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home : columns : columns August 21, 2017

3/11/2014 1:59:00 PM
A surfeit of skunks!
A striped skunk is relocated to a remote area well outside of town. photo by Mitch Eisenbeis
+ click to enlarge
A striped skunk is relocated to a remote area well outside of town. photo by Mitch Eisenbeis

The only thing to compare with what I recently discovered on our property would be the notoriously foul-smelling "Skonk Works" in Al Capp's mythical, and long-extinct, cartoon world of Li'l Abner's Dogpatch. While Dogpatch, Li'l Abner, the voluptuous Daisy Mae, and the Skonk Works all died with Al Capp in 1979, a pungent, and unfortunate, reminder of Dogpatch apparently lives on.

For several years, we reluctantly coexisted with what we thought was "a" skunk, resigning ourselves to the occasional foul odor wafting through the logs of our home. Over time, I made some half-hearted attempts to encourage "it" to go elsewhere: ammonia as a repellant, chicken-wire fencing, and even an "alleged" electronic repellent.

To say that skunks are odoriferous is a screaming understatement; the smell is ghastly and extremely difficult to eliminate. When I was in school, skunks were classified as part of the weasel family (Mustelidae). Apparently, even the weasels didn't want them around, because they've since been given a family classification all their own (Mephitidae).

The skunk residence was under a guest cabin in our side yard, and it began to draw increasing criticism from guest cabin inhabitants. As a result, I recently ramped up eviction measures.

Late last fall, we thought we had been successful in clearing the realm of skunkdom by directing really loud music through the floorboards of the cabin where we knew the skunk den was located. Sure enough, that was the last we saw - or rather smelled - of skunks until last week. More pungent than ever, the skunk odor was back.

I suppose the problem may never have left, or perhaps it moved to a nearby alternative denning site. During the coldest part of the winter, skunks tend to hole up and become inactive. So maybe the problem was just napping, or had recently returned from a vacation home off somewhere else.

In any event, upon reappearance, things were even smellier than in the past. Skunks are omnivores and can actually be handy to have around because they mostly eat insects and other creepy little things, but the odor issue was kind of a deal-breaker.

I tried to block off the potential entries under the cabin's porch, but skunks are good diggers. On just one occasion, a couple of years ago, I saw a skunk leaving the cabin at dusk. As I far as I knew, there was only the one, so I assumed it was a male because males are solitary. Females, on the other hand, often den together in groups.

About the size of a smallish house-cat, I figured a skunk could fit into a mid-size Havahart trap; but, once the trap was deployed, I only caught squirrels and rabbits. Even such enticing baits as peanut butter and chicken organs failed to lure the intended quarry. I received some after-the-fact advice recommending sardines; but, by that time, the issue was moot.

As a last resort, I blocked off every possible entrance with reams of chicken wire, leaving only one possible route, which is where I put the trap. My wife kept asking me what I was going to do with a skunk if I actually caught one. I decided to play that by ear.

Well, finally, I did catch a skunk; so then I did need a plan. I called ODF&W. They weren't interested and made it clear that I was on my own. I'd always heard that a skunk can't "fire" its weaponry if it can't get its tail and rear end up in the air. So, I decided that the low ceiling on the trap ought to keep it in check. I threw an old towel over the trap, lowered it into a box, and placed it all in the back of my truck. So far, so good.

As long as I was the one taking the risks, my son was content to be an interested spectator during all of this. Still, he decided to come along with me on the relocation trip. Someone had told him that such critters should be relocated at least three miles away to make sure they don't return. We didn't think that was enough; so, 13 miles later we pulled up at a promising location on remote BLM land.

I set the trap on the ground, opened the trap door, and quickly retreated. For a few minutes, nothing happened. Finally, a nose poked out through the door, then ducked back inside. Next, a whole head emerged and looked around, sniffed the ground, and came about halfway out. Finally, the skunk left the trap and looked around some more, then loped off and ran under my truck. Uh-oh.

Much to my relief, the skunk kept right on going after running under the truck. It never postured or threatened us and, when last we saw, was headed off into the junipers. I wished that skunk well, but I sure didn't want to ever see it again.

So, imagine my surprise when, a couple of days later, there was new evidence of a smelly creature digging under the cabin. Out came the traps again. Sure enough, two days later, I had another skunk, a second one - larger with different markings. The next day, yet another.

So, it turns out that it wasn't just a solitary male but probably a whole group of females; and that's where we stand at present. I don't know, yet, if there might be still more.

Since there are pods of whales, a murder of crows, and a conspiracy of ravens, I wondered if there was a "group" word for skunks. There is. It's called a "surfeit." Very appropriately, surfeit literally means "an excessive amount of something."

So, by either definition, we unequivocally had a surfeit of skunks. Having no desire to resurrect Big Barnsmell's Dogpatch Skonk Works, I hope that we've seen of the last of them.

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