NR Digital

Country Life

Black-and-White Visitor

by Richard Brookhiser

The smell hits you as soon as you open the door: faint but sharp, and unpleasant. The closest equivalent is the chemical they put in propane, to aid in detecting leaks. But this is nature’s chemical, the odor of skunk.

Growing up in the suburbs I never saw a skunk on the loose. Raccoons, yes: They go anywhere, even Brooklyn. Their long-striped cousins are pickier. Now in the country, one (or a family of them) has picked my house. Their names are not on the mortgage or the tax map, but they are most definitely in residence.

Skunks live only in the New World; the first white men to observe them were the French, in 17th-century Canada. Their naturalists described them censoriously: enfans du diable (children of the devil) . . . une beste fort puante (quite a stinky beast). A 19th-century American was more appreciative: A skunk “does not evince that dread of man that is so manifest in the vast majority of our mammals, and when met during any of his circumambulations rarely thinks of running away. He is slow in movement and deliberate in action and does not often hurry himself in whatever he does, . . . but when pressed for time he breaks into a low shuffling gallop.” Got to love that anthropomorphizing — or was it simply empathic? — “pressed for time”: as if the skunk glanced at his little skunk watch and cried, I’m late! Even this author admitted, however, that he has “known the scent to become strikingly apparent in every part of a well-closed house, in winter, within five minutes after a skunk had been killed at a distance of more than a hundred yards.” To say nothing of live skunks, on the spot.

Most of the pelts of country animals are designed to blend and fade: Foxes are rusty, not storybook red; raccoons’ ringtails blur in motion and dim light. The coats of deer change with the seasons: light in the summer sun, darker with dark highlights for foraging in stark winter thickets. The bold bright pattern of a skunk — which really pops on its lustrous fur — must serve as an advertisement: coming to a nostril near you — big trouble (so back off). That is why it was so surprising to see the albino who used to live two miles down the road. He would appear in our home-coming headlights, trundling across the pavement, ghostly. What he lost in contrast he may have made up in surface area; perhaps all-white was still warning enough. Though we haven’t seen him in a long while: A predator or a car (or time) must have taken him out.

Our friend Doug, the naturalist around the corner, says the worst noise he has ever heard was two skunks mating. Animal mating in general puts one off the whole business of romance: brief, screaming, hostile, like Harvey Weinstein offering a script to Stormy Daniels. Yet there keep being more animals, so it must not bother them.

I saw my skunk late in the fall. I had stepped out onto the deck, which I do four or five times a night, just to watch and listen, to wandering airplanes and distant owls. Suddenly, and much closer at hand, came a skunk, who circumambulated right under the deck, practically at my feet (the deck floats, a step off the ground). I made direct contact only once more, during a winter thaw, when on another nighttime step-out I heard a rustling in the leaf litter. By then, however, direct contact was scarcely necessary, for he or she or they had left many cartes de visite.

The smell was truly obnoxious only a few times; once indeed we thought it was a propane leak, and it took the late-night visit of a drowsy technician to assure us that his employers’ wares were not responsible. A faint musk lingers, however — forgotten over time, but detectable whenever it is encountered afresh.

My admiring American made the case for letting the skunk be. “No other species is half so valuable to the farmer. Pre-eminently an insect-eater, he destroys more beetles, grasshoppers and the like than all our other mammals together, and in addition to these he devours vast numbers of mice.” Fine. But could he destroy and devour at a distance?

The local paper — biweekly, a catalogue of town and school-board meetings and obits — carries advertisements for pest-control specialists. We have used them to rid us of rats and flying squirrels. Calls to a few revealed their common policy. The initial inspection is cheap, or free. For $300, they will put out a box trap. Sounds doable. But the trap must be checked daily, which is hard to do when you spend 5/7 of a week in the omphalos. Ask Doug? He has his own business to attend to. Pay the pest controllers to check their trap? That adds up real fast. Second but: The trespassing skunk(s), once trapped, must be killed. The game laws typically run the other way: Go to jail, go directly to jail, if you so much as pick up a discarded feather. Why skunks, however diabolical they smell, must be snuffed, I cannot imagine, unless releasing them elsewhere is considered importing a nuisance. This winter has been intermittently arctic, which makes skunks drowsy. But soon enough their namesakes, the skunk cabbages, will be poking up, and then we are off to the summer solstice. Active skunks are bound to be smellier. What to do?

As he so often does, Doug proposed a solution. Skunks shun daylight. In his great floating collection of things — a library of machinery and spare parts — there will surely be an outside lamp or two. If he mounts one with a motion sensor beneath the deck, then the skunks, returning from their midnight rambles, will be greeted by the glare of paparazzi. They will take themselves off, without having to face death, except at the talons of average enemies. We shall see, and, I hope, not smell.

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