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Ch. 7: The Mephitic Skunk

It might possibly give the reader some faint conception of the odious
character of this creature (for adjectives are weak to describo it) when
I say that, in talking to strangers from abroad, I have never thought it
necessary to speak of sunstroke, jaguars, or the assassin's knife, but
have never omitted to warn them of the skunk, minutely describing its
habits and personal appearance.

I knew an Englishman who, on taking a first gallop across the pampas,
saw one, and, quickly dismounting, hurled himself bodily on to it to
effect its capture. Poor man! he did not know that the little animal is
never unwilling to be caught. Men have been blinded for ever by a
discharge of the fiery liquid full in their faces. On a mucous membrane
it burns like sulphuric acid, say the unfortunates who have had the
experience. How does nature protect the skunk itself from the injurious
effects of its potent fluid? I have not unfrequently found individuals
stone-blind, sometimes moving so briskly about that the blindness must
have been of long standing--very possibly in some cases an accidental
drop discharged by the animal itself has caused the loss of sight. When
coming to close quarters with a skunk, by covering up the face, one's
clothes only are ruined. But this is not all one has to fear from an
encounter; the worst is that effluvium, after which crushed garlic is
lavender, which tortures the olfactory nerves, and appears to pervade
the whole system like a pestilent ether, nauseating one until
sea-sickness seems almost a pleasant sensation in comparison.

To those who know the skunk only from reputation, my words might seem
too strong; many, however, who have come to close quarters with the
little animal will think them ridiculously weak. And consider what must
the feelings be of one who has had the following experience--not an
uncommon experience on the pampas. There is to be a dance at a
neighbouring house a few miles away; he has been looking forward to it,
and, dressing himself with due care, mounts his horse and sets out full
of joyous anticipations. It is a dark windy evening, but there is a
convenient bridle-path through the dense thicket of giant thistles, and
striking it he puts his horse into a swinging gallop. Unhappily the path
is already occupied by a skunk, invisible in the darkness, that, in
obedience to the promptings of its insane instinct, refuses to get out
of it, until the flying hoofs hit it and sand it like a well-kicked
football into the thistles. But the forefoot of the horse, up as high as
his knees perhaps, have been sprinkled, and the rider, after coming out
into the open, dismounts and walks away twenty yards from his animal,
and literally _smells_ himself all over, and with a feeling of profound
relief pronounces himself Not the minutest drop of the diabolical spray
has touched his dancing shoes! Springing into the saddle he proceeds to
his journey's end, is warmly welcomed by his host, and speedily
forgetting his slight misadventure, mingles with a happy crowd of
friends. In a little while people begin exchanging whispers and
significant glances; men are seen smiling at nothing in particular; the
hostess wears a clouded face; the ladies cough and put their scented
handkerchiefs to their noses, and presently they begin to feel faint and
retire from the room. Our hero begins to notice that there is something
wrong, and presently discovers its cause; he, unhappily, has been the
last person in the room to remark that familiar but most abominable
odour, rising like a deadly exhalation from the floor, conquering all
other odours, and every moment becoming more powerful. A drop _has_
touched his shoe after all; and fearing to be found out, and edging
towards the door, he makes his escape, and is speedily riding home
again; knowing full well that his sudden and early departure from the
scene will be quickly discovered and set down to the right cause.

In that not always trustworthy book _The Natural History of Chili,_
Molina tells us how they deal with the animal in the trans-Andine
regions. "When one appears," he says, "some of the company begiu by
caressing it, until an opportunity offers for one of them to seize it by
the tail. In this position the muscles become contracted, the animal is
unable to eject its fluid, and is quickly despatched." One might just as
well talk of caressing a cobra de capello; yet this laughable fiction
finds believers all over South and North America. Professor Baird
gravely introduces it into his great work on the mammalia. I was once
talking about animals in a rancho, when a person present (an Argentine
officer) told that, while visiting an Indian encampment, he had asked
the savages how they contrived to kill skunks without making even a life
in the desert intolerable. A grave old Cacique informed him that the
secret was to go boldly up to the animal, take it by the tail, and
despatch it; for, he said, when you fear it not at all, then it respects
your courage and dies like a lamb--sweetly. The officer, continuing his
story, said that on quitting the Indian camp he started a skunk, and,
glad of an opportunity to test the truth of what he had heard,
dismounted and proceeded to put the Indian plan in practice. Here the
story abruptly ended, and when I eagerly demanded to hear the sequel,
the amateur hunter of furs lit a cigarette and vacantly watched the
ascending smoke. The Indians aro grave jokers, they seldom smile; and
this old traditional skunk-joke, which has run the length of a
continent, finding its way into many wise books, is their revenge on a
superior race.

I have shot a great many eagles, and occasionally a carancho (Polyborus
tharus), with the plumage smelling strongly of skunk, which shows that
these birds, pressed by hunger, often commit the fearful mistake of
attacking the animal. My friend Mr. Ernest Gibson, of Buenos Ayres, in a
communication to the _Ibis,_ describes an encounter he actually
witnessed between a carancho and a skunk. Riding home one afternoon, he
spied a skunk "shuffling along in the erratic manner usual to that
odoriferous quadruped;" following it at a very short distance was an
eagle-vulture, evidently bent on mischief. Every time the bird came near
the bushy tail rose menacingly; then the carancho would fall behind,
and, after a few moments' hesitation, follow on again. At length,
growing bolder, it sprung forward, seizing the threatening tail with its
claw, but immediately after "began staggering about with dishevelled
plumage, tearful eyes, and a profoundly woe-begone expression on its
vulture face. The skunk, after turning and regarding its victim with an
I-told-you-so look for a few moments, trotted unconcernedly off."

I was told in Patagonia by a man named Molinos, who was frequently
employed by the Government as guide to expeditions in the desert, that
everywhere throughout that country the skunk is abundant. Some years ago
he was sent with two other men to find and treat with an Indian chief
whose whereabouts were not known. Far in the interior Molinos was
overtaken by a severe winter, his horses died of thirst and fatigue, and
during the three bitterest months of the year he kept himself and his
followers alive by eating the flesh of skunks, the only wild animal that
never failed them. No doubt, on those vast sterile plains where the
skunk abounds, and goes about by day and by night careless of enemies,
the terrible nature of its defensive weapon is the first lesson
experience teaches to every young eagle, fox, wild cat, and puma.

Dogs kill skunks when made to do so, but it is not a sport they delight
in. One moonlight night, at home, I went out to where the dogs, twelve
in number, were sleeping: while I stood there a skunk appeared and
deliberately came towards me, passing through the dogs where they lay,
and one by one as he passed them they rose up, and, with their tails
between their legs, skulked off. When made to kill skunks often they
become seasoned; but always perform the loathsome task expeditiously,
then rush away with frothing mouths to rub their faces in the wet clay
and rid themselves of the fiery sensation. At one time I possessed only
one dog that could be made to face a skunk, and as the little robbers
were very plentiful, and continually coining about the house in their
usual open, bold way, it was rather hard for the poor brute. This dog
detested them quite as strongly as the others, only he was more
obedient, faithful, and brave. Whenever I bade him attack one of them
he would come close up to me and look up into my face with piteous
pleading eyes, then, finding that he was not to be let off from the
repulsive task, he would charge upon the doomed animal with a blind fury
wonderful to see. Seizing it between his teeth, he would shake it madly,
crushing its bones, then hurl it several feet from him, only to rush
again and again upon it to repeat the operation, doubtless with a
Caligula-like wish in his frantic breast that all the skunks on the
globe had but one backbone.

I was once on a visit to a sheep-farming brother, far away on the
southern frontier of Buenos Ayres, and amongst the dogs I found there
was one most interesting creature, He was a great, lumbering, stupid,
good-tempered brute, so greedy that when you offered him a piece of meat
he would swallow half your arm, and so obedient that at a word he would
dash himself against the horns of a bull, and face death and danger in
any shape. But, my brother told me, he would not face a skunk--he would
die first. One day I took him out and found a skunk, and for upwards of
half an hour I sat on my horse vainly cheering on my cowardly follower,
and urging him to battle. The very sight of the enemy gave him a fit of
the shivers; and when the irascible little enemy began to advance
against us, going through the performance by means of which he generally
puts his foes to flight without resorting to malodorous
measures--stamping his little feet in rage, jumping up, spluttering and
hissing and flourishing his brush like a warlike banner above his
head--then hardly could I restrain my dog from turning tail and flying
home in abject terror. My cruel persistence was rewarded at last.
Continued shouts, cheers, and hand-clappings began to stir the brute to
a kind of frenzy. Torn by conflicting emotions, he began to revolve
about the skunk at a lumbering gallop, barking, howling, and bristling
up his hair; and at last, shutting his eyes, and with a yell of
desperation, he charged. I fully expected to see the enemy torn to
pieces in a few seconds, but when the dog was still four or five feet
from him the fatal discharge came, and he dropped down as if shot dead.
For some time he lay on the earth perfectly motionless, watched and
gently bedewed by the victorious skunk; then he got up and crept whining
away. Gradually he quickened his pace, finally breaking into a frantic
run. In vain I followed him, shouting at the top of my lungs; he stayed
not to listen, and very speedily vanished from sight--a white speck on
the vast level plain. At noon on the following day he made his
appearance, gaunt and befouled with mud, staggering forward like a
galvanized skeleton. Too worn out even to eat, he flung himself down,
and for hours lay like a dead thing, sleeping off the effects of those
few drops of perfume.

Dogs, I concluded, like men, have their idiosyncrasies; but I had gained
my point, and proved once more--if any proof were needed--the truth of
that noble panegyric of Bacon's on our faithful servant and companion.

W. H. Hudson