Scents & Sensibility


This was originally posted back in 2007. After a close encounter the other day, I was reminded of that horrible night.

Scents & Sensibilities

The following is a public service announcement.

 Our home is (was) about a mile from the campus of K-State University (which has its own variety of wildlife) in Manhattan, Kansas, but basically, we live in the woods.  We’ve glimpsed owls, fox, raccoons, rabbits, opossums, and countless birds, squirrels, and other small mammals.  Just about anything you can think of.  I’ve even witnessed a coyote in our backyard. 

 However, one animal is missing from this list.  That’s  because no one in our neighborhood has EVER seen one here before.  Family Mephitidae, formerly considered to be closely related to the Mustelidae.  You probably know them by their common name: skunks.

 Several weeks ago, when Percy (our 5 year old toy poodle) was doing his thing in the backyard around 11:00 p.m., he took off running after what I assumed was an opossum or raccoon ambling along the edge of the yard. He’s done this before, giving them a scare but then usually backs off and lets the animal escape into the woods.

 My first instinct, which I acted upon, was to follow quickly to keep him from getting bitten (or worse, eaten.  I mean, he’s just a toy poodle, for cryin’ out loud). When he is in hot pursuit of an intruder he won’t listen to my verbal commands and I have to physically chase him. In this instance, I should have been more worried about him (and then me) being sprayed by our new neighbor: Mr. Polecat from the Skunk Family. 

 This was the start of one of the worst 24 hours that I can remember. 

 According to Wikipedia skunk odor “is strong enough to ward off bears and other potential attackers, and can be difficult to remove from clothing.” No kidding? It also says that it is detectable to the human nose at concentrations of 2 parts per million.  But such a description fails utterly in conveying what happens when you walk into a concentrated cloud of the stuff that’s about a million parts per million. Take my word for it.

 I realized later that the smell was so concentrated that it was not immediately recognizable as a skunk. Intense muskiness is the best way to describe it. So, I did what anyone would do: I took a couple of big sniffs to try and figure out what it was. Big mistake.  Really Big mistake.

 I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t carrying instructions for this situation with me.  And somehow, it hadn’t been part of our American Red Cross family disaster plan. So I wasn’t exactly what you would call ‘prepared’ for this particular olfactory emergency.  My first thought after I realized what had happened was: “Tomato juice. We’ve got tomato juice in the fridge! Everything will be o.k.” 

 As it turned out, I should have kept thinking.

 While Percy was frantically trying to rub the spray off by running back and forth across the lawn with his face on the ground, I went inside (bringing the skunk’s anal secretions with me), to find my wife, Karen, and implore her to help.  She was getting ready for bed at the other end of the house. Of course.  Let’s just say that she was unamused that I decided to share this particular problem with her.  There are some trials no marriage should be forced to face.

 I now know what the routine should be.  First thing you should do? Stay outside. Next? Take off all your clothes and shoes before coming inside. Then? Keep the dog outside, if possible.  Yeah, sure, it makes sense sitting here and typing it.  But you try getting a schnoz full of skunk juice and see how clearly you think.  Go ahead, and then get back to me.

 Having ignored the first three steps, the cleanup process got very tedious and time consuming. Tomato juice is an old wives’ tale, we found out, and only masks the smell. Beer doesn’t work either. Having brought the problem inside, I was forced to give Percy, then myself, a Listerine bath. Has it ever crossed your mind that one day you might be standing in your shower at midnight, dripping with Listerine from head to toe, not to mention holding a toy poodle who is distinctly dissatisfied at such attention? Me either. I was secretly wishing that beer would work, but Listerine was the only thing we had from a recommended list of cleaning agents and by then it was too late to get anything else.

 The rest of the cleanup had to wait until the next morning. Being in olfactory overload, I couldn’t sleep and tossed and turned all night (in the guest room – I only wanted to test Karen’s patience and understanding so far). In my half-waking dreams I kept smelling the skunk and would get up to figure out where it was coming from. Remember those extra sniffs? Yeah.  I smelled it for days!

 Around 4 a.m. a snowstorm came through and a lightning strike hit close by, which Percy took as a sign to start barking his head off. Turns out, he never finished his business earlier and needed to go back out, this time in the wet snow. The silver lining of this particular storm was that for the next few days the snow cover helped keep him from investigating the scene of the attack.  Silly dog kept up furtive glances to corner of the yard, though, as if he hadn’t had enough.

 The product I ended up getting from a couple of local pet stores worked so-so on the carpets and rugs, then we found a home remedy on the internet: hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and dish soap. It only took a couple of showers to un-bond the stuff on my hair and skin, but how do you get a peroxide solution up your nose and into your lungs? (Well, without drowning yourself?) I smelled it and coughed it up for days. Charming. The workshop reeked for weeks. And Percy still stinks of skunk five weeks later, especially when he gets wet.

 It took a few days for me to recover from what I recognize now as a traumatic experience. However, once I got over the initial shock, it dawned on me that skunks are not migratory animals: Mephitidae was here to stay and we’d have to develop a “skunk plan.”

 Here’s the public service announcement: according to MythBusters on the Discovery Channel, the hydrogen peroxide, baking soda solution is the only thing that works. Period. Write it down. Put it in your wallet or purse and in your family disaster plan. Consider yourself warned.

 Oh, and remember: stay outside.  Trust me on this.

 April, 2007