By Phyllis Friedl
“Boy”, he said, “have I just had a shock!” He had just walked into the summerhouse, and suddenly found himself surrounded by a sea of black and white (A summerhouse is a screened-in structure designed to provide a shady resting place in summer. In this story, the summerhouse was used for storage of trash cans, bikes and other odds & ends.). He didn't bother to find out how many there were. He just backed out of there as fast as possible, barely touching the floor.
“Were there actually baby skunks?” I asked, and when he said yes, I grabbed my camera and ran. I had never even seen a live skunk, much less a baby one. He yelled after me to “Be CAREFUL!”
And sure enough, there were three little ones, ambling around the summerhouse like they owned the place (which, as far as we were concerned, they did). They were just darling, about eight inches long, with tails the same length, so fluffy and precious, and completely unconcerned about my being there. They were nosing around the trash cans paying no attention to me, though I was very still.
I soon counted five altogether, and was delighted at the way they sniffed around and played together. One was playing with a Kleenex he'd found, trying to walk along with it. But he kept tripping on it, so he'd stop, back up, lift his little head high, and start off again. He would always walk up on it, though, so he ended up dragging it sideways across the floor. Then I noticed they were coming and going through one particularly large hole in the floor.
Now the floor in that summerhouse is very, very old and rotted through in several places. The original boards had just been laid right on the ground and nailed at the ends, so it probably wasn't very strong to begin with. Evidently Mother Skunk had burrowed under from the side and made her den under there. And her little ones were small enough to squeeze through the holes and explore inside.
Well, I watched them a while and then tried to take a couple of pictures. First, I tossed out some pieces of hamburger and was able, by standing poised for flight in the doorway, to snap the picture and dart away in case they got upset. But though the flash did startle them a little, it didn't bother them and they just kept toddling around just like any kittens or puppies would do, sniffing at everything.
I hated to leave them, but had to finish making supper. And during the meal got out our trusty Nature Encyclopedia and read aloud a very interesting and informative article on our friend, the skunk. It seems that skunks are one of the farmer’s best friends. A mouser without peer, they are also experts at catching insects injurious to gardens. They have no natural enemies except the great horned owl, and man. Thus, it said, they are easily tamed. It also went on to explain that though the skunk is much maligned because of its terrible odor, many people don't know that it will give plenty of warning before spraying. And only when repeated warnings are ignored does it follow up with its potent weapon.
I was fascinated. Al was unimpressed. “They gotta go!”
“Oh, no” I protested. “Not yet. They are so CUTE!”
“Well, enjoy them while you can, because they aren't staying there.”
“Sweetie, do I really have to explain why we can't leave five skunks under the bedroom windows?”
“But they're such Babies.”
“They don't stay babies. And I'm going to get rid of them.”
“Not yet. Wait a while”.
“Can you imagine what would happen if Marci (almost 3) would go barging in there, maybe pick one up, and the Mother skunk appeared? Keep the kids away, and let me get rid of them”
So that's how things stood that night as I went out after supper and put out a bowl of milk for them.
The next day was Wednesday, and with Al off to work and the children occupied, I went out and found them nosing around the front steps. They scampered off when I came out and wriggled back under the summerhouse. I wonder if they'd given the milkman a thrill that morning.
But I sat down inside the summerhouse and tossed out slices of hot dog around the hole. They have the most incredible sense of smell of any animal I've ever seen. They were soon all up out of the den, homing in on little pieces of meat that had rolled under the woodpile...they didn't miss a one. And this time, I counted six of them. Sometimes they would take it back in the den to eat and I could hear little squealing sibling-rivalry sounds coming from beneath the floorboards. I wondered what Mother thought about all this. But she didn't appear.
Would you believe that by that afternoon they were taking pieces of that hot dog right from my fingers? I was so thrilled and just knew I couldn't' let Al destroy them even though I understood his position.
Then the next morning, Thursday, I went out with a bowl of warm milk and sat cross-legged next to it. I also took some hamburger and some cheese.
How absolutely darling they were as they gathered around, lapping it up with such tiny, tiny little pink tongues, snorting as it got up their noses and in their ears. They were obviously still nursing babies since they had such trouble drinking from a bowl. Then soon they were all around me after the cheese, clambering over my bare feet with their milky little paws, up onto my knees, searching in my shirt pocket. They were so adorable I could hardly refrain from picking them up to pet. I kept pretty still, moving slowly to feed them, talking all the time to them and trying not to laugh as they licked, and occasionally bit, my bare toes that had milk on them.
I delighted in watching them. I was amazed that six little skunks that had at first appeared identical, were really very different. Much like any other litter of babies, I suppose. I found I could tell them apart after a while, and so called them Petunia, Rosebud, Honeysuckle, Peony, Sweetpea, and Stinkweed, respectively. They even seemed to have different personalities. I'm sorry now that I named the runt of the litter Stinkweed.
He was the least attractive of the six, with very little white at all. But he was really the sweetest of all, always the first one out to meet me, played with me the most, and always brought up a tardy rear when they all disappeared, as if on cue, into the den. I assumed that Mother had given some signal to call them.
They were just fascinating. I have never seen such tiny, delicate, dainty little feet. And their long fur is so beautiful, though rather course. They have the dearest little white thatch of fur that stands right up on top of their heads and reminds me of Dr. Zorba on the old Ben Casey program (Ben Casey was a TV medical drama that ran from 1961-1965. Dr. Zorba was portrayed by Sam Jaffe.). But when they are nervous, this lies back, as does their tail, and they aren't quite as appealing as they are when they're all fluffed up. They are quite frisky, play with each other, squeal quietly like little mice, and make up little games like pretending to be afraid of a ladybug and backing up on tiptoe with their fur all standing on end. They can walk very sedately if they try hard, but mostly they seem to bounce, like most youngsters. They are a dainty little animal. I fell completely in love with them.
I wish you could have first seen his face, then heard him laugh. He hooted and he hollered and said “Sweetie, you're out of your mind. Who in the world do you think would buy a SKUNK?” But I didn't give up until he agreed “just until Monday” then, by gosh, he was going to take care of them himself. He thought I was nuts.
But I had called the Humane Society to find out what I could about skunks. They said they discouraged de-scenting of skunks because so often people love exotic pets until they got big and lost their cuteness and then let them go. And a de-scented skunk has no protection. They also said that the musk gland doesn't fully develop in a skunk until it's about 4-5 months old and many people keep them that long, then let them go.
I also called around to find a veterinarian who would do the job, and finally found one that would for $20 each. Most wouldn't do it. This guy said to just pick them up by the tail (I shuddered) and put them in a box.
“Wouldn't they stink?”
I was still dubious. But at least I had the information I needed.
|Carrousel, as used in the Clarkins logo, is listed by |
as the ‘less common spelling’ of carousel.
Then I made up a similar sign, sans picture, and posted it at a garage sale going on four doors up from us. They laughed and laughed, but let me, and the lady told me later that that sign attracted more comments than anything else there. Those signs went up at about 3:00 PM
At 4:00 a couple with two kids drove in and asked “Do you really have baby skunks?” They had seen the sign at the garage sale and couldn't believe their eyes. She said she had wanted a skunk all her life, and her husband had said “Here's your chance.” Here they were, and I couldn't sell her one. I wasn't sure anyone would really come that soon, and hadn't caught any. They were all asleep under the summerhouse. So I tried to coax them out, but no luck. And then another man, also from the garage sale drove in. Al came out to take care of him, not really believing that anyone could seriously want a skunk. I could see that he could hardly keep his face straight. He said later he just had to get a close look at a person who would pay good money for a skunk.
At any rate, I told both parties to come back after dusk and I would have one for them then. Inside, the phone was ringing with people calling to inquire, having seen the sign in Clarkins. At this point Al said “I couldn't believe anyone would really want one, but if you sell those skunks, Sweetie, I'll take you out for dinner.”
That evening, just after dusk, I went out and called them and out ambled Stinky and Rosebud. I caught them and put them in a birdcage, then went out and caught Peony just as the woman drove in.
She just raved over them, and for some reason wanted Stinky. But I had already decided that I would sell four of them, which would leave me $20 to keep Stinky and have him de-scented, and also leave one baby for the mother, and we would shoo them both (carefully) away into the woods. So she had to choose another, and she picked Rosebud.
He was such a frightened little thing. When you pick up a little skunk they curl right up, with their back feet on either side of their nose. It's really very appealing. He just trembled, and she held him close and he crawled inside her blouse and snuggled in her armpit. They have very large, blunt digging-type claws and they aren't sharp. She was cuddling him close as they drove off, and I pocketed my $5 under Al's unbelieving eye. The first money I've made since I've been married. A great feeling, really. (Al & Phyllis got married in October 1961, so by June 1972 they had celebrated their tenth anniversary.)
That evening, several curious friends came over to see Stinky and Peony and took a couple of pictures of us with them. My extremely nervous husband held Peony just long enough for the picture on the couch, and made me put them outside for the night. I had borrowed a good-sized animal cage for them, and put a small box with a small opening inside so they could burrow into it. It was filled with dried grass, and I was glad the other man didn't return so that Stinky wouldn't have to sleep alone that first night. He did call and said he'd come by Monday to get his skunk.
In the morning I caught the other three with no trouble. By this time, we decided that the Previous Sunday evening, when Al had closed the windows saying “Phew! Some skunk must have gotten it,” the mother of these babies had been killed. We never did see her, and if she had been around she never would have allowed such fooling with her babies.
We've since read that this happens often. The mother goes out hunting for food, is hit or killed, and after several days the little ones, who up to this time scrupulously hidden, come out of the den in search of food. This is the time when most skunks are caught, and if they have been still nursing, they are easily tamed. Since these little ones had to learn to drink from a bowl, we assume they had been still nursing, too.
About 10:00 Sunday morning, Al put up a large wooden sign out front that read “Baby Skunks for Sale” The people driving by to church laughed their heads off. Who else but the Friedls would sell skunks?
But at 11:00 the first car drove in. A young man and woman, for some reason looking dejected, rolled down the window and asked me how much they were. When I said “$5” their faces brightened and they literally exploded out of the car. They had picked out Sweetpea, paid me $5 and were ready to drive off before I had a chance to ask them how much they had expected them to be.
Well, she said as they were driving by, she saw the sign and wanted to stop. But he said they would be too expensive. How much? Oh, probably around $75. That's what they usually were. I was sure surprised, but still pleased to have the little skunk in a loving home. And they were delighted.
Al had made up copies of the article on skunks, and we gave each customer one, along with the name and number of the vet who would do the de-skunking operation.
Soon a young teen-aged girl and her brother drove in. They fell in love with them, but I could tell they couldn't afford one. But I heard them decide to go “halfsies” and they went home to get the money. They returned and picked out Peony and said “Oh, won't Dad just go crazy over him?” They drove off arguing who would hold him and who would drive.
Darned if they weren't back in 15 minutes. Apparently Dad had gone crazy over it, and had sent them back with another $5 to pick out a female. He was going to raise them. So Petunia was gone, and there was only Honeysuckle left to sell, and it was barely afternoon.
But still people kept calling and driving in. Some just curious, others to tell us that they had a skunk as a pet and they were fine pets. One boy said he had a book called “How to Raise and Train A Skunk”, which he later gave me and I found it a wealth of information.
One woman called and wanted me to hold the last one for her. But I told her first come, first served, and no refunds. I couldn't believe they were going so fast, and would have liked to hold the last one for the man that had been here the night before.
However, the woman bent a few speed laws and drove in just seconds before two other cars, both wanting the last one, too. But she was here first, so she got him. But as I was taking him from the cage, he was the most feisty of the bunch, and he not only nipped my finger, he let off a little stink. It was definitely skunk, but so faint that you had to sniff to really be sure. The lady didn't care, and said her husband told her she wasn't to come home without it. So she took him and drove off, and the others left their names and numbers with me in case I should change my mind and sell Stinky.
Inside, Al was answering the phone that had been ringing off the hook, and as I went inside to re-count my $25, I could tell he was just furious with somebody. When he hung up, he said that the caller was a disgruntled man, recently moved to Rootstown, who was mad at Al because Rootstown zoning won't allow him to raise beagles in his residential neighborhood. And he blames Al, the Chairman of the Zoning Commission, which is stupid, since zoning was in effect long before this guy moved here. (Rootstown had one stoplight and a population of around 5,000 in 1972, but was close to larger cities of Akron and Kent.)
At any rate, he had driven by, seen the sign, and called to inquire how much the skunks were. When Al told him, he said “Aha! You're breaking the law. It's illegal to sell wildlife and I'm going to report you.” Al didn't believe him, and told him so, which infuriated him.
I was absolutely astounded. I didn't believe him either. Thursday, I had talked not only with the Humane Society, but with the Game Warden’s mother. He wasn't home, but she went to some length to tell me what nice pets skunks made. Also that some wild animals need a permit, but that skunks weren't included. She said her son would call me back, but he hadn't at this point.
But what an awful development. What if there was a $500 fine for selling wildlife? I was sick. Five minutes later the man called back and said “So there! I reported you to the sheriff's office and they are going to report you to the game warden.” I talked with him this time, and before long he felt like an absolute rat for turning me in. I told him it simply never occurred to me that it might be against the law to sell those skunks and I just wanted to save their lives. Then it came out that the real reason he was mad was, not that I was breaking a law, but that I was giving them away for $5. It seems he owned a pet shop and used to sell them for around $65 and sometimes more (de-scented of course) and I was spoiling the business. He also became quite friendly and game me a number of tips on caring for them.
But then right away I called the Game Warden again. I just had to know if there was a law against it. Again, he wasn't home, but I told his mother about it, and she again promised he'd call me back.
But to this day I've never heard another word about it from anyone. (Except the guy that complained had the gall to call me several weeks later and ask for a favor. Hard to believe.)
But back to Stinkweed. At first, with all his brothers and sisters gone, he was a lonesome little baby. He loved to be held and petted, and always tried to snuggle inside my blouse or under my arm. I was still nursing Alan and perhaps he could smell the milk. In fact, I soon read that though skunks love milk, it gives them severe diarrhea, and not to give it to them.
Skunks, like many animals, have a doggy fur odor, so a little pet shampoo and cedar chips in his box helped that. But he needed so much attention that I really have time to sit and hold him. And I didn't want the kids to play with him until I could get him de-scented so I made up a little apron that was really a fuzzy pile-lined pocket that I wore on a belt, with a strap around my neck. I carried him around in that, next to me, while I did my housework. That suited him fine. He would poke his head out and supervise, or else snuggle deep inside and sleep. I had to be careful when picking up Alan, but it really worked out fine and satisfied his craving to be near you. I won't comment here on Al's opinion of this.
It was pretty startling for a few of our friends, though, who dropped by not knowing about the skunks. One girl patted the pocket thinking it a rolled-up apron, and saying something about how hard I must be working. Stinky stuck out his head to see what was happening and she nearly fell backward down the steps. There just is no way of mistaking a skunk, you see.
The first question that's always asked is “Has he been, you know...can he spray?” and when I say “no” they always step back a few steps just in case. But soon most are completely won over, the one notable exception being my husband. He made me keep him outside at night, which I agreed to do, at least until after he had been de-skunked.
Unfortunately, about 10 days later, some big animal apparently got into the summerhouse, knocked over two full trash cans and the cage, which sprung the door, and Stinky disappeared.
I was just sick. I was so afraid he had been killed, or if he'd escaped, might die since he was too little to take care of himself. I hoped he had hidden under the summerhouse again, so I put out food just in case. I was delighted when it kept disappearing, but was soon disappointed to find the cat was eating it.
I had worried about the cat's reaction to the skunks, but was vastly relieved to find that the cat had a healthy respect for skunks and kept its distance.
However, one night I decided to keep watch by the den entrance, and did, for an hour. No sign of life, because even though it was dark, I was sure I'd have heard him if he'd come out. Yet when I turned on the flashlight, the cheese had disappeared. I put down some more and stood right there until I thought I heard just the slightest whisper of sound. I flashed on the light just in time to catch a glimpse of a white streaked nose disappearing back under the boards. After that, I always fed him in the evenings and waited while he ate, but whatever it was had really scared him because he wouldn't come out all the way while I was there. Several times I could have caught him, but I didn't. I wish now I had. I could see he was growing bigger every day.
One sad morning two weeks later I found him on the road out front, hit by a car, and very dead. I hated to believe it was him, but I had gotten to know him so well that there wasn't the slightest chance that it was any other. I find it hard to explain how much I grieve for him. He was just such a baby and hardly had a chance. I think I will always have a soft spot in my heart for skunks.
Al thinks it's in my head. Once, while driving along past one recently hit, the smell was overwhelming. But I found myself saying, “That's not really too bad.” and getting a murderous look from my husband.
I think he still puts skunks in the “Varmint” class. Though I must say I did overhear him telling another unbeliever very earnestly that skunks really are ideal pets, especially for apartments. They are very quiet animals, won't bark or whine to go out, are very easily toilet trained (they are) and won't scratch and claw furniture like a cat. They are very friendly and playful if caught early enough. I just wish we had had a chance to prove it with Stinky.
Now the summerhouse has a whole new floor, a nice solid cement. Al ripped out the old floorboards, and found the leaf-lined nest and a baby possum in it (which finally ran away.) Then he poured the new floor so other families wouldn't dig under it. I had seen a young woodchuck peeking out from under it the day I last saw Stinky. I don't' mind the wildlife making their homes close by. Today I saw a little chipmunk in the garage. Better not tell Al, though.
I did keep in touch with the woman who bought the last little skunk. I went over to visit him a month or so later, in August. He had grown so much he just wasn't a baby anymore. I had a few pictures taken with him, and while he was okay, he just wasn't my little Stinky.
And as a final note, yes, Al really did take me out for dinner. To one of the nicest places in town, and we enjoyed it very much. We both agreed that all in all, it had been an exciting time. And that, I think, is the end of our skunk adventure. Except for my deciding what to buy with my $25.