’s playtime. Penny gets very excited during playtimes and her energy levels are very high. Maxie and her housemate, Marlene, sometimes need to deflect quills with pillows! When she does eventually get tired, she stretches out in her favourite spot – the shower. She also occupies the tile floor of the shower during very hot days to cool down.

Penny likes to watch a bit of television and even sits on the couch. She has a very healthy appetite and especially loves potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut, spinach and apples. Sometimes, when she thinks no one’s watching, she goes into the kitchen and fetches a potato or two by herself. She has a special spot behind her ear that she likes to have scratched, but you are only allowed to scratch her there if she knows and likes you. She does not like strangers very much and gets frightened easily. If she’s scared, she stamps her feet, growls, puffs up and shakes her quills to appear larger and to intimidate you.  

According to Maxie, Penny is better than the average watchdog; she’s very alert and, although porcupines cannot see very well, they have exceptional hearing and sense of smell. When there’s a strange or unknown sound, she stops, sits and listens quietly. If no threat exists, she continues with what she was doing. However, if danger is imminent (according to her), she switches on the defence mechanisms.

By now, Penny has become so big that they’ve made an extension to her usual play area. Although she has lots of space to roam outside, she prefers to be inside the house with her mom, watching TV and stealing potatoes when no one is watching. Penny might not be able to survive on her own in the wild but she’s content right where she is.

The Daniell Cheetah Project is based near Kirkwood in the Eastern Cape. Founded in 2001 with just three cheetahs, the organisation is now a home to several leopards, cheetahs, servals, black-footed cats, caracals, the lion brothers – and a few meerkats. Their cheetah breeding programme is aimed at preserving this beautiful wild cat species. They also offer tours of the farm designed to educate visitors. For more information, visit, follow them on Facebook at ‘Daniell Cheetah Project’ and on Twitter at ‘@Daniellcheetah’, and watch their videos on their YouTube channel.