Brother skunk (I)

Mephitis mephitis is God’e2’80’99s creature, too:
a story in two parts

For the third time in four years, this winter the King residence has been host to skunks. You know the skunk, don’t you? Mostly from the small dark heap by the side of the road that makes your eyes water for a mile or so. They’e2’80’99re adorable creatures, elegantly black-and-white with astonishingly enormous plumes of tails, paws as clever as hands, and a delicate face with shiny black eyes that melt the hardest heart.

Unfortunately, they stink. No, stink is not sufficient. In fact, no word in the thesaurus is adequate to describe the active defense mechanism of mephitis mephitis. And you’e2’80’99re nodding your head knowingly, thinking that you’e2’80’99ve smelled the creature.

But you haven’e2’80’99t. Not unless you’e2’80’99ve been in the immediate vicinity of a truly angry skunk have you had the full treatment.

You see, the skunk has two, as it were, gears. The one is the sharp reek you get along the road or when a neighbor’e2’80’99s dog has made the mistake of its life: a warning shot. But the other, the souped-up, overdrive, extra-added-value version, takes that sharp reek and piles it on top of a harsh, throat-clenching miasma very like that of burning tires. It seizes your every pore, it fills your lungs, throat, head, it coats your hair and makes your clothing an offense.

And twice last January–a year ago–I had it permeate my house, when the gigantic male that had taken up residence in the heating ducts under my house let fly.

I am told that skunk spray is chemically similar to the mustard gas of the Great War; going by its effects on my system, I can believe it. For the next six months, my throat suffered a variety of weird symptoms, culminating in a charming habit of just closing down every so often. They call them laryngeal spasms, the same thing that sent the pope to the hospital recently, and as a form of entertainment, I really can’t recommend them. The throat closes, you count slowly to ten, or fifteen, and just before you pass out a harsh wheeze comes trickling down your tubes and the lungs cry out with joy. This makes life interesting enough when you’re standing alone in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to come to a boil, but rather disconcerting to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity, since frankly it looks like you’re dying, and of course you can’t very well reassure them, “It’ll be all right in a moment,” because speaking requires the passage of breath. As this was also the period when I was at Left Coast Crime and then on tour for The Game, it made life awkward, to say the least. I got in the habit of telling my escorts and the bookstore staff that if I went red in the face and began to make alarming noises, not to call an ambulance, because it passed, and I wasn’t going to die. Probably.

I live in the countryside by choice. I am not one of those who grows irate upon discovering that the landscape outside the windows is not as sanitized as a shopping mall. I bring in our cats at night so they don’e2’80’99t become snacks for our local coyotes and bobcats, I arrange my planting around the paths and preferences of the deer, and I bang around with the shovel before moving into an area of the hillside where the rattlesnakes like to bask. They were here first, I figure, so I’e2’80’99m happy to share.

I don’e2’80’99t even mind skunks’e2’80’94outside. They’e2’80’99re welcome to live in the fallen oaks and under the sheds, welcome to dot the landscape with reeking notifications of their presence, but as close neighbors, as the people downstairs, they are not good. They ravage the mucous membranes of my throat and rip up the ductwork under the house.

So I found a charming gentleman (looking himself rather as if he might live in a fallen oak) who cheerfully placed his humane traps in my house’e2’80’99s crawl space and carried their occupants away to a place where they could live out their long and fragrant lives in the wild. Three of them. We breathed a (clean) sigh of relief, filled the hole they seemed to be coming in through, and replaced the shredded heating ducts. My throat ceased to spasm; life was good.

And then last month came the ominous sounds of ripping in the ducts, the eye-tingling aroma arising from the vents.

They were back.

(to be continued…)

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  1. Maryelizabeth on February 24, 2005 at 5:52 pm

    Laurie — have you tried sending in your male cat to befriend the skunks and politely ask them to leave? This worked for us a few summers ago when we had two young males living under our spa deck and feuding for territory nightly. It wasn’t intentional, and we were actually quite worried about our evil cat when he disappeared under the deck, but evidently it was effective.

  2. Anita on February 24, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    Laurie, we had problems with skunks too. The only thing that seemed to work for us, after removing the compost container, was to put mothballs out. Did the trick. They haven’t been back since. Smells like an attic, but that is nicer than skunk!

  3. Cornelia on February 24, 2005 at 8:12 pm

    Oh dear. I must confess (sorry for it!) that I smiled when reading the first few paragraphs of your post. Skunks underneath the house? This sounds so exotic and strange that I have difficulties imagining it. Hard to feel the difficulties of life in the American countryside if you have grown up in urban European surroundings and spent all your life in a city where drunken soccer fans, camera-clicking Japanese tourists and venturesome cyclists tend to pose a greater threat than skunks. What do people here associate with skunks? Probably something like Pepe LePew. Characters from cartoons or animation films. Certainly not laryngeal spasms. But I bet no one would be keen on sharing your experiences …

    Anyway, you have my sympathy.

  4. Anonymous on February 24, 2005 at 10:43 pm

    My most sincere condolences. I thought that we were alone in this experience until reading your succint account. We had a skunk die in a crawl space adjacent to the house over winter several years ago, and although we never suffered the degree of respiratory stress you have encountered, the embarassment of skunk stench clinging to clothes was more than sufficient. I am a musician, and as we have a fairly strict abjuration about scent in the workplace for the benefit of all us hyperventilating wind players, I am not sure how I would have dealt with a complaint until the problem cleared up. Something about passing the scent through a forced air furnace adds another dimension to the whole problem.

    Recently read the Beekeepers Apprentice, and am overjoyed to see that there is a large canon that I had no idea about! Looking forward to the reading ahead of me.


  5. sallya on February 24, 2005 at 11:31 pm

    My sympathies for both situations. We too live in the country and have a skunk (maybe more than one) who comes to the porch to see if any food is left in the cat dishes. Also digs around the beehives. Many a night we wake up and leap out of bed, running from window to window, slamming them shut. I also know about the spasms. In the midst of a bout of laryngitis and bronchitis, they appeared. What’s worse, I went through 3 doctors before I found one who knew what I was talking about. I’m sure they thought I was just another hysterical female. Finally an ENT man explained it all to me. And yes, it’s a great way to terrify your friends.

  6. Becky on February 26, 2005 at 1:11 am

    Wow, Laurie R. King has a blog! I’ve been enjoying your Russel books for years, every since a school librarian first put Beekeeper’s Apprentice in my hands, and I can’t wait for Locked Rooms.

    I don’t really have much to say on the subject of skunks; as you say, my main experience with them is dead things on the road. But we did have a groundhog move in under our pool once. Similar, but not as stinky.

  7. Kathleen Lowe on February 27, 2005 at 12:52 am

    The only thing worse than a skunk under the house is a dog who chases the skunk residing under the house–and yes, tomato juice does work, as does a very diluted vinegar/water mix (Iassume it’s the acidity). This, of course, requires getting close enough to your dog to give him the bath–one of the joys of country living. The only thing which gets my nighborhood more riled is the occassional mountain lion–fortunately for me, several of the neighbors keep poulty so they haven’t yet visited my yard….

  8. Pam on March 24, 2005 at 8:57 pm

    Wow! I have the same problem. Last night I heard this churring, growling noise coming from the heating vent. I heard it the night before, too. But last night the skunk(s) let loose with their scent in the vent. My dog and two cats circled the vent all night.
    I have been reading on the net trying to figure out how to deal. I bought a humane trap which I will set tonight. I think they come in under the porch and then into the heating vents in the living room. I really feel for you. I am going thru the same thing.

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