Skunk Sense

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2008

Last revision: Dec. 8, 2010

Marvin was fat, friendly and pampered. Unconcerned with the gawking child in front of him, he sprawled in my great-uncle’s large embrace, switched his bushy tail and flexed his long toenails in a stretch.

Part of me badly wanted to reach out and stroke his shiny ebony-ivory fur—the rest of me was frozen to the spot.

Uncle Pat laughed softly at my discomfort. He was pleased with the effect of his parlor-trick.

“That’s not a cat,” I finally whispered.

“No, not a cat,” confirmed my uncle, “but he’s alright.”

And he was. I eventually did stroke Marvin’s fur, if only tentatively, and it was a thrill. After all, there is no more feared predator in the urban neighborhoods of bucolic Vermont, where I was raised, than the common skunk. Petting one was not generally on the menu of options when they shot out from under porches or ambled purposely through the bushes.

Yet, for all of Marvin’s charm and patience, and despite the many years he trundled around Uncle Pat’s home, traumatizing and then wooing visitors, no one was ever truly comfortable in his presence. Marvin retained the full potential of his scent glands, and therefore commanded more respect than the average house pet.

I still feel that mixture of fascination and fear when I find a skunk in my path. And though I know now that wild animals should never, under any circumstances, be considered pet-worthy, for the sake of human and animal alike, I can’t help but enjoy their antics from a distance. A good, upwind distance.

It’s hard not to be amused by these readily identified, smallish mammals that waddle, stamp their short legs when angered and send the most fearless outdoor folks running. These characteristics have certainly factored into the skunk’s infamy and its prominence in humor through the centuries, from the myths of indigenous people to popular films and children’s programs.

Though prohibited as pets in Missouri, skunks can also be a joy and a nuisance outside your home. But more importantly, they fill a crucial niche in Missouri’s web of flora and fauna.

Little Stinkers

Skunks belong to the family Mephitidae, which means, aptly, “bad odor” in latin. Until recently, skunks were considered members of the weasel family Mustelidae. However, recent genetic findings have allowed them to be reclassified into their own family.

There are two species of skunk in Missouri, the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis or “bad odor, bad odor”) and the Eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale

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