(journal)

What's the Stink About Skunks?

To a lot of people, they're varmints with a (pungent) twist. Herewith some second thoughts about an animal of a decidedly different stripe.

By Jeff Hull


Late last summer I pulled into a gas station, got out and knelt to peer under my truck, and said a bad word. The checkout girl, leaning on the building, having a smoke, asked if everything was okay. I told her I'd run over a stump. When I went inside to pay for my gas, the girl rang up my purchase while a bony guy in a jeans jacket and a tight white T-shirt waited behind me.

"Is everything okay from the skunk?" the girl asked.

This confused me. I had been live-trapping skunks for over two weeks, but I couldn't imagine how she knew.

"No, I said I ran over a stump."

The bony guy leaned forward. "Oh, 'cause I was going to tell you what to do about them skunks."

"Well," I said, "I've been trapping skunks, too."

His eyebrows popped even while his lids narrowed, the expression of a man about to share knowledge hard-earned by his own wiles. He said, "The thing with skunks is, all you gotta do is kill one, then just leave it lay. At night all the other skunks around will come eat it, and you can shoot 'em right off the carcass."

I'll admit that the first time I saw a skunk on my place, I shot it. I live on a dirt road that winds eight washboard miles from pavement, and the pavement is five more miles from an obscure interstate exit in western Montana. I was fancying myself a man of rural character at the time. It's hard to find people of rural character who think twice about killing skunks. Last summer a neighbor shot five in one day for the simple reason that he saw five in one day. But after I killed that first one, I felt uneasy about the act, or the thinking behind it.

When I was a child, living in small-town Ohio, I had a pet skunk. A man was advertising a wad of baby skunks he claimed were abandoned. While I held one of these kitten-size skunklings, it sliced my finger pad with its sharp incisors. Fearing rabies, my father bought that skunk just to keep an eye on it. Skunks are no more virulent a vector for rabies than bats or raccoons—population density seems to be the determining factor—but with the agony of long-needled shots in the stomach as an outlook, prudence reigned.

My skunk lived. I named him Flower (think: Bambi), made him a home in a rabbit hutch, and took him for walks around the neighborhood. There are few attention-getting devices greater than a skunk on a leash. We had his scent glands removed. I used a pair of leather welding gloves when I handled Flower because, although he would sometimes climb all over me without a hint of aggressive intent, Flower was an essentially wild animal, riddled with impulses, triggers, and reactive instinct. He'd bite me for what felt like no reason. Nevertheless, I thought Flower felt a certain affinity to me, and I went to him when, as a seven-year-old, the world of people confused me. I felt like we had some things in common.

Eventually Flower went to a new home at the Toledo Zoo, where he lived out his days entertaining small children in a petting park.

 

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, people can't kill skunks fast enough. There's a meanness to the extermination. I told a neighbor, an older man, about live-trapping skunks and releasing them far from any homes.

"I used to live-trap them," he said, "but then I'd just drown them in the river."

Skunks prefer not to spray. They'll raise their bottle-brush tails straight, then stamp the ground with their forepaws. Sometimes they'll lift into a handstand, just to let you understand the agility you're messing with. They click their teeth, growl and hiss, and generally position themselves as fierce and unflappable individuals. This is all bluff; given the alternative, they'll then turn and flee. But it's bluff with a subtext. If pressed, there's the much-ballyhooed about-face, followed by a natural gassing.

When skunks spray, they utilize a pair of small nipples near the anus to shoot a fine mist of atomized liquid over their attacker. Skunks can spray eight to a dozen feet with discouraging accuracy. A healthy skunk can squeeze off five or six shots in succession, though it might then take days to stew up enough potion to fully reload, which explains their preference for the bluff. The offensive ingredient in skunk spray—sulphur compounds known as mercaptans—has been known to science for a century.

Mainly we all do fine living with skunks—until every now and then we notice one. Then things usually go badly for the skunk. Skunks are not aggressive creatures, only inconvenient.

I started trapping skunks because they were overrunning my place. This is backyard biology, I'll admit, but I didn't think the surplus was good for any of us. Too often, my extremely spoiled Labs came home dowsed in eau de burning tires. Because the dogs sleep on my bed, this became untenable. Too, almost every night I awoke aware of skunk odor so strong that I felt certain one had snuck in the cat door and was trolling through the kitchen, wondering where I kept the eggs.

By midsummer, each morning I inevitably saw in the pale dawn light two or three skunks rooting around the front yard. These were very observable animals, deliberate, unafraid, and relatively approachable. They were common striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis). Mephitis derives from the Latin mephit, meaning "bad odor." The vernacular skunk is thought to come from an Abenaki Indian term variously spelled segankw or segongw. There are, in various parts of North America, spotted, hooded, and hog-nosed skunks, though none is as widely distributed as the common striped skunk. A striped skunk may grow to be 7 to 10 pounds and may live 8 to 10 years, although that would be a lucky individual.

Skunks are excellent mousers, as good as cats at thinning hordes of small rodents—reason enough to want them around. They also eat grubs, grasshoppers, grasses, bees, berries, beetles, bird eggs, earthworms, acorns, carrion, and garbage. It's these last two that bring them to grief.

The attraction to carrion—noted by my friend at the gas station—means that skunks scavenging roadsides are often themselves added to the splatter. The only systematic natural predator skunks have are great horned owls, which aren't bothered by the smell and find themselves hunting at night, when skunks are wobbling about. But human-caused mortality probably now exceeds the number of skunks killed by owls.

I'm loath to say that our use for them reflects any change in their value as living creatures, but it's certainly true that I'm not the only one pondering their prolificacy. A number of scientists have examined skunks— unique reproductive tactics, with an eye toward refining human birth control and infertility treatments. Some skunk species are able to delay the implantation of a fertilized embryo into their uterine wall—although scientists are uncertain what mechanism triggers this phenomenon. But they know that the substances that halt and retrigger skunk embryo growth are nonsteroidal. If scientists can better understand this mechanism and apply that knowledge to the human reproductive system, they've found a nonsteroidal form of birth control and infertility treatments.

Apparently I had some very successful breeders on my place. By late August any short stroll around my yard revealed pilings of seed-specked skunk dung. So I chose a particularly crap-dappled spot by the woodpile, then cracked a pair of eggs and placed them in a box trap.

The next morning I saw a black-and-white patch of fur clotting the trap's cage. I had read an article about a skunk trapper who said that if you cover your trap with a blanket, the skunk won't identify a locus of danger and won't waste its spray until it can recognize a target. Cloaked in a jerry-built HAZMAT suit—ragged clothes I wouldn't mind burning, a surgeon's mask, plastic surgical gloves, and an old cap, I snuck up on the trap. Using the woodpile as cover, I tossed a blanket over the cage. No spray.

 

In five nights, Icaught four skunks. Then a dog got resprayed. I set the trap, caught another and more, until I'd trapped eight skunks in a fortnight. The last skunk I caught refused to leave the trap. I think of this skunk as a young female, though I have no basis for that beyond whim and the fact that she seemed smaller than the rest. I found perhaps the best release site of all for her, 12 miles from the nearest house, a broad meadow through which trickled a stream bordered by evergreen woods dense with undergrowth and deadfall.

But when I propped open the trapdoor, the skunk hunkered inside. I crept close, tapped the cage with a stick. She held tight. I could smell her—not the nose-bleeding spray smell but the not-unpleasant cedary-sawdusty scent of all the other things that make a skunk a skunk—life underground, grubs and grass roots, long coarse fur. It reminded me of the way Flower used to smell.

I lifted the blanket. The skunk looked at me. Her tiny black eyes seemed puzzled, like a puppy away from its littermates. Around her nose and mouth I could see traces of pink. I plucked a stalk of timothy and poked at her nose. The skunk batted at the grass, then lunged forward, fangs bared, stamping both front feet on the floor of the cage. That sent me hurtling backward into a pile of brush. But I returned and knelt and talked to the skunk for a while. She was hot and tired and befuddled—if newly confident in her ability to back me off—and the trap was shaded and full of soft blanket shreddings. I hadn't talked much to a skunk since Flower.

After a half-hour, I had told her everything I knew about what her life might be like from here on out. With a final warning about owls, I held the door to the cage open, picked up the other end, and dumped the skunk on her butt. She wasted little time with outrage, instead quickly recovered and ambled off. I stalked her while she searched for cover, her humped gait and low ground clearance lending the appearance of a thick black-and-white pelt flowing over the landscape. I watched the skunk go to ground beneath the confused tendrils of an uprooted tree and disappear into the darkness it afforded.

 

Sometimes I imagine my skunks, so placid while I drove them around, instead going manic as the cage is submerged in some river's cold current. Many of my neighbors shoot skunks, herons, and foxes as reflex. At a party one night, I was talking about trapping skunks when a neighbor broke in and brayed, "Why would you waste your time? Skunk's as good for a bullet as a coyote."

I know I put some of those skunks in danger when I moved them. I took some into territories likely claimed by other skunks, maybe turned a few loose where owls hunt. I also redistributed the gene pool a little, which is never a bad thing. I have a mixed record.

Mainly we all do fine living with skunks—until every now and then we notice one. Then things usually go badly for the skunk. Skunks are not aggressive creatures, only inconvenient, and only that because of a brilliant defense mechanism designed to be inconvenient without actually causing harm. Pity an animal that isn't even in our way, simply contains the potential to ruin our pants. We shoot it, or trap it and toss the trap into the river.

Nothing about the self-defense of a skunk stinks worse than that.



Jeff Hull lives in Montana and has a stripe down his back a mile wide.


 

© 2003  NASI

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