Sometimes Nature Stinks

I know more about skunks than I did last week. Although I did not have a personal encounter, I have a friend who did.

Gene lives in a well-established, heavily populated neighborhood close to a creek. An enthusiastic birder and naturalist, Gene had set about trapping a family of feral cats that were foraging on birds at his bird-feeder. Using a live trap, he captured one of the cats and enlisted the help of the humane society in removing it. He reset the trap to try again the next night. In the morning the trap held more than he had bargained for. Instead of a cat, he had himself a skunk. This time the humane society, far from rushing to his rescue, gave him advice on how to release the skunk while remaining unscathed.

Gene donned a garbage bag with openings cut for arms and head, took a piece of old carpet to put over the cage and sallied forth. Waiting for him was not only the caged adolescent skunk, but another skunk, possibly a sibling, standing by the incarcerated animal. The second skunk did not flee as Gene had hoped, but sauntered off a ways to watch the proceedings.

Attempting to maintain a level-head, Gene covered the cage, except for the end with the door, with the carpet. Carefully he opened the door and waited for the skunk to scamper out and join its friend. The skunk did indeed exit, but rather than scurrying off, came around the cage, sniffed Gene’s sandaled feet, and ultimately walked off to join its companion while Gene stood still as a statue. After the pair disappeared beneath a nearby shed, Gene took a deep breath once again, thankful to have no lingering memories of this encounter except a vivid mental picture.

I have only seen skunks occasionally and always from afar. Apparently these primarily nocturnal animals give a warning before spraying the potent potion we associate with them. They stomp their feet and hiss or growl before they spray from glands located near their tail. Common wisdom has it that a skunk’s eyesight is poor, so it is possible to sneak up on one unnoticed. And, supposedly, if you pick a skunk up by the tail, it cannot spray because it needs to have a firm stance with its hind feet on the ground before it can discharge its musk. This is not a theory I yearn to test.

On a loftier plane this encounter leads to musings about how we can cohabit peacefully with wildlife. Many animals are fairly successful at sharing their territory with humans as they move in and may keep a low enough profile that we do not know they are there. But eventually a conflict develops as space diminishes. Unwelcome encounters for both man and animal lead to confrontations that neither wins. What value do we place on sharing a world with wildlife? What are the rewards? How can we manage?

Until 1993 YSI provided animal rehabilitation for sick and injured animals at its Alum Rock site. Often when an animal recovered it was released into a world that caused its sickness or injury in the first place. This service was discontinued primarily for lack of space and money, but also because YSI’s primary mission was education–education that often poses difficult questions that have no simple answers.