Friday, February 4, 2011

Sleeping with Skunks

I live in a small town in East Tennessee.  There are few things finer, in my opinion.  I can step out my back door and go for a hike where I might encounter deer, raccoons, any kind of temperate climate wildlife.  I can walk along roads and on trails, along a river and through deep woods.  It's a great place to live.  I walk to church when the weather's nice; it takes about seven minutes.  I also walk to the Post Office, which takes about ten minutes.  It's a little town with little town charm.

As I said, East Tennessee is alive with wildlife, and my little town in particular has plenty.  Priding itself on its quiet nature, nature is perfectly comfortable wandering through town.  On restless nights I've prowled through the house, and spotted a wild turkey on the back patio.  It's quite startling, really.  Wild turkeys are supposed to be devilishly difficult hunting, wary and smart and startlingly powerful fliers.  But this big fellow was wandering around on my back patio, drinking from the mosquito breeding station fish pond and generally relaxing.

We get deer at almost any time.  I have gone thundering out the door to charge at deer, to chase them out of my tomato patch.  I used to believe that animals would stay away from members of the nightshade family, and that tomato plants would therefore be safe from browsers.  Not so: dozens of beautiful yellow blossoms heralding future tomatoes became dozens of browned, munched stem ends and a bitter resentment toward all things hooved.

The deer even ate our excellent stand of dill with its similarly excellent crop of swallowtail caterpillars.  More on them another day, but let me just say that we were all thrilled to see ten or so fat, glossy caterpillars growing on our dill plants.  We don't use much dill in cooking but it's a pretty plant that smells nice while it's growing, and we had had some at a previous home that yielded several large, handsome swallowtail butterflies.

Evidently the deer around here don't turn their noses up at a little extra protein.  I've heard of stranger things - sheep in Grenada eat birds.  But even this unexpected predation of our butterfly crop didn't land the deer at the top of my wildlife enemies list.  That space is reserved for something else.


I love skunks.  They're handsome, blocky little critters, shaped somewhat like badgers but with tremendous, glorious tails.  They're curious, relatively intelligent (smarter than deer, for instance), and even between members of the same species can have a significant variation in their appearance, so even if you only get one kind, you're liable to see quite a variety.

Their coloration is like that of insects: strong contrasts are a warning to would-be predators.  The skunk's stark black-and-white pattern is instantly recognizeable over a great distance.  Get inside the skunk's comfort zone and he'll stomp with his front paws, and maybe grunt or growl a warning that bad repercussions await the unwise.  Continue to encroach on his personal space, and zap - you've been skunked.

I won't get into the chemistry of the skunk's musk.  I'm not that good at chemistry, to be perfectly honest.  But I do know that of all the things out there, it's one of the stinkiest naturally-occurring compounds you're likely to come across on a regular basis.  It's also related to the odorant the utility company adds to the natural gas piped into your home - it doesn't take much at all to make a smell strong enough to detect, so even an untrained nose can sniff out a really small gas leak.  A gas leak big enough to actually ignite in free air would smell so strongly it would drive you completely out of the building.

And this is the smell I get, not going on hikes through the woods and along the streams of my pleasant sylvan setting, but under my bedroom window.

My bedroom window is next to the heat pump.  The heat pump isn't new, not especially advanced.  When it fires up, it hums and shakes and clatters a bit.  When it does its thing, it can be kind of startling.  I have certification to work on HVAC systems, I know everything that's going on in that box, and it startles me.  Now imagine you're a little critter, just 10 pounds or so, doing your own thing, rooting for earthworms and beetle larvae, munch munch thump-hummmmm.  If you had a scent gland for fending off enemies, you'd fire it off at that moment.

It's shocking how often this happens.  In any given month, I'm likely to be wakened from my sleep by skunk smell as much as two or three nights.  Bad dreams are nothing to this - when you wake from a bad dream, the dream is over.  Woken by skunk stink, the bad dream is just beginning.

At first, it's not that bad.  Pungent, very strong, smells like onions.  If you live in the South, you might think it smells like ramps.  You wouldn't be wrong; there's a lot of sulfur in the skunk's musk, just like there is in an onion, and your eyes are watering for similar reasons.  But then the smell just keeps going.  And going.  There's not a lot you can do, it's on your house.  It doesn't rinse off.

There have been times I was certain the skunk was actually under the house, though I could never find a point of entry.  Nothing else could explain the smell being that bad, but really, it was just that bad.

What to do?  Move to where there are no skunks - which would mean somewhere not in North America - or reduce the number of skunks around my home.  Not wanting to apply for a visa, I opted for the latter.  I now own several different sizes of live catch traps, and use them often.  I have caught raccoons, skunks, squirrels, and one very annoyed cat.  The cat I released immediately.

The first skunk was pretty annoyed.  He clawed at the bottom of the trap, trying to escape.  He didn't try to spray.  In fact, if it hadn't been for the racket he was making with the trap, we wouldn't have known he was there.  We put the trap in the back of the truck and carted him to the far side of the dam, about three miles away.

The dam itself is a pretty daunting obstacle; I wouldn't expect a skunk to find it, then meander all the way from one end to the other.  It's over a quarter-mile across: a short enough trip for you or me, but a pretty darned long trek for such a small animal.  And I know the skunk isn't going to cross the river.  So as far as my house is concerned, that skunk is gone forever.

Then came last night.  I was feeling pretty smart, placing the trap under the kitchen window instead of my bedroom window.  No noise from an angry skunk, so I can sleep all night.  If he makes a bad smell, it's on the downwind side of the house, and not next to my window in any case.  Good news all around.

The trap worked.  The skunk's sprayer worked.  I smelled skunky-funky all day, enough so that after the fourth person mentioned it at work, I stood in the center of the bullpen and announced to all and sundry: "NOW HEAR THIS!  I got skunked this morning!  I know I smell bad!  It's all-natural, not a scented candle!  If you smell something weird, it's me!"

Then Katie came from around her desk and told me that she thought she'd smelled something weird and wanted to know if a toilet was backing up.  There had been some confusion as to the source of a really nasty bad smell in the office yesterday, too, but that turned out to be someone's lunch.

I took this morning's skunk across the dam, just like the last one and the one before him.  As far as my house is concerned, he's gone forever.

While we were on our way to release our trapped skunk, we saw another one meandering across the road.  I'm setting the trap again tonight.

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