July 7, 1986 -
I'd just returned home from my genetics class. The phone rang. It was my sister, Carol. She was sobbing. "George died. He died this morning."
George was my only brother, 53 years old and single, and the eldest of us children. He had been suffering for about four years from a particularly lethal and rare type of thyroid cancer. During his last coupe of years, he had lived at home with my parents.
My parents lived in the country in a house overlooking a lake outside of Spokane, Washington. They, in particular, my mother who grew up in the woods of Northern Minnesota, came from rural backgrounds and taught us to love and respect wildlife. The last time I talked to George, he told me about the wonder of the skunks. Cat food was regularly placed outside the patio door for their cat and for the raccoons and skunks. The raccoons came first. It was a family of the mother and her three youngsters. They fought and growled and scrambled among themselves, each trying to get the most food. When the skunks arrived, a mother and four youngsters, the raccoons departed. The skunks arranged themselves around the food bowl, forming an elegant circular plume of black and white. If one skunk didn't feel it was getting his share, he gently nosed and nudged his way in between his peers in a most gentlemanly or ladylike fashion. They were quite unlike the aggressive raccoons.
After George's death, Carol, my other sister Joanne, and I made arrangements so that at least one of us could be with our parents for the duration of the summer to give support and to assist with certain painful jobs such as going through our brother's belongings. I returned to Portland for a couple of weeks to drop out of summer school and take care of some business matters while Carol stayed with our parents. It was then my turn to go back to Spokane and stay for about three weeks. Carol returned to her home in California.
Carol had noticed that one particular skunk seemed quite unafraid of humans. When she went out on the patio to put out food, this skunk would allow Carol to come within several feet of her.
After Carol left, I continued to nurture the developing friendship with this young skunk. My parents and I saved table scraps throughout the day. She was especially fond of chicken skin and fat. I determined that she was a female and about six months old. We named her Flower after the skunk in 'Bambi'.
Initially, I sat in the sliding glass doorway opening up onto the patio and tossed food scraps a couple of feet away from me. At first, Flower grabbed the food and then ran a few feet away to eat it. It wasn't long, however, before she stayed to eat the food where I had thrown it. As soon as I observed this new behavior, I began placing the food closer to me.
In the meantime, I read bout skunks in books about North American wildlife. The glands located at the base of their tails contain enough fluid for about five discharges. After discharging, it takes from a half to one week to replenish the supply.
Consequently, these animals don't spray unless there is no alternative. They would much rather escape from a potentially threatening situation than use their potent spray. Furthermore, before spraying, they have a ritualistic dance of warning. They first stomp their hind feet and then turn their behinds to their adversary and lift their tails to exhibit their arsenal. That is usually quite sufficient to ward off other animals. In fact, other than humans and dogs who don't seem to know any better, the Great Horned Owl is the only known predator of skunks. Unlike most other animals whose coloration blends with their environments, the skunk's coloration boldly identify them. They want to be recognized! One of the books I read surmised that the reason there are so many road kills of skunks is that they assume anything, including a fast moving monster with bright lights, will stop and run away at the sight of their black and white pelage.
With this knowledge, I proceeded to press our relationship further. I moved inside a couple of feet and place the food at or just inside the door. Flower adjusted quickly and soon was actually stepping indoors. At first, she grabbed the food and then ran outside to eat it. Eventually, she ate inside the house. I kept moving the food further and further inside.
Then something truly amazing happened. Flower was by this time eating about two feet inside the house about a foot away from me. After finishing her food, she casually strolled, with the funny kind of waddle that skunks have, under the dining room table, into the living room, under the sofa, and then into places unknown. I was more than slightly panicky. I was afraid that she'd get lost, feel trapped, and release the odoriferous fluid under her tail. I ran around the house opening up all the doors to the outside to allow her plenty of exits. My mother, who had witnessed all of this, was more calm than I. She said that Flower would just sniff her way back following her own tracks. Indeed, that's exactly what happened. After about fifteen minutes, back she came, as casually as before, under the sofa, into the living room, under the dining room table, and out the patio door. Nevertheless, after that time, I always closed the doors to the rest of the house before feeding Flower.
As days passed, Flower and I became more and more trusting in one another. I put food on my lap. At first she grabbed it and backed away. Eventually she was eating out of my hand on my lap.
One night as Flower was in the house eating, a raccoon peered in the window and started frantically jumping up and down and looked as if he was going crazy. He seemed to be saying, "You silly skunk! Don't you know you can't trust people?"
The next day, my Aunt and Uncle came by to express their condolences on the death of my brother. During our visit, we told them about Flower. They were horrified! They said, "Don't you know that you can't trust wild animals?" Their expressions reminded me of the raccoon's.
There was really only one time, other than when she wandered into the house, that I became momentarily frightened. My parents' cat is not allowed into the house because of my sister, Joanne's severe allergy to cats. Nonetheless, Snoopy, the cat, never quit trying to get inside. One night, while Flower was in my lap eating, Snoopy came in looking very hostile indeed. I thought that we were all in trouble. Then I told myself to calm down, sit still, not panic, and trust the animals. This was a territorial dispute, but like many such disputes between animals, it was likely to be carried out ritualistically. Neither animal wanted to fight. Snoopy had lived outdoors with the raccoons and skunks for years and had never come home beaten or stinking. Clearly he understood his limits with these animals. Flower didn't want to use up her spray unnecessarily, and she had an open door a few feet away. After standing practically nose to nose for a few minutes, each diplomatically backed away. Flower went outside, and Snoopy ran into the house.
Flower's and my friendship continued to blossom. I decided that I'd try to pet her. At this point, I had to guide myself by, for lack of a better word, intuition. I felt that it would be best to begin by stroking her sides. My hand would be clearly visible to her and, if frightened, she could retreat easily. Furthermore, the head and back are extremely vulnerable areas for an animal, so it made sense to me to not touch those areas until I was sure of her confidence. Touching her was wonderful. Her hair was slightly coarse and bristly. She leaned into my hand as I stroked her as though she was enjoying it.
The next step was obvious. After stroking her side for a couple of nights, I moved my hand onto her head and then down her back to her tail. This wild animal and I, so far away evolutionarily, were profoundly close.
My parents and I discussed the possibility of having her de-scented. In spite of the fact that it's against the law in the State of Washington to domesticate a wild animal, a friend's daughter who's a veterinarian, agreed to come to their home to perform the surgery in event we should decide to go through with it. We never actually got to the point of discussing with her details such as how we would go about sedating Flower because, as we talked, we came to understand that is was a question of the rights of and relationships between humans and wild animals. Yes, as a pet, Flower would have been loved and free of hunger, disease, and parasites. On the other hand, devoid of her only defense mechanism, she would never again have been able to go outside. She would never have been allowed to be the animal that she was; never allowed to mate, have her litters, forage for food, and do whatever else skunks do in the wild. We decided that she should remain wild; that we had no right to violate her freedom.
Photo portrait is of Nancy Adams and her kitty, Chessie.