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Outside » Natural World

The Biggest Stinker of Them All

That's not the neighbor's ganja you're smelling



Back in 1979 I was the manger of Ramsey Canyon Preserve in southeast Arizona, once known as the "Hummingbird Capitol of the World." Unbeknownst, however, to the birders who labeled that beautiful place for the 12-or-so hummingbirds that were around in summer, it is also the "Skunk Capitol of the World."

All four skunks native to the Good Old U.S. of A. can be found at Ramsey Canyon, day or night, seven days (and nights) a week, 365 days of the year. The largest stinker is the hog-nosed; second in line is the hooded; stinkiest of all is the striped; and sweetest of all is the western spotted skunk.

Yes, you do have to look for them, but if you're as lucky as I was, living in the manager's house at the end of the road in the upper parts of the preserve, you'd have one living in your house.

The lovely little calm and collected western spotted skunk—who rarely shoots first and asks questions later—was living in the house when we moved in. It had first rights to the place, therefore, it was far from me to argue with its ownership.

Right off the bat that little sweetie taught me manners. When I got up in the middle of the night to "visit the widow" (as my grandfather put it), the skunk was almost always underfoot. I could hear it stomping its front feet in a warning, "You're getting too close stranger!" So, I'd stop, verbally apologize for being so bold, wait for a moment and then continue to the bathroom. When our son Reuben was born, Sue practiced the same diligence, and we never got sprayed.

But one night all hell did broke loose, unfortunately on a couple who were staying with us. We had warned them about our malodorous occupant, and they were very polite. What I overlooked was that when skunks mate they go at it tooth-and-nail, glorifying in spraying each other in a most robust manner. What a night that was!

Now, as I think about it, we never heard from that couple again; I guess they just didn't understand—or care to. When we came back to Bend in 1980 to take care of my old aging pal, Dean Hollinshead, our little friend was still living in "our" home, where she also had a child.

It was at Ramsey Canyon that I heard from National Geographic, something that I never dreamed would happen in my lifetime. When I answered the phone and heard the sweet voice on the other end announce who was calling I began to shake all over and had to sit down.

They wanted photos of the hog-nosed skunk for a new book on North American mammals. Imagine, they wanted photos from me, little mister nobody. I was still in shock when I hung up the phone after saying l'd get them. You bet your last bottom dollar I'd get them! They even sent me three rolls of 35mm film.

Night after night I prowled Ramsey Canyon. For a solid week I stayed awake all night searching behind the towering sycamores, in and around the old Dr. Bledsoe buildings at the upper end of the preserve; up in the Box Canyon, around every rock pile, all to naught.

One especially dark night (with no moon), I heard a lot of snuffling of leaves in the apple orchard ahead of me and thought, "Ah ha! That's a hog-nosed digging for insects and worms," and crept forward silently, camera to the fore, ready to shoot. As I slowly advanced toward the snuffling, I noticed rocks around me, and suddenly it hit me; "There are no rocks in this orchard!"

At that moment I realized what they were, javelinas! I'd blundered right in the middle of a herd of peccaries—also known as skunk pigs—feeding on apples. The moment I stopped, they panicked and I panicked. I jumped into the air and came down with my legs spread apart as far as I could get them as javelinas ran about in all directions, some between my legs! Luckily, I didn't get hit, and when it got quiet I still had dry britches.

Thankfully, my neighbor called two days later and asked, "Hey Jim, you find one of them pig-nosed skunks?" When I responded with obvious disappointment of not having found one, he said, "Well, come on down, I got one in my live-trap in my chicken house." I shouted, "Hooray!"

I took my VW van to his house, put the trap in the back covered with a blanket (which is usually a safe way to transport skunks in a live-trap), and then carried it into the upper part of the preserve and turned it loose.

Now get this...Sue actually used a broom to carefully, quietly and smoothly guide the skunk around so I could photograph it, which I did from every view you can think of, even to getting a close-up of the anal vent—without being fired upon. I shot three, 36-exposure rolls of 35mm film and sent them to National Geographic. Yes, they did use one of my photos in their new book, and I have all four species of skunks on my Mammal Life List.

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