My Take Tuesday: Skunked

A few months back, a Boy Scout troop stopped by the clinic at the end of the day for a tour. As I showed them around and answered their questions, I couldn’t help but reminisce about my time as a boy scout.

The year was 1995.

Boy scout troop 306 of the Castle Dale 1st Ward embarked on a week long 50 mile hike during the month of July. The hike began on a Monday at Ferron reservoir and ended on Saturday at Indian Creek Campground in the beautiful Manti Lasal National Forest.

As a 14 year old kid, I was just like most of the other boys in my troop: wholly naive and completely unaware of my ignorance. My sense of adventure far outweighed sound logic and I was prone to encounter trouble because of my mischievous nature. My little brother Caleb and my best friend Zac were my partners in crime and were witnesses to myriads of situations that shaped our imaginative Boy Scout days working on merit badges, monthly camp outs and high adventure events that eventually led to each of us earning the rank of Eagle Scout. These experiences consequently helped make us into the men we are today.

On the second night of this long hike, we made camp at a place called Cove Lake. This beautiful lake is just a few miles from the scenic skyline drive and is nestled in a large grove of Douglas Fir and Ponderosa pines.

As Boy Scouts do, we set out to set up camp and explore the lake. We soon found out that we were not the only species inhabiting the camp on this particular night. We shared the campsite with one of the most widely distributed mammals in North America, Mephitis mephitis, or the common striped skunk. The fecund creatures were everywhere. As we floated around the lake on a makeshift raft, we could see dozens of them around the waters edge.

We clearly had a dilemma. Almost immediately, the skunks began ransacking our tents and food supply. These smelly striped critters were endlessly curious about the bipedal invasive species that had entered their territory.

Passive in nature, skunks will avoid contact with humans and domestic animals; however, when challenged they are amply prepared to protect themselves.

If a skunk feels threatened, it will give a warning which includes hissing, stomping of feet, and elevation of the tail. Failure to heed the warning signs will result in the unlucky aggressor being sprayed with the skunk’s anal gland secretions. Skunks are highly accurate in their aim and can spray 7 to 15 feet away!

A dozen rambunctious boys were immediately perceived as a threat by the striped beast. They seemed to coordinate the invasion of the camp, approaching from all directions.

A scout watching the skunk rodeo spoke to me, “Hey Isaac, if you hold a skunk by its tail it can’t spray you.”

The notion had some truthiness to it, after all, if it can’t plant its feet it likely wouldn’t be able to empty its scent glands.

Without any further thought, I reached out and grabbed the nearest skunk by the tail. I lifted it directly in the air and held it suspended with my arms straight out.

The little guy simply twirled slightly and lined his backside to my face and fiercely sprayed with all that he had.

It went directly in my mouth and up my nose. It covered my entire face and some even got in my eyes.

I immediately began vomiting uncontrollably. By eyes burned and my vision became blurry.

What a lesson! Take my word for it, a skunk can certainly spray when it’s feet aren’t off the ground. This equivocated logic is dangerous.

As Mark Twain once observed, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

The odeur fetide that I experienced is actually a thick, volatile, oily liquid that obtains its pungency from sulfur-based thiols. There in nothing that smells worse than skunk spray inside your nose!

It took weeks before I stopped smelling skunk.

Frantically, I raided the food tent in search of cans of tomato juice. I found 8 cans and a can opener. I then took a tomato shower. I scrubbed my head in it, my whole body was covered in tomatoes. You haven’t lived until you take a shower in tomato sauce.

The rest of the week proved to be much less adventurous. I was forced to sleep in my own tent and I walked behind everyone else along the trails.

Now when I see a skunk, I give it plenty of space. And I tell everyone that I can that contrary to popular myth, a skunk can spray even when being held off the ground by its tail!

And that is my take!

N. Isaac Bott, DVM

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