Light Elements: I Stink, You Smell

A quirk of biology unites a researcher and his lovable but mephitic subjects.

By Mark Wheeler|Monday, June 01, 1998
We are southbound out of Albuquerque on a mission of mercy and we are lost. This is not a good thing, since Jerry Dragoo and I are traveling with three living time bombs in the bed of his bouncy pickup. And if they blow, it will ruin an otherwise perfect New Mexico day. At least, it will ruin it for me. Dragoo, who earns his keep as a postdoc fellow at the University of New Mexico, where he runs the genetics lab of biology professor Terry Yates, couldn’t care less.

Dragoo is a mephitologist, which, loosely defined, means he’s a skunk guy. He is fascinated by the Mephitidae. Indeed, he adores the little stinkers. He studies their lineage. He keeps four as pets.

When Dragoo needs a skunk for his research, he goes into the field, spots one, chases it down, and picks it up. Literally. By the tail (no, it doesn’t hurt them). Does the animal spray? Big time. Does Dragoo care? No. Does this depress the animal, who perhaps senses that millions of years spent patiently evolving scent glands from hell have gone for naught? One would think.

Dragoo has been sprayed more times than, say, a certain president has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Early on, though, I asked him if he had a particularly odorous memory. He reflected for a moment and then recounted a time in Texas when he was in the field with his graduate adviser and some potential grad students. They were in a truck, had spotted a skunk, and planned to quietly move in on it.

I thought I’d impress everybody and show off a little, so I jumped out and started chasing it. It started to run, and it began to spray. So I ran after it, but pretty soon I got tired, and the skunk started to pull away. So I tackled it and found myself staring right at its back end.

Needless to say, the skunk’s butt became a free-fire zone. I got the stuff in my ears, on my glasses, in my eyes, up my nose, in my mouth . . .

In your mouth?! I can’t help exclaiming.

Everywhere, he says, laughing. I have to admit, it wasn’t pleasant. It stung. I couldn’t see for some minutes, and my mouth was numb for quite a while.

Because of his seeming indifference to the animals’ pungent aroma, I’ll bet you’re thinking that Dragoo has been inhaling something other than skunk or that he lumbers after the animals dressed in one of those helmeted hazardous-substances suits. Actually, it’s neither. By the happiest of happenstances, Dragoo’s schnoz simply does not compute. He can’t smell. (While he has suffered a lot of sinus problems, he says he didn’t realize the extent of his sensory deprivation until he started working with skunks.) The downside, of course, is that Dragoo is unable to savor the bouquet of a fine wine or inhale the hearty aroma of a home-cooked meal. The upside, though, is that he can’t be hammered by the blow to the olfactory sense that comes to the non–nasal impaired when downwind of a squirting skunk.

Oh sure, Dragoo has suffered the occasional embarrassing moment when he’s forgotten he’s been hosed and stopped off at the local mini-market for a soda, only to clear the store, cashier and all. Then there was the time I was at a conference, he says with a grin, and I noticed people were sniffing the air, asking each other if they smelled a skunk. I had to raise my hand and say, ‘Sorry folks, that would be me.’ But that was when I was younger; my wife takes better care of me now.

Yes, Dragoo is indeed married, to a very nice woman named Gwen who’s a veterinary technician who can smell, and who appears to be in full possession of all her mental faculties as well. So when we are introduced later in the day, I can’t help asking how she puts up with the hazards of Dragoo’s job. True love, she replies. And a lot of bleach. Presumably after exhaustive and frantic experimentation, she’s found diluted bleach to be the most effective agent in cutting the smell.

In the pickup, then, Dragoo is cheerfully discussing his work and sharing a few anecdotes about capturing skunks (They tend to run in circles a lot, looking for a place to hide). I, though, am just a tad edgy. The closest I’ve ever come to eau de polecat is in a car speeding down some highway, where the smell of one usually provokes a chorus of Oh, my god’s from the car’s occupants.

After exiting Interstate 25, we are on the slower, more bucolic Highway 116. Or is it 304? I’m not sure. We’re definitely lost. I’m concerned about the skunks, says Dragoo. He’s worried about the possibilities of hypothermia from windchill (striped skunks don’t hibernate, and although they are common to the 48 contiguous states, surprisingly they don’t do all that well in extreme cold). He is not at all concerned, as I am, that they will become, quite literally, pissed off.

Ergo, I’m listening to Dragoo, jotting notes, musing over the crinkly Rand McNally in my lap (How could we possibly have missed all 220,000 acres of the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge?), and keeping one nostril flared toward the trio in the rear. The immediate goal, what with Dragoo’s concern about the welfare of the three skunks, and my concern about me, is to find a safe place to release the three varmints back into the wild. Since our current passengers are adults, they can be released right away, as soon as we find some house-free real estate so they won’t head back into somebody’s warm cellar.

Dragoo’s penchant for the Pepe Le Pew set rose out of his interest in small animals, especially sea otters, that he watched on various nature shows on tv. I was a small kid, he says, so I guess I identified with small critters. Later, while pursuing a doctoral degree at Texas A&M;, an adviser encouraged Dragoo to study hog-nosed skunks. He was hooked, and he’s been studying skunks for about 12 years now. In a paper published in the May 1997 Journal of Mammalogy, Dragoo demonstrated by means of dna analysis that the skunk subfamily, Mephitidae, should be elevated to the status of family. Mephitidae is, of course, Latin, and its root meaning is ever so apropos: noxious odor.

Dragoo has a philanthropic bent as well. He’s been performing skunk search and rescue since graduate school. People reporting skunk problems to an agency called Wildlife Rescue would be given Dragoo’s phone number. Next thing you know, people were bringing me baby skunks; they were afraid of rabies. It’s a common myth, he says, that skunks are born with rabies. Dragoo doesn’t believe skunks are any more dangerous than other animals in the wild. I’ve been bitten a lot by skunks, and I’ve never contracted rabies, he says dismissively. Of course, that could be because the poor rabies viruses are poisoned to death before they can penetrate his skin.

Skunks breed from late February through spring, with a gestation period of about 60 days; Dragoo’s busiest time for search-and-rescue missions, then, is summer. That’s when you get mothers and babies denning under people’s houses. So on this day in late February, it was a bit early for Dragoo to have received a cry for help. A woman who lived in the small town of Belen, some 30 miles south of Albuquerque, needed his aid. At least three skunks had invaded the crawl space under her house, and she was choking on the fumes. She said something like, ‘Please, I can’t stand it,’ says Dragoo. The previous evening, before my arrival, Dragoo had driven there to place three traps by a hole the animals had dug. When I hooked up with Dragoo the next morning, he told me that the woman had called and reported that, indeed, three animals had been successfully trapped.

As we’d headed for Belen, Dragoo explained how he’d baited the traps with the usual fare, dog food and bananas. Tuna won’t work, by the way, because it attracts cats, but . . . bananas? Do skunks have relatives in the tropics, or what? Actually, I learned that once when I ran out of bait. I’d been eating a banana, so I tossed a piece in. The skunks seem to like it.

When we arrived at the home in Belen, the woman greeted us by her back door, clutching a tissue in one hand. Were those tears of gratitude or pain in her eyes? I wondered. I smelled the familiar fumes wafting from her kitchen. Dragoo reassured her, then reached for the tools of his trade—garbage bags. If I can cover the cages, it usually calms them, he told me as we headed for the front of the house. Or if I’m fast, I can use a bag to block the spray if one lets loose.

As we rounded the corner, Dragoo told me these were probably three females who were denning together for the winter, which skunks do to conserve body heat. Sometimes a male and several females will den up—reproductive bliss for the lucky male. Skunks don’t normally spray where they den, Dragoo said, so the smell was probably coming from their feces. For skunks don’t have just plain old scent glands. No sir, they have anal scent glands, which means the feces pick up the odor as they pass through. In turn, that means the smell in the house, even sans skunks, will remain until the feces decompose. But I don’t have the heart to tell her that, he said as we spied the three small cages.

Sure enough, what appeared to be giant fur balls filled each of the three cages. Looking closer, I saw the narrow faces and the familiar white stripes. I froze in my tracks, resisting the urge to backpedal. You go, boy, I thought, as Dragoo approached the cages.

He began talking softly to the three animals. One appeared to be shivering. Is that a sign it’s getting ready to spray? I asked anxiously. No, she’s cold, he said softly, dropping to one knee. As he gently and slowly moved the bag toward the cage closest to him, one of the other skunks suddenly turned, its tail lifted. That’s a sign it’s getting ready to spray, he said. Oh, great. A skunk’s spray can travel more than ten feet. And I had a plane to catch that night. If it started to stamp its foot, a warning sign that it was about to pull the trigger, I’d scram.

Remarkably, Dragoo was able to lift the garbage bag–covered cage gently and carry it to his pickup without incident. I followed at a substantial distance. He repeated the process with the other two, even the one with the cocked tail. Once all three were in the truck bed, Dragoo pulled over a wooden pallet he’d brought along and noisily placed it on top of the cages to keep them from sliding around. I gingerly climbed into the front, gently closing my door behind me, as Dragoo stood outside, receiving the effusive thanks of a teary-eyed homeowner. Then he jumped into his truck, slamming his door with a loud, metallic bang. He fired up the noisy V-8 engine, backed out the driveway, and headed down the bumpy gravel street. We were on the road again.

As I look around for a store where I can buy bleach, I mention my surprise at how calm the animals still seem to be. They’re probably a little dazed and cold from spending the night in the cages, he says, but skunks will usually spray only when they think their life is in danger. I reflect out loud that presumably that includes those moments when they are being chased down by an avid researcher who lifts them by their tails. He laughs. Oh, yeah, but generally skunks don’t use their spray as an offensive weapon, he says. Even when two males are fighting each other, it’s rare for one to spray the other. Skunks, he says, seem to be bothered by the fumes as well. They try really hard not to get it on their fur. That’s one reason they hold their tails so high when they spray.

This makes sense. The primary skunk stink component is a class of organic chemical compounds called mercaptans, or thiols. Thiols contain sulfur and, depending on the compound, are the principal cause behind such pleasures as the odor of onions and garlic and the reek of rotten eggs.

By now, whatever highway we are on has narrowed to a road. We cross a small bridge—Down there might be a good spot to release them, Dragoo says, nodding at a gully running under it. Five minutes later we are under the bridge and the three cages are on the ground. Dragoo carried them from the truck without incident, navigating through a barbed-wire fence each time. (I’d resisted the urge to help.) Let’s just hope they don’t head up to the road, he says, releasing the first skunk. It flees, closely trailed by Dragoo, who’s staring at its butt. Female, he notes, as the skunk passes under the bridge, hangs a left, and starts up the incline toward the road. Dragoo shrugs and releases number two. It follows the course of number one, Dragoo behind it. Female, he says, as number two starts up the incline.

Number three, who is facing away from the opening of the cage, seems a bit reluctant to back out. Dragoo gives the cage a little shake, gently shooing it. He shakes it a little harder, and I take a step backward. Finally three backs out, turns, and runs under the bridge, Dragoo following. It disappears into a crevice in the bridge’s woodwork. I couldn’t see that one, but I’ll bet it was a female, he says.

We climb up to the road, but none of the three are visible. Dragoo nods in satisfaction. They’ll be okay. They’ll probably hole up until tonight and then explore. They have water close by. (The Rio Grande is a half mile to the west.) Toward the end of the day, we wind up at Dragoo’s house, which sits in the mountains outside Albuquerque. There is a faint undercurrent of skunk scent. Dragoo searches for his skunk pets, whose scent glands are intact. He tells me that he and Gwen treat them like any pets. We play with them. I’ll roughhouse with them—roll them around on the floor—but they never spray me. They sleep with us, too, he says, which makes me wonder what would happen if they rolled over on one in the middle of the night.

Sure enough, Dragoo finds one skunk curled into a little furry ball under the covers of his bed. It is Diablo, or maybe Oreo, I forget which. Close up, skunks are about as cute as animals get, right up there with raccoons and bunnies. Dragoo sits it up on his hands so that I am staring nervously at its business end. It’s like staring down the barrel of a loaded rifle. There is a pungent smell rising up that reminds me of—well, never mind. He invites me to feel the size of the scent glands. The glands are huge and squishy. Dragoo tells me skunks have two nipples on either side of the anus that can modify and direct the spray. I’ve been sprayed in a fine mist, he says, which I call their shotgun approach, and I’ve been squirted, which I call their .357 Magnum approach.

As I watch Dragoo locate two more of his skunks, sleeping in a closet, I think it’s pretty neat that he’s devoted his career to these creatures. I also think it’s pretty cool to have something as unusual as a skunk for a pet—so cool that I am thinking of attending the next National Skunk Show in Augusta, Georgia, to talk to skunk buffs from around the nation. Until I learn, however, that owners of domesticated skunks have their pets’ scent glands removed in a $100 operation. The weenies.
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