Like all good conservation-minded families, there is a compost pile behind our house to manufacture compost from daily vegetable scraps, to make the garden grow, organically, of course. My duty each evening after dinner is to take the day's contribution out to add to the compost pile.
The other evening I got back late and when I took the compost bucket outside, it was pitch black. I could see where I was going from the porch light, but I didn't take any flashlight along. I have been feeding the compost pile for years. A woodwise guy does not need a light — right.
Like I do every night, I tossed the scraps over the fence that keeps deer and other critters out. As I did, I noticed that the gate to the compost pile seemed to be ajar a little, and figured that I must have forgotten too close it the day before when I was digging in the pile to increase aeration.
Suddenly, something exploded out of the compost pile, rushed through the gate, and past me. As it went past me, I could not see what it was, but I did feel something like fur brush against my right hand. Dog? Cat? Raccoon? Maybe even a fawn? All these seemed possible.
I turned to look in the direction of what had just passed me. In the distant light from the porch, I did not see an animal, but what I did see in the light was a cloud of yellowish-brown haze. As the words "skunk" came to mind, a vicious odor like a blend of rotten eggs, garlic and burnt rubber overwhelmed me.
I have lived in suburban and rural areas most all of my life and seen plenty of skunks. Even caught a couple in traps once upon a time, but never before have I been sprayed.
The smell seemed to dissipate as I walked back to the house. I began to wonder if somehow he had missed me, maybe the wind blew it away from me.
Sticking my head inside the front door, my wife dismissed that notion quickly and ordered me to remove shirt, pants, shoes and socks before I came inside.
As I stripped down, I recalled that the old folk remedy was to bathe in tomato juice. Before my son was dispatched to the local grocery store to buy out all the tomato juice on the shelf, I did go to the computer and ask the Internet oracle for help.
Standing there in my shorts, with my wife holding her nose, the Google spirit quickly advised me that all members of the weasel family have foul-smelling scent glands, but Mephitis, mephitis, the striped skunk, which is found across almost all of North America from Canada to Mexico, is the worst. It's Latin name, Mephitis means "stench." For good reason.
I also learned that if you are right next to a skunk when he lets go, your sense of smell stops working for awhile in self-defense. That's why I could not smell it that much.
I also learned that when Mephitis feels mortally threatened, they can emit two streams of fluid from scent glands located just inside the anus. It first comes out as a stream that quickly turns into a fine spray that can travel up to up to 10 feet. I could vouch for that. But, they don't just spray automatically; they have to bend into a U-shape with both head and rump facing the enemy before letting loose with a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals (methyl and butyl thiols (mercaptans). That explains why the cloud did not happen right beside me. He needed to get away, then get grounded and let fly.
Cut to the point. I did find that a tomato juice bath did not work. The odor of the tomato juice just makes your nose go into odor fatigue, but does nothing to get of the oil. Before doing further research I was ordered to the shower. As I stepped into the hot water, the odor came back again; no doubt the moist air helping restore my sense of smell, as well as liquefy what was on my body.
Soap did little good, no matter how much I scrubbed. My wife reported that if I was a dog, there was several products available to remove the odor — "Skunk-Off," "Nil-Odor," "Odor-Way," "Odorszout," etc. but that otherwise, she found a proven recipe for deskunking that she could brew up.
Several minutes later my wife appeared with a jar of white liquid, which I learned was a mixture of laundry detergent, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. It was supposed to be the best thing to scrub myself with. Still holding her nose, she added that when I was done scrubbing myself from head to toe, I should NOT put the cap back on the brew, because it would EXPLODE.
The brew, I later learned, is: 1 tsp. of dish soap or liquid soap; 1/4 cup of sodium bicarbonate (or baking soda); 1 qt. of hydrogen peroxide (3 percent) or vinegar.
As for my shoes and clothes, washing them with just about anything but bleach, was not very effective, and if you bleach them, forget the colors. The belt and wallet I cleaned with the brew. Otherwise, I chose the old fashion method, hang them on the branch of a distant tree. Ten days later, they still stink. By winter, I think they will be Mephitis scent-free, if they have not disintegrated first.
The fact that a skunk was in the yard was not that unusual. We smell them frequently, and in the morning, I find small holes dug into the yard for grubs and bugs. Insects make up approximately 70% of their diet, and on more than one occasion a skunk has rid the yard of a yellowjacket nest in the ground. So, skunks do have benefits, aside from selling their fur. Until this event, I was actually thankful the skunks were around.
Because of their aerosol arsenal, skunks are relatively mellow, unless some nut throws compost on them. And they are relatively fearless. Mammalian predators rarely prey on skunks, however they are eaten primarily by great-horned owls and red-tailed hawks, but their biggest predator is the automobile.
If you see a skunk, stay at least 15 feet away, and upwind, and you probably will not suffer the fate that I did. However, do remember that skunks are normally reclusive and nocturnal, except for during the spring mating season when they throw caution to the wind.
One other word of caution; skunks are one of the primary carriers of sylvatic rabies and thus can be very dangerous to pets and humans. So, if you see one in broad daylight and it seems aggressive, get out of there and call the humane society or a game warden. And if you hear a great horned owl at night, cheer him on.
James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.