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  • April 10th, 2017


By Joel M. Vance

Remember how your second grade teacher wagged her finger at you just before she sent you to stand in the corner for dipping little Janie Sue’s pigtails in the ink well? Ink well? What’s that? Okay, maybe you erased Janie Sue’s computer program, but you get the picture.
The warning signal, then the punishment. That’s what the skunk in the trail was giving me—the wagging finger—when its bushy tail elevated and shook side to side. I got the picture. Miss Pallette never did stamp her feet and she smelled like musty lavender but I knew when to back off in second grade and I knew when to back off on my trail, on my property.
In a dispute over property rights the skunk always wins.
Just ask my bird dog. Once I was quail hunting in 20 degree weather. I heard the dog yelp on the other side of a hill. He scooted back, dragging behind him a mephitic cloud that nearly knocked me over. Apparently he had a social encounter with a skunk during which the skunk did all the talking.
We were 40 miles from home and I was driving the family car. I risked hypothermia for both me and the dog by breaking ice in a nearby pond to give the dog a bath. I then coated him with mud and loaded him in the car, wrapped in my coat. We drove home with all the windows down. It was, in the terms of outdoor writers who usually are speaking of triumphant days afield, “a memorable hunt.”
The erring dog is almost endemic among skunk stories. If you own a dog in skunk country long enough, chances are very good that you will be faced with a defusing situation (either that or hope to find a passing dog buyer with a stone nose). Some dogs never make the connection between foul and burning stink and the little animal that looks so chase-able.
The remedies are several and mostly ineffective. Bathing the dog in tomato juice is supposed to be a never-fail, but it does not work. Several of us were renting a suite in a motel during a grouse hunt when one of the hunters dragged his Lab through the two rooms, followed by the most awful stench imaginable. “She rolled in a dead skunk,” he announced grimly, heading for the bathroom. He had two quart-cans of tomato juice tucked under his arm and the expression of someone heading for the gallows.
He and the dog engaged in odorific wrestling for a long time and when they emerged they wore a contrail of mixed scents—something like a Bloody Mary from Hell.
By a vote of three to one (the dog dissenting), we banished the crestfallen canine to a frosty portable kennel in the owner’s pickup. She began to howl lonesomely about 1 a.m. Shortly after, doors banged downstairs in the motel and large, aggressive long-haul truckers demanded to know whose condemned dog that was.
We remained very quiet, although the dog didn’t. No matter how irritating the dog’s noise was none of the surly truckers wanted to get close enough to administer justice.
In a 1995 Popular Science magazine article, chemist Paul Krebaum wrote that this recipe would eliminate skunk stink: One quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, one quarter cup of baking soda, and one teaspoon of liquid soap. Bathe the dog in this solution and rinse. He also said that there is no way to store the solution. “If you put the ingredients in a bottle, the whole thing would explode.”
There are ripple effects from some skunk encounters. It’s not, as the old saying goes, “over till it’s over.” Rufus was a large collie, the family pet when our children were wee. We all enjoyed canoe trips, although Rufus never quite grasped the concept of balance and much preferred to stand where the ground under him didn’t rock back and forth.
I was awakened in the pit of a moonless night, the river burbling past a few feet from our tent on a gravel bar, by the most awful, overwhelming stench this side of a road-killed rhinoceros in mid-July. It was so noisome that I didn’t identify it as skunk. I rose from my snug bed and went outside to investigate. Rufus followed me around the gravel bar peering here and there with me, ever helpful in the Lassie tradition.
And then it sank into my sleep and stink-addled brain. Rufus was the bearer of some really bad tidings. “Oh, Rufus!” I exclaimed. “How could you?” He hung his head in shame. Rufus found, the next day, what it was like to swim the English Channel—about 10 miles of dog paddling which somewhat defused him.
If you’re within 15 feet of an angry skunk, you are in peril. The yellow, oily musk is expelled from glands on either side of the skunk’s upraised tail. For the chemically-inclined, the musk is a combination of methyl and butyl thiols—the word “methane” appears in the description and methane is the stuff of really bad odors.
Skunks are sight shooters and the theory is that if you can live trap one (not leg-hold; they spray instantly when the trap closes) and throw a cover over the cage, the skunk, not able to pick its target, will lock and load but not fire.
If you’re moving a skunk to new territory, make it at least five miles away or your odiferous visitor might return. On the other hand, you can try to co-exist. I know a fellow who had a skunk take up residence underneath his duck blind. All was well until the first shot of the season. The skunk took the second shot.
The late Pulitzer Prize cartoonist Bill Mauldin talked about an episode from his childhood in his memoir A Sort of a Saga which involved skunks or, more specifically, their major weapon. He and his brother Sid bartered a friend for a bottle of skunk musk that the friend had collected from animals he’d trapped.
They had heard that skunk musk was used in perfume manufacture and so they were going to sell it, money being short in the Depression. Skunk musk actually is used as a fixative in perfume—with the bad smell removed but with the ability to permeate and cling remaining.
But both Sears and Montgomery Ward passed on this aromatic prize and instead the Mauldin boys decided to use their awesome elixir to get even with a loud-voiced, bridge-playing friend of the family who had kept them awake with his bellowing.
They poured the musk on the exhaust manifold of the man’s car and the porous metal soaked it up like a sponge. Every time the car heated up the smell rose in an awful fog. “Far into the following cold winter that car could be seen running around with all its windows open, the Voice inside wearing a heavy coat and wrinkling his nose,” Mauldin wrote.
Often the automobile suffers not from Mauldin boys, but from a skunk’s inability to distinguish between predators it can handle and those it can’t. Skunk mommas fall in lust earlier in the spring than almost any wildlife except great horned owls. Come February, skunks begin to cruise for love and it is then that they run afoul (literally) of Detroit’s finest. Some years back Loudon Wainwright sang a lovely ballad titled “Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road)” which chronicled the fate of many an adventurous skunk. .
“He shoulda looked left and he shoulda looked right….” Wainwright sang about a skunk that lost a battle with a station wagon, but it wouldn’t have mattered–after all, the woods puss has no fear of anything, including a monster with eight snorting cylinders.
Assuming a pair of skunks of the opposite sex manages to evade highway peril and mate, they will cooperate in producing a litter of from two to as many as 16 kits with three to 10 as the average. The babies are blind and hairless at birth, born in a burrow.
The eyes don’t open until the kits are from three weeks to 35 days. They’ll nurse in the burrow for as long as seven weeks before they venture into the world outside.
Skunks are members of the Mephitidae family which comprises 11 species worldwide, including nine in the United States. Most common are the striped and spotted skunks, but all skunks are striped at birth. Western spotted skunks are a Wyoming resident
Taxonomists still are arguing over whether skunks belong to the Mustilidae family, which includes otters, weasels, badgers, and martens, but current thinking is that they don’t.
The name probably is a corruption of an Algonquin Indian word, dating to the first settlements in the late 1500s. Citizens of the Windy City may be thrilled to know that Chicago is derived from an Indian word “shee-gawk” which means “Skunk land.”
And the origin of the common phrase, “drunk as a skunk” is debatable. One etymologist argues that it comes from “stinking drunk” which logically would lead to something that really stinks. Another word hawk believes the name comes from the waddling gait of a skunk that resembles someone tottering home from the local pub. But chances are it is merely because “skunk” rhymes with “drunk.”
Skunks often are accused of being prime vectors for rabies, along with bats, and it’s true they are a major carrier of the dread virus—but rabies is over publicized as a threat. Actually, more than half of reported cases are from raccoon bites. Skunks account for about 20 percent. Foxes and bats are responsible for about 10 percent each of reported cases.
Rabies actually is rare—there were only 32 laboratory-confirmed cases in the United States between 1980-96 and at least some of those originated with dog bites that happened in foreign countries.
Still, no one should risk a bite from a wild animal. A friend, during a National Guard camp out in Minnesota, once fell asleep after eating salted peanuts. During the night what probably was a ground squirrel nipped his finger, probably to get at the salt on it. Since there was no way to tell whether he’d been assaulted by a rabid animal or not, he faced the choice of getting the round of anti-rabies shots or hoping for the best.
He opted to throw the dice and avoid the shots…and luckily they came up sevens. But dying from rabies (and it almost always is fatal without quick treatment after the bite) is agonizing.
Our son once picked up a young raccoon and got bitten. Fortunately he kept a grip on the animal which then could be tested for rabies. It proved to be merely angry, not rabid, and he was spared the needle. The raccoon wasn’t as lucky—testing for rabies involves killing the suspect animal.
Since there is no rabies vaccine for skunks, a pet skunk that bites someone is a “sacrificed” skunk—it must be killed to test for rabies. Some do have skunks as pets—a recent television commercial spotlights a skunk wandering through a house and you’re supposed to hold your breath in anticipation of disaster, but then the skunk, a pet, snuggles up to the homeowner and you buy the advertised product.
Obviously any skunk raised as a pet will need its six guns checked at the door. That’s done by surgery when the skunk is young. Skunks are, like most wild animals, headstrong (meaning they do what skunks do, not necessarily what their “owners” demand they do). They are smart and inquisitive and can be a nuisance.
For more information, check http://www.skunkhaven.net/. Despite the fact that skunks can be pets and that some are raised for that purpose, think long and hard before getting one unless you have understanding neighbors, locally permissive ordinances and a personal talent for tolerance.
Wild skunks for sure are best left alone—after all, anyone who deliberately taunts a skunk in the wild must be as drunk as one….

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