Thursday, September 15, 2011


We’ve been home more than usual. Odd for us. Some days its too hot to go anywhere … and some days we get energetic and have been doing some serious yard work. That does have to be done once in awhile. Meanwhile we have nature right at our doorstep. This has been the summer of skunks, the common striped skunk. I haven’t seen one yet, but all too often we’re aware of their presence. Normally the encounter starts with Lucy’s loud “Woof, Woof!” in the middle of the night. Lucy is the neighbor’s Labrador. She is a sweet old dog who never strays far from home…. but our backyard isn’t ‘far from home.’

After the “Woof, Woof!” I hold my breath and listen. On good nights I hear the scramble of two or three deer hustling out of our yard. The deer love our grapes leaves, then the grapes; apple and pear leaves, then the apples and the pears.

On not so good nights all is quiet …. too quiet. About a minute after Lucy’s bark, skunk stench blasts us. I think the skunk must spray directly beneath our bedroom window. All too often we end up closing the windows just when the house is cooling down for the night. According to a recent Nova program skunks don’t spray unless really provoked. Somehow Lucy succeeds in provoking without getting herself sprayed. We must have a colony of skunks with a really itchy trigger.

When we first moved into this house we were somewhat unsettled to find we had skunks under the house. We half-heartedly tried to evict them, but generally speaking we all got along well together … until one night. The little dears waged war under our house! The stink was awful! I felt as though we should just give the house away. Our daughters went to school and anyone nearby smelled skunk. Dale went to work and the subject of skunk came up. I stayed home and hoped I’d become numb. It does go away …. eventually. Fortunately Dale was now motivated. He figured out a way to close off the foundation with the skunks outside and not trapped inside. He built a swinging door for our crawl space with nasty little spikes all around its edge. The skunks could easily push their way out, but getting back in just wasn’t going to happen.

Speaking of stinky, I have an even stinkier story. When I attended the University of Wisconsin I had a job in the Natural History Museum as a bone cleaner. My job was to end up with a box full of nice clean bones for each species I worked on: jumping mice, Swainson thrushes, flying squirrels, etc. Most of the specimens either came out of a freezer and I boiled them, or they went to the dermestid colony. Dermestids are little beetles very adept at cleaning up a carcass and leaving me a little pile of almost clean bones. Usually I worked a very flexible schedule, but one day my boss call and asked if I could possibly come down right now. A rather stinky package had just arrived.
I was told I was about to unwrap the third known record of a spotted skunk in Wisconsin. A farmer had shot and buried it six months ago! Just recently the University heard about the unusual specimen and asked to have it sent to the museum. The package didn’t smell all that great, so I took it outside to open. Unfortunately I made the mistake of opening the package in front of the air intake for the big, old multi story building. Whew! The whole place stank. I took the specimen back to the museum and for once I wore both a lab coat and gloves. As quickly as possible I reduced the spotted skunk to a tidy pile of relatively sweet-smelling bones. …. And off to class I went.

It happened my next class was in one of the University’s enormous lecture halls. I believe it held 300 students and was at least half full. I liked to sit near the front. All too soon students around me commented on skunk smell . I took a deep breath and commented too. I looked like any normal co-ed, and pretended I was as normal as I looked. Nobody guessed exactly where the smell was coming from.

After class I walked over a mile back to my dorm. Surely I was ‘freshened’ by then. But, no. As soon as I entered my dorm the subject of skunks came up again. It was time for action. I bagged all my cloths and hung them out the window and then I showered. Finally I could walk into a room without the subject of skunks coming up.

Do I know of anything stinkier than that incident? Oh, yes! Dale can do me one better. When he was working as a soil scientist in Alaska he found a humpback whale deliquescing on a beach. Much his surprise a black bear came running out from inside the whale. The bear obviously didn’t mind the smell, but Dale said he couldn’t stand getting close to the whale.


  1. This brings back some not so fond memories. We had a Lab that was sprayed at least three times in his life. UGH.... Our present dog has only been sprayed one time and it got her right in the mouth. She was one sick dog. Luckily I haven't been directly sprayed but when your inside dog gets sprayed you might as well be. I hope it never happens again. Your sketches are great.

  2. Stink stories with sweet images!! I've been fortunate not to have those particular experiences—thank goodness!

  3. Forgive me but this is hilarious! You have had an interesting life.
    I have not been sprayed either but have taken a few detours when I walk in the am. My eyes were good enough to notice the black and white animal walking across the road.
    Thanks for the giggles and smiles Elva.

  4. I think I wouldn't survive any of your stinky experiences, not to mention the bone-cleaning job; once I tried sketching a "fresh" frozen marten, but then it started thawing and the smell made me feel queer...I had to stop.
    Very few skunks are left in Italy (name: puzzola, puzza means stench...) and I don't know a soul who has seen a wild one.

  5. deliquescing = what a wonderfully descriptive word! Loving your postings and sketches!

    Chris and Mike

  6. I enjoy your nature notes and beautiful sketches. The bone cleaning job sounds really interesting, despite smells. I bet you get to see all sorts of interesting things and really learn how animals go together.

  7. Oh wow..This is timely. We have been waking up to skunks in the back yard lately. Its actually been a good summer without to many sprays out there as I love sleeping with the window cracked some, but when that happens we run for the window. I hate that smell.. PU.
    We did build a little chain link fence out our sunroom slider door to let Annie out in at night to go potty so she wont go chasing those buggars.. she did get sprayed a little bit one morning a few years back and she was so shocked & upset. I hope she hasnt forgotten that. Cris, Artist in Oregon