In the brief but precious time that I spent with my eight baby skunks, before handing them off to a fellow rehabber so I could take a short trip to the coast, they showed me a few things. Nature is like that, always showing you things.
The tiny stinkers came to me in two whirlwind days from every part of the county. Some were a little bigger, some very small, some quite robust, some very sick and frail. All of them had black satin eyes and matching moist noses.
In my hands, they felt entirely different from my raccoon cubs, Faith, Frank, and Earnest. While the little coons felt like small gymnasts on too much caffeine, there was a quieter, more grounded quality to the young skunks. I wondered what it must be like to be naturally equipped with such a marvelous defense mechanism. Just hoist your tail, and everyone runs!
My sickly skunks were far easier to medicate than the coons, and all were quicker to bond with me. There was a gentleness to them that instantly touched my heart. And then, there were those precious and curious faces. Too cute. Just too darn cute. I felt very protective of them.
Skunks are the prunes of the mammal world. You know how it is. You mention the word “prune,” and everyone either titters or giggles or rolls their eyes. Prunes—the joke of the fruit world. People often respond the same way about skunks. They are the butt of jokes, and the expression “Peee-yoo”(blurted out with eyes rolling and nostrils clamped shut) was probably created in their honor. No one takes skunks (or prunes) very seriously.
Still, it took me less than 24 hours to realize that a skunk’s universe is complex and paradoxical. They are both gentle and deadly fierce.
One of my biggest challenges with my bundle of skunks was trying to cobble together makeshift families out of the singles, couples, healthy, not-healthy, biggies and bitties of the my small horde. I wanted none of them to be alone. But many of my introductions were less than successful. Some were scary.
A tiny little black and white ball of innocent, fragile skunk kit could turn into a determined murderer when placed with the wrong nest mate. I had not known that about skunks. Unlike raccoons, who live in tribes, skunks grow up to be solitary creatures, and their solitary natures come with them down the birth canal. They need and like their littermates, but can be violent with young strangers.
Fumbling between feeding, medicating, cleaning, wiping, and reassuring my eight confused and traumatized little ones, I was also playing a tense game of skunk mosaic, trying very hard to fit them into compatible clusters of two, three, or four. My hope was two-to-four little tubs filled with differing numbers of little fur balls that would be happy to snuggle together.
This is what a skunk introduction looks like: One unknown skunk appears “out of the sky” into a tub with a skunk or two already there. The residents instantly begin earnest butt sniffing of the newcomer (I’m thinking, sheesh, they all smell like skunk to me…). If all goes REALLY well, everyone in the tub will hoist their tails while running around in circles growling and muttering to themselves and each other. There will be much front foot stomping. With continued growling, they will settle into a large ball of skunk and go to sleep.
Trouble can enter the picture if the newcomer (or two) from out of the sky does not pass the sniff test, is noticeably smaller than the current tub residents, is weaker or more timid, or is a Rambo out to take over the tub. In this case, the skunks will go at each other with teeth (even just-breaking-the-surface-of-the-gum teeth), and latch on to the “offensive” skunk by the head and neck. They will not willingly let go. The aggressor skunk gets a faraway, shark-like look in her tiny black eyes. The victim often goes into a trance-like slump and just gives up.
If you do not separate them, the weaker skunk will be killed and often eaten.
To watch them nuzzle joyfully in their birth litters, and to see them become instant killer ninja skunks to outsiders was a sobering and thought provoking experience. One of my skunks, Pavarotti the Loud One, was not welcome in any group. Everyone wanted him flattened and gone. And if any of those skunks needed some companionship, it was he.
He came in alone, and had evidently been alone for a couple of days. He wanted nothing more than to dive into a skunk pile and find comfort, warmth, and welcome. Five skunks rebuffed him. Against my better judgment, I finally put him into a very small nest with Beauty, my tiny sick female. Finally, Pavarotti had found someone who was too weak and dazed to notice him, and he curled up next to her in relief and exhaustion.
The next day Beauty was on the mend—perhaps with Pavarotti’s nurture—and I tried to put a new lonely arrival in with them. Baby skunks don’t play fair. Pavarotti, whom no one had wanted, attacked the newcomer brutally. Fortunately, the newcomer—a female with the longest, most straggly fur—found solace with Cleopatra the Gorgeous.
Three days later, I listened while my brother joked about my email signature, “Nature’s Peace.”
“Nature’s PEACE?” he snorted. “There IS no peace in nature. The big ones win, the small ones lose. That’s how nature is. It’s a bloody mess!”
I thought about Pavarotti. I thought about his sharp, tiny teeth gripping the scalp of my newest lost one, and about his entranced, shark-like eyes. I thought about the ferocity of my skunk babies, each one destined to a singular life in a forest filled with owls, coyotes, and foxes. Each one at the mercy of speeding cars, traps, poisons. And it occurred to me that my brother was right. Life—as designed by nature—is a gift that you have to fight to keep. With rare, rare exception, living does not come easy to most human beings or to any animals save the most pampered. Nature thins out, weeds out, hones, sharpens, and puts limits to things. The process can look brutal sometimes.
But I thought, too, of Pavarotti’s capers with Beauty. I remembered the look of them dancing and bouncing like delighted kittens. I remember the growls of Cleopatra as she flounced her tail and stamped her feet at her new nest mate, before curling up with her in a tight, contented ball. I remembered how light shone in the skunks’ eyes like sun on rippling water, and how gentle and trusting the skunks were in my hands. And cute. Just too cute.
Sometimes, I find a certain kind of peace in the ferocity of life and living. I find a certain comfort in the mysterious balancing act of nature with its birth blood and death blood. There is a holy order to nature, even though sometimes that order is created by less than dainty means. There is something about nature that is right and good. And it is okay with me—in this moment—to live in acceptance of this total paradox: Nature is a fierce and peaceful mystery.