Our Window on Nature

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You Little Stinker

Filed under: Mammals — Lowell Christie -- June 15, 2008 @ 11:15 am

Skunk_1Not long ago we were
out for a walk and we smelled a skunk — a very ripe, very dead skunk. When we finally located the source of the odor it proved to be a dried out, thoroughly dismembered carcass that had obviously been lying beside the road for months. Unseasonably warm weather had activated its pungent scent, proving that the odor of wood pussy certainly lingers. Long ago it had tangled with a car, lost, and ended up on the grassy bank.

That brings up the question of why in some areas skunks are exceeded only by rabbits and opossums in numbers of road kills. We all know how numerous rabbits are and how stupid opossums are, but skunks? They aren’t that numerous and they certainly aren’t dumb. Just overly confident.

Most life experiences don’t prepare skunks for their encounters with metal monsters. They’re not sleek, slim, running machines; they’ve never known a reason to run from anything. Since other creatures, wild, domesticated, or human, tend to give them a wide berth, skunks can move at a walk or at most a graceful lope. It’s just that, somehow, automobiles fail to get the message. And the unwary skunks end up dead.

These black-and-white beauties aren’t the only members of their family with scent glands, but relatives such as weasels, otters, and minks use their spraying apparatus only for mating and establishing territories. Only skunks have evolved the technique of using scent in chemical warfare. Here’s the scenario.

Anatomically speaking, a skunk comes equipped with two scent pouches, each containing six rounds of ammunition. Once those magazines are emptied it will be about a week before the skunk is reloaded and ready for action. Therefore, a skunk doesn’t shoot without provocation.

When confronting another animal, the skunk typically just wanders away. Stand and watch one, and you’ll enjoy its sinuous movement. But don’t pursue it; should the skunk decide you pose a threat, it will next turn to face its aggressor, you, and stamp its forefeet. If you fail to heed this warning, next comes the ultimatum, a raised tail, all but the tip. Ignore that at your peril, for now the tail goes up as the skunk snaps into a U-shaped position with both snout and rear end pointing toward its victim. Ready . . . aim . . . fire. Accurate to within ten feet and delivered forward, sideways, or up as needed, the spray usually finds its target, the eyes.

Contrary to popular belief, skunk spray probably won’t do you permanent damage, except perhaps for your clothes if you have to burn them. After about 15 minutes of sheer, burning agony, you’ll come around. You won’t want to inhale too deeply because of the overwhelming odor, and no one will be willing to commiserate except by telephone, and you won’t be allowed to enter the coach until you have bathed in tomato juice and washed your hair in imitation vanilla extract and been subjected to and passed the whiff test. But otherwise you’ll survive.

Humans and canines usually learn after one hard lesson, but a neighboring camper once told us about a farm dog he had as a child growing up in Nebraska. That canine never learned to avoid skunks; in fact, it was enraged by them, determined to extract retribution for previous wrongs. The skunk always won, of course, and it was Ray’s job to deodorize his pet before either were allowed back into polite society.

Our encounters with skunks have all been benign. They’re close neighbors where we live now, and they saunter through the campground on occasion or cross our path when we’re out for a walk. But our favorite experience took place in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains some years ago. We were sitting outside our rig enjoying a summer evening when a skunk joined us. It even brought a friend. Together the pair investigated a paper bag filled with trash from dinner.

We discovered that skunks squabble just like children, and this time the altercation appeared to be over possession of an empty tomato can. We next heard a couple of skunks stamping their feet. Do skunks bomb each other? Not this time at least. One skunk shot out of the sack with the other in pursuit. No smell, just a delightful encounter.


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