February 01, 2001|By AL KALIN, Special to this newspaper

As far as I'm concerned, the word "skunk!" means retreat. I'm not sure when I first became aware of skunks but it probably wasn't long after that I learned once a skunk sprays you, you never forget.

By the time I was 5 I'd had a few close encounters keeping the family cocker spaniel, Rusty, away from skunks and after that didn't work, keeping away from Rusty. The more I smelled them, the worse I hated them. No amount of Walt Disney's "Bambi" and the loveable little skunk named "Flower" would change my mind.

When I was 7, I was trapping ground squirrels at our ranch in Victorville, trying to earn enough money to buy a shotgun. The ground squirrels created a real nuisance with their maze of holes that caused washouts when we irrigated.

My favorite place to trap squirrels was the side banks of the ranch's silage pit. The squirrels seemed to love the fermented corn kernels in the silage as much as the cattle did. As I moved along checking my trap-line, I looked in each hole where my trap was set to see it there was a cobweb covering it. A spider web meant nothing had come in or out of the hole since I had set the trap and therefore no squirrel lived there. When I found such a hole with my trap in it, I'd pull the trap, cover the hole and move on.


On the fateful day of the skunk attack I was working from burrow to burrow, resetting sprung traps and removing trapped squirrels. As I approached one burrow I checked for cobwebs and seeing them, reached in the dark hole to remove my trap. That's when I got nailed right between the eyes from both barrels of an angry skunk caught in my trap. I had mistaken a few visible white hairs and black tail as cobwebs in a dark burrow.

My eyes burned like liquid fire had been poured into them and the smell made me violently ill. Luckily, the ranch irrigator, Wesley, was nearby and heard me screaming. When he got to the scene of the attack he found me flopping around in the bottom of the silage pit, blind and retching from the attack.

Wesley threw me in the irrigation ditch and rinsed out my eyes, which by now were practically swollen shut from the viscous oil from the skunk's musk glands. Then he put me in the back of his pickup and hauled me back to the house. My grandmother doused me with tomato juice and vinegar and then scrubbed me down with homemade lye soap. It was a few days before I felt well enough to continue trapping.

Another incident happened 20 years later, shortly after moving into our house in the country. The house sat on piers with a crawl space underneath. Skunk sign was everywhere and I assumed some lived under the house.

I was able to trap four of the little devils with an ingenious trap set where the skunk was lured by a fresh slice of apple to walk out on a narrow board laid across the irrigation ditch full of water. As the skunk reached for the apple he would step into the trap, lose his balance and fall off the board into the water and drown. Whether the water carried the smell away or drowning skunks don't cast their scent was not known, but things didn't smell using this method.

After I had caught all the skunks and before I could patch the holes leading underneath the house, a cat took up residence under the house. A few nights later we were awakened by loud squalls, followed by much thumping and bumping under the house, followed by the terrible stench of skunk.

The next day I found a skunk staggering around our yard in broad daylight. Fearing rabies, I shot the varmint. The county animal control officer picked up the skunk and a few days later it was confirmed that the skunk was rabid. We stopped wondering if the cat had rabies when the smell of something dead started coming up through the floorboards of the bathroom a few days later.

We tried to ignore the odor for a week but it only got worse. We burned candles, tried deodorizers, ran fans and even tried to crawl underneath the house but the space was too small. In desperation, I called the carpenter, who cut a large hole in the bathroom floor. Below it was the remains of the dead cat. We burned a scented candle in the bathroom for five years before the smell finally vanished.

I haven't seen many skunks recently. I don't know whether they were wiped out by rabies or maybe distemper. Maybe the great horned owl that lived around our house for a few months last winter ate them. Honestly I don't give a rip. If they serve some useful purpose I haven't learned about it.

Outdoor Tales columnist Al Kalin may be reached by e-mail at

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