Great Skunk Caper

By Bob Noonan

That summer vacation before high school started, I was broke. I tried picking peas at a local farm for a day, and that made enough money to buy enough candy to give me enough energy to pick more peas.

My buddy Eddie was in the same boat. One afternoon we sat on the porch of the nursing home his mother owned, racking our brains for ways to make money. Eddie thumbed through a magazine and showed me an ad proclaiming in bold letters: "SKUNKS MAKE GREAT PETS!" For a mere $50, it said, we could own a deodorized skunk.

The nursing home had a garbage dump out back, and we saw skunks there. They were attractive animals, and the thought of bothering them never crossed our minds. But $50! We would sell skunks for pets and become wealthy.

We agreed that deodorizing a skunk couldn't be too complicated. I'd taken a mail-order taxidermy course, and having stuffed a rat, pigeons and a squirrel or two, I was sure I could handle the operation. We sent away for a booklet describing the procedure.

The next item we needed was a skunk. We had a dumpful - but how to lay our hands on one safely? Several local outdoorsmen were fond of telling us kids that if you grabbed an unsuspecting skunk by the tail and lifted his hind legs off the ground, he couldn't spray. It sounded scientific, but we were dubious. We decided we had to do more research.

We visited a local trapper, a man who supposedly released unwanted skunks from his traps - by hand. By the faint odor about him we knew he had an acquaintance with the species. He was a fountain of information.

"A skunk has two stink glands on his behind," he told us. "He sprays by squeezing muscles around the glands, aiming for the face when possible. He can score a direct hit out to 12 feet. The stuff ejects in yellow drops, then expands into a mist. It'll choke and blind you for a minute, but it won't really hurt you.

"A skunk is a peaceful animal and won't spray unless provoked," he continued. "But he'll give warning first. If you get too close, he'll stop what he's doing and raise his tail. If you keep coming, he'll point his rear end at you and look over his shoulder, taking aim. If you're still coming, he'll raise the tip of his tail. That's a bad sign. When you see that, take a deep breath, cover your eyes and hit the deck. He's gonna shoot.

"When I catch a skunk in a trap, I approach real slow and talk to it quiet. A calm voice can keep it from getting riled. I keep moving until the tail goes up. I stop, keep talking, and pretty soon the tail goes down and I move in again."

We digested this information. Then Eddie asked, "If you grab a skunk by the tail and lift his hind legs off the ground, can he still spray?"

"Don't know," said the trapper. "Never tried."

The how-to booklet arrived a few days later. We memorized the instructions and set up an operating table in the barn. We located a can of ether, and made a cone of stiff paper. The booklet told us to spray the ether into some cotton balls positioned in the bottom of the cone, and insert the skunk's head into the cone until he was anesthetized and passed out. Now we were ready to grab a skunk.

Eddie volunteered. Just before sundown we reached the dump, and skunks appeared to our left. In the lead was a mother, big as a watermelon, nose to ground, tail half-erect. Behind her came three smaller, leaner editions of herself. They went directly to the 15-foot-high wall of trash, broke up and started individual inspection of the goodies.

We tensed. One youngster was working his way in our direction. When he was 25 feet away, Eddie moved in. When he was ten feet away, the skunk turned and peered at Eddie. He hoisted his tail a bit - just like the trapper said he would.

Eddie froze. Then, talking in a low monotone, he soothed the skunk. "Boy, are you gonna love being a pet - all you can eat - fish, candy bars, steak, french fries, ice cream…" He droned on, promising skunk bliss.

The trapper proved right again. The skunk lowered his tail and stuck his head into a peanut-butter jar. But as Eddie moved forward, the skunk got nervous and raised his tail. Eddie stopped and talked, and the skunk continued supper. Eddie shuffled to within five feet of the skunk, who walked off - not alarmed, but not about to let Eddie get too close.

Eddie saw an old refrigerator and started to herd the skunk toward it. I saw his plan immediately. The skunk became trapped against the refrigerator and the wall of trash. Agitated, he hoisted his tail. Eddie froze again, and I held my breath.

Then from behind a sofa came disaster. Momma had realized junior was missing and was hunting for him heading straight for Eddie's backside. "Eddie," I hissed in a stage whisper. "Behind you."

Eddie turned. "Quiet," he replied. "I've almost got him."

Only a few feet away, momma raised her tail. I yelled again, "Eddie! Behind you!" Eddie swiveled and saw momma. In his panic he moved too fast - a big mistake.

The trapper was right again. With the wisdom born of thousands of years of skunk evolution, momma whipped her rear end around and squirted Eddie right between the lookers.

Poor Eddie! He let out a screech that must've lifted the old-timers out of the chairs at the nursing home. Clawing his face, he took off, thereby making another mistake. He'd forgotten about junior, who let fly too. Wailing, Eddie crashed into a nearby swamp. I followed him, running into a solid, tangible wall of stink. I gasped, staggered and forged ahead, choking.

I found Eddie 20 feet away rolling on the ground and splashing mud, leaves and swamp water on his face. "Are you all right?" I asked.

"Fine!" he gasped, whereupon we both burst into hysterical laughter.

On the way home, both Eddie and I agreed the smell wasn't objectionable at all. In fact, close contact with the odor had overwhelmed our noses, rendering them temporarily useless. However, others at home had not been desensitized. We were forced to strip in the backyard, and the hose was turned on us. We slept in the barn that night.

Our next move was to build a box trap, a beauty with a sliding door held up by a stick tied to a string that went through a hole in the rear of the trap and was tied to a dead mouse. When the skunk pulled on the string, he'd pull out the stick holding the door open. It worked great - and within a day we had our skunk.

Eddie spent more time with the skunk than I did. Whenever I came near, the skunk grew nervous, but Eddie could feed him out of his hand, pat him and even pick him up.

Operation day had arrived. Eddie would hold the skunk while I loaded the ether cone, then positioned the cone near the skunk's face till he got woozy. When he was out cold, I'd operate.

We approached quietly. I stayed behind Eddie, out of sight. He reached in, grabbed him across the back and stood up. The tail, hind legs and firing mechanism hung free, out of reach of the ground - the skunk didn't spray! Now we could tell the trapper a thing or two.

We headed for the barn. Until now, the skunk had no idea there was anyone there but him and Eddie. Then the skunk saw me, bared his needle-like teeth and bit Eddie's thumb.

Eddie bellowed in pain and let go. The skunk fell to the ground. Eddie was too high for a good face shot, so the skunk gave him a blast to the legs. I turned and got a few feet away, but the skink dosed me on the back. Staggering away, I got hit again. Then I turned to see the skunk give Eddie a final shot - feebler than the others. He was running out of scent and must have known it because he headed for the woods at a fast skunk shuffle.

Visions of peas entered my mind as I saw the $50 bill beelining for freedom. We hadn't gone this far, through this much, to see our plans foiled. I had nothing to lose. I took after him at a dead run and nabbed him by the tail. Suspended in the air, both guns empty, he was ours.

Eddie held the ether cone close to the skunk's face, and soon he was asleep on the operating table. I proceeded carefully, the booklet open beside me. In 20 minutes the skunk was back in his pen minus his artillery. The anesthesiologist and surgeon shook hands, mightily pleased with themselves. Even the hose and banishment to the barn again did not dampen our contentment.

We never did sell the skunk, though. Eddie got attached to him and named him Jake. He lived with Eddie for the rest of the year and was a favorite of the nursing-home residents. Everyone loved the calm, good-natured, dignified little animal. Spoiled and fed constantly, he grew to blimplike proportions. It was great entertainment to see Jake flow downstairs like a fur-covered water balloon. He had truly gone to skunk heaven.

Eddie and I successfully trapped and deodorized a few more skunks and sold them. We never got $50 - but at least we never had to pick peas again. Maybe that's why, to this day, the smell of skunk is attractive to me - a rich, pungent, satisfying odor.