Death comes to a Skunk mouffette

10 avril 2012,

par Edwin Matthews

Smack in the middle of our English flower garden, in a life of comparative comfort, lived a family of striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis).  They made their home there in a burrow left by some woodchucks (Marmota momax) who emigrated.   The Striped skunk is found in all parts of the United States and, perhaps since soon after the ice age, has successfully adapted to the open fields in Northwest Connecticut.  It was the Algonquians who lent us the word skunk.

Skunks live mostly at night.  From whiskers to their ample tail they are about as long as a cat.   Sharp teeth and long claws enable skunks to pull apart rotten logs and grub the soil in search of a diet of just about everything edible: mice, earthworms, snails, grains, nuts, frogs, snakes, bird eggs, carrion and,. of course, human garbage.  In the early morning I often find their tell-tale divots left from their night-time diggings in the lawn.

Skunks are not at all camouflaged.  They are easily seen and recognized by their black and white signature fur coat:  a prominent white stripe extends from the forehead to a fluffy tail. At night I could see mother skunk boldly sauntering with her three younglings following in single file.

Although they have an excellent sense of smell and hearing – vital attributes in a nocturnal omnivore – skunks cannot see objects with any clarity more than ten feet away, which makes them vulnerable to speeding Land Rovers. With short legs and flat-footed gait, they move slowly and appear to waddle unconcerned.           Skunks do not hide and do not run, and are not at risk from other creatures because they carry an invulnerable weapon advertised by their prominent coat. As Charles Darwin noted,”conscious of its power, [the skunk] roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man.”

Indeed, the skunk represents an extraordinary evolutionary invention.  It comes equipped with nauseous artillery that successfully defends its host against nearly all comers: a burning, fetid musk stored in two glands at the base of its tail that it can aim and propel for 10-15 feet.  When the skunk animal lowers its head, lifts its tail and taps the ground with its forefeet, most creatures know to quickly get out of range.  I wonder how this strange weapon could possibly have evolved in nature and marvel at its very existence.

Humans have not yet invented any miracle cleaning agent that will remove the skunk’s foul odor.  Even our insensitive human noses can smell a skunk a half mile distant. Indeed, because of its staying power, humans have added skunk musk to their own perfumes, soaps, cosmetics, dentifrice, incense, pastilles, pomades, oils, hair washes, depilatories and toilet appendages that we regularly deploy in our own struggle to hide our natural smell.

Now my resident cat (Felis silvestris catus) was another sort of creature entirely.  Although he shared the skunk’s fearless indifference, he was lazy and agile, and never industrious.  With no effort required, my cat lived off a royal diet served him precisely and predictably as to a king.  As compared with the skunk, my cat was a mere living room tiger, willingly dependent on my subsidy and protection, even if he reminded his protectors every day that his pedigree dated from ancient Egypt and that his ancestors came on the Mayflower.  As a tame creature, my cat was even dependent on human affection, which he returned on his terms.

Although hardly wild, my cat never lost his wild yearn to prowl fearlessly and carelessly every dank and dark unfamiliar place.   But, although a fearless warrior with excellent vision, especially when confronting a defenseless mouse a fiftieth his size, my cat was no match for a skunk.  One day after his night-time prowl my striped cat returned for his usual affectionate brush and was surprised when he was roughly banished.   His puzzled stare said he knew his terrible predicament: he had received a toxic blast from our garden skunk.  It took days before we could let him back to his usual easy chair.  Skunks don’t fire their musket at each other, but all our local predatory animals, such as coyotes, foxes and racoons, all wiser than my cat, know to carefully avoid such an encounter.  My cat’s reckless demeanor was not tempered by experience in nature and was his undoing.

All living things have predators. In Connecticut, the skunk has only one: the Great Horned owl (Bubo virginianus).  We know the Great Horned Owl for its conspicuous ear-like tufts, but this blood-thirsty, fearless winged creature has it all over the skunk and, of course my cat as well.  Although owls have night vision, their stereoscopic hearing is the most acute of any animal; they can eco-locate a small mouse.   Modified trailing edges of their flight feathers enable this tiger of the air to fly silently as a shadow.  The owl swoops from the sky like lightning on an over-confident skunk.  Its powerful talons clutch murderously.  And the owl possesses a special advantage for skunk hunting that my cat and I do not have: like most birds, the owl cannot smell and hardly cares for the skunks musket.

One day after my cat’s encounter, I found my skunk neighbor dead in the field.  I could see (and smell!) that the skunk’s invulnerable defensive musket had not been discharged.  The circumventing tracks of coyotes revealed that they had passed by the carcass, preferring to dine elsewhere. The skunk had been killed by our resident great horned owl.  The next day the remains of the skunk had vanished.  The robber left only a feather, and no tracks.

I feel especially honored that, along with other wild creatures, a Great Horned Owl has chosen to reside in my woods.  Many years ago when I was a boy and ignorant of the Earth, I shot a Great Horned Owl that now hangs on my wall.  For over sixty years the glass eyes of this fierce bird have glowered at its assassin.  I was hunting ducks with my father when I shot the owl, but we used to shoot anything that moved.  Soon after I killed the owl, night fell and fog advanced. As we were on unfamiliar ground surrounded by ponds and reeds and occasional trees and bluffs that all looked the same, we were irremediably lost.  We had to walk the whole night, me lugging my prey.  I would like to think that the proximity of a living wild owl in my woods somehow pardons me for my crime against his species, but this is a mere fantasy.  The skunks and the owl may share this piece of the Earth with my cat and me.  There may be an affinity among us in nature, but the Earth separates us tamed creatures from those wild.  Wild creatures hardly share human metaphysics.

Wildness may mean sufficiency in nature without human intervention.  The skunk and the owl are wild, but of course neither my cat nor I qualify.  Recently, I had to kill my cat because he was sick and because I loved him. As I dug his grave in the frozen earth, it struck me how alien wild creatures were to me, even if we share this piece of Connecticut earth.  I had killed my cat because of my own human idea of what his existence should be: so he could die without pain.  I killed him not as a predator, but as a god.

Edwin Matthews

  • · Edwin Matthews lives in Washington, Connecticut.