Fonder fumes

A picture of a man nose to nose with a skunk caught my attention. Jerry Dragoo, the Smithsonian article says, is a 40-year-old assistant biology professor in New Mexico who has a passion for the study of skunks. He is uniquely qualified for this work by nature; he has almost no sense of smell.

During his studies, when he gets sprayed (with skunk juice), he doesn’t really notice, which causes a small flurry of trouble with his colleagues (Dragoo says he’s heard they find him hard to work with) not to mention his wife; he houses seven of the odiferous critters at home – 4 outside; 3 in.

Dragoo has made a name for himself because of his work on skunk evolution. He could not group skunks as they had always been with other small, ferocious animals like badgers, otters, weasels and wolverines.

His studies showed that millions of years ago, North American skunks branched off to form their own distinct family classification. His 1997 paper on this caused a stir in the scientific world since a new classification is rare. His research has changed sciences view of the skunk.

The article about this “skunk man” fascinated me, so that when I passed a title while I was shelving books at the school library, I couldn’t resist borrowing it. What’s Wrong With Being A Skunk? by Miriam Schlein (1974, Four Winds Press).

In it, I discovered that skunks have usually been a farmer’s friend, unless they raid the hen house. They make worthy guests since they help with pest control; they eat rodents, insects, and all sorts of things that damage crops.

Skunks are nocturnal and usually sleep during the winter – a kind of semi-hibernation with an occasional trip outside for food. Their purposefully unique coloring makes them recognizable without mistake. Skunks are one of few creatures that need not be afraid of animals many times their size.

I find this a delightful concept. A skunk can lumber about with a laid back attitude knowing that as long as it is fully charged and ready to fire, it is in control. It has “five rounds of ammunition” before it has to wait a few days to fill up again with is oily, yellow, putrid liquid. During this vulnerable time, it must keep a low profile and watch the company it keeps.

For this reason, skunks are not “trigger happy.” When they feel threatened, they give plenty of warning to “back off” and “leave me alone.” First they stop still, then they stamp the ground and, perhaps, chatter their teeth or growl. Next, if the threat hasn’t retreated, they lift their tail – all but the tip (like cocking the gun). If he is still pressured to raise that tail tip – look out!

I haven’t straddled a road killed skunk for some time and I wouldn’t overlook this since a car usually fills with their distinct odor just a few feet beyond.

Skunks used to raid my brother’s cat dishes in the barn during the night, but I haven’t heard him talk about it for a few years. I hope this doesn’t mean that our skunk population is declining since I’ve just come to see them in a new light – or I should say “smell” them in a new “scents.”

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