The Outside Blog

Skiing and Snowboarding : Nature

What Animal Madness Teaches Us About Ourselves

It all began with a deeply disturbed miniature donkey named Mac. One minute he’d cozy up to Laurel Braitman, author of Animal Madness, like a high school sweetheart. The next minute he’d chomp down on her exposed flesh like a deranged blind date.

Braitman, only 12 years old at the time, thought even then that Mac’s manic temperament seemed too bizarre to simply chalk up to normal donkey-ness. Today, Braitman is a TED fellow with a PhD in the History of Science from MIT, and her new book details the science and the psychology of mental illness in animals.

OUTSIDE: In your book, you say that animals experience complex emotions such as guilt, depression, and social anxiety. How can a deeper understanding of our pets help us better understand our own psychology?
BRAITMAN: Certain emotional states and problems are common across species. Take fear and anxiety. They help keep individuals safe in dangerous situations, but they can be problematic in situations where there is no real danger.

We also know that many of the same things you’d do to cheer up your dog—regular exercise, more time outdoors, stimulating surroundings, learning new skills—are likely to cheer up humans as well. The better we understand the emotional roller coasters that animals experience, the better we can understand our own emotions.

How are animals affected by mental illness and how can humans help?
From wombats to whales, animals suffer from OCD, PTSD, anxiety, phobias, mood disorders, and more. Many of these issues are healthy activities gone awry. For example, some OCD behaviors are extreme forms of grooming practices, like constantly licking paws.

Humans can help animals with these problems. I once owned a Bernese mountain dog named Oliver who hallucinated, suffered from crushing anxiety, and had canine compulsive disorder. We tried everything from behavioral training to more exercise to anti-depressants. You’ve heard of therapy animals—I was his therapy human. It was an incredibly rewarding experience. I helped Oliver and he helped me.

The film Blackfish (inspired by Tim Zimmerman's article in Outside) set off a firestorm of debate around the effects of captivity on killer whales and the unpredictability of their interactions with humans. What are your thoughts on keeping large marine mammals in captivity and teaching them to perform? 
I’m thrilled that this is part of a national conversation—there is no justification for keeping orcas in captivity. I believe we should make our zoos and aquariums more humane, but in the long run I would like to see all facilities transformed into places where humans can interact with creatures who do not need to suffer in order to entertain us. As far as I can tell, children are bored by the pacing polar bear, but they are entranced by the pig who runs over to them to get his back scratched.

What’s your take on new-age pet care options such as doggie massages and kitty chakras? How can we tune into our pets’ emotions without going overboard?
There are plenty of products aimed at desperate pet owners. Your dog won’t feel more relaxed if his shampoo smells like lavender or his biscuits taste like lemongrass. Massage is another story: it’s been proven to help humans suffering from emotional distress, and as long as the animal doesn’t mind being handled, it can help him too. However, the best way to tune into your pets’ emotions is cheap and easy—spend quality time with them and pay close attention to any troubling changes in their behavior.

You earned a PhD in the history of science, yet many of your conclusions stem from intimate personal experiences with animals that were close to you. What role should the classroom play in teaching animal lovers about their pets' emotions?
We should certainly learn about natural history, animal behavior, and even the neuroscience of emotion in school, but nothing compares to real-life experience. We need socialization time with animals to better understand them just like we need socialization time with people to learn how to behave and how to read their emotions.

How can prospective pet owners use your book to find the best possible companions for their families?
I hope my book helps people choose animal companions that they are unlikely to disappoint or be frustrated by. But honestly, just like when you first start dating somebody, chances are you won’t know they have a screw loose till it’s too late—that is, until you already love them. So if that’s the case, then I hope my book helps people feel less alone and more hopeful about their animals. As Darwin’s father told him, “Everybody is insane at some time.” Thankfully we can help each other heal.

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Do Dogs Need Sunglasses?

Uh no, not really. But that doesn't mean you should put away the shades for good. 

Humans wear sunglasses to reduce ultraviolet exposure—which can lead to age-related cataracts—to our eyes. Dogs, on the other hand, have a shorter life span and therefore don't develop UV light damage in their eyes.

Dogs still get cataracts, or blurry, clouded vision, but they're either inherited, caused by diabetes, or develop because of continued lens growth during old age, says Robert English, an animal eye care veterinarian. “Because of their deeper set eyes [in most breeds at least] and their heavier brow, their eyes are more shaded [by their brows] and have less of a direct angle to the sun than our eyes,” English says. 

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But sunglasses may still help old pups or ones with certain eye diseases. In this case, English recommends Doggles, or dog goggles designed for your canine companion. “Older dogs with early age-related cataracts arguably probably have slightly better vision outside on a sunny day if they wear polarized Doggles."

Denise Lindley, a veterinary ophthalmologist, said dogs with Pannus, a disease of the cornea, also could benefit from Doggles because of the decreased UV exposure. “A typical case would be a dog in Colorado that hikes a lot with its owner,” Lindley says. 

Take note: Doggle protection only goes so far. Veterinarian James Hagedorn says dog sunglasses do not provide protection against debris, so they won't help if your dog is hanging her head out the car window. 

If you do want to go down the Doggles route, you can purchase a pair from a variety of retailers, including Petco. DoggieShades, another canine sunglasses retailer, offers $15 sunglasses with an adjustable strap for your dog. 

Bottom line: dogs don't need sunglasses, but if you want to protect your old dog’s eyes or you want your dog to make a fashion statement at the park, there's no harm letting her sport a pair of sunglasses.

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The Secret to Exploring Zion Like a Local

Zion is one of the country's most beautiful national parks. It's also one of the most crowded.

More than two million visitors flock to this part of Utah per year, placing Zion among the top 10 most-visited parks in the nation. Thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities to escape the tourists within this 229-square-mile preserve. Here are a few of our favorite routes to get you off the beaten path: 

Climb Kolob Canyon

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If climbing above the spot where Paul Newman and Robert Redford got into a knife fight sounds like a good time, hit the road for Lambs Knoll in Kolob Canyon. To reach the crag, drive through the town of Virgin and then 10 miles north on Kolob Terrace Road. After crossing a cattle guard and exiting the park, turn left and leave your vehicle at the roundabout. A sandy trail will take you toward Lambs Knoll, where shady sport routes dot the sandstone walls.

Even better for climbing in summer months is the South Fork in Kolob Canyon, where more than 30 sport and trad routes, such as the four-star Huecos Rancheros (5.12c), offer options for climbers of all levels.

After sending your project, continue up the paved road from Lambs Knoll to find Lava Point—Zion’s only free, maintained camping area. With just six sites, you'll be lucky to nab a spot, but if you do, you won't have to worry about crowds. Take a post-climb dip in 250-acre Kolob Reservoir, and if camping doesn’t vibe with your group’s style, return to Springdale for an evening of well-deserved enchiladas at the locals’ favorite saloon, the Bit & Spur

Run the Trans-Zion Trek

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If you really want to earn your post-adventure fish tacos, the Trans-Zion Trek is the trail for you. Sometimes called the Zion National Park Traverse, this 47.3-mile path cuts through sandstone and juniper, with nearly 6,000 feet in elevation change along the way. Known as one of the most scenic long runs in the country, the Trans-Zion takes anywhere from an eight-hour ultramarathon sprint to five days to accomplish, and like the nearby canyoneering routes, requires a backcountry permit from Zion National Park.

Take a shuttle from Zion Adventure Company to Lee Pass, located at the less popular northwestern corner of the park. Here you’ll begin the gradual descent toward Kolob Arch and Lava Point before reentering the more populated scenic-drive section of the park, where you’ll find views of the famous Angels Landing from a whole new angle. Come prepared with a topographic map and data book including information on mileage, water source recommendations, and campsites from ultrarunner Andrew Skurka. Post-ultra, refuel with a WhoopAss burger at Oscar’s Cafe in Springdale and probably a beer or five. Spend the night recuperating at the Cable Mountain Lodge, a stone’s throw from the Virgin River, where you can cool your aching toes.

Canyoneer Orderville Gulch

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Zion Adventure Company guide B.J. Cassell describes Orderville Canyon (aka Gulch)—the expert’s preferred way to get to the famous Narrows—as “one of the most underrated canyons in Zion.” Both wet and wild, the descent through Orderville features two large obstacles that require technical skills and equipment. Rated 3B III on the canyoneering scale, Orderville requires rappelling gear, a wet or drysuit depending on when you visit, and proficient canyoneering skills. Pick up a permit, required for all technical canyoneering excursions, at the Zion National Park backcountry desk or book online in advance.

Before hitting the road, fuel up with whiskey-infused coffee at Deep Creek Coffee in Springdale. You’ll need to either shuttle a car or tag along with Zion Adventure Company to the trailhead at Orderville Corral, off North Fork Road on the northern entrance to the park. If you bring your own vehicle, make sure it’s high clearance and 4WD. From here, you’ll begin the six-plus-hour, 12.3-mile journey that will take you through the gulch and back to the top of Zion’s scenic drive. Orderville spits you out at the Temple of Sinawava, which is the start of the well-known Narrows. There, you’ll rejoin the less-sandy tourists on a free shuttle back to the park entrance.

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Kevin Fedarko Rips Through the Grand Canyon (And Its History)

On July 1, contributing editor Kevin Fedarko’s The Emerald Mile (Scribner, $17) was released in paperback. The book tells the tale of three men who attempted a speed run through the Grand Canyon (on a Colorado River that was swollen to epic levels by historic flooding), and of the engineers who were desperately trying to save the Glen Canyon dam from those same floodwaters.

The book received the 2013 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography, the Reading the West Award for best nonfiction book of the year, and was the unanimous top pick of Southwest Books of the Year. As of this writing, it was also shortlisted for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. We tracked Fedarko down between rowing and reporting trips to talk to him about the book.

OUTSIDE: What originally drew you to the dories of the Grand Canyon?
FEDARKO
: The first time I laid eyes on a whitewater dory was during a road trip through the Southwest when I dropped by the offices of a river outfitter in Flagstaff that runs commercial expeditions through the Grand Canyon.

When I walked in, I found myself staring at a navy of a dozen diminutive rowboats that were unlike any kind of watercraft I had ever seen. Most were painted in bright colors, and several of them had been adorned with hand-drawn scenes from the desert rivers of the Southwest: a bighorn sheep, a cluster of scarlet monkey flowers, a peeping frog.

What struck me most forcefully, though, was that the profile of each boat boasted the simplest and loveliest set of lines that I had ever seen. My jaw just hit the floor. And I decided that I was going to have to follow those little boats into the hidden world of whitewater at the bottom of the Grand Canyon by signing on as an apprentice river guide.

How did signing on as an apprentice river guide go for you?
A commercial dory trip in the canyon usually involves sixteen passengers who ride in four boats and are served by a crew of six. If it’s an expedition run by Grand Canyon Dories, which is the outfitter I worked for, each guide captains a seventeen-foot dory christened in memory of a natural wonder that was heedlessly destroyed by the hand of man—haunting names that include the Ticaboo, the Music Temple, and The Vale of Rhondda.

Each trip is also supported by a pair of large inflatable rafts that boast absolutely none of the dories’ seductiveness or charm. The first raft, the kitchen boat, bears the name not of a vanished ecological treasure but of a barnyard animal: either the Mule, the Ox, or the Clydesdale. The other raft, which was my boat, was called the Jackass.

And what did your boat do?
This is somewhat embarrassing, but there’s no way of getting around it. Every river trip is required by the National Park Service to containerize all human waste. It’s called the poop-boat, and that’s the role that the Jackass performed when I rowed her. I once calculated that I transported more than 7,800 pounds of excrement over a total distance of 3,800 river miles. That’s roughly equivalent to rowing a septic tank from Tijuana, Mexico, to Point Barrow, Alaska.

Did you ever get to move up to a dory?
No. Very early on, I managed to demonstrate such a colossal level of incompetence when it came to rowing whitewater that it was immediately obvious to everyone—including me—that I had no business holding the lives of passengers in the palms of my hands.

So of all the stories you heard on the river, what made you decide to write this one?
Well, first and most obviously, it’s a tremendously exciting adventure narrative. During the spring of 1983, the runoff on the Colorado achieved a size and a level of savagery that had not been witnessed in generations.

But I also came to understand that the legend of the Emerald Mile was more than a turbocharged anecdote about a speed run. It also embraces the larger story of the canyon itself: its discovery and its exploration, as well as the complex and fascinating narrative of the Glen Canyon Dam.

The speed run is one part of the story. But the science of the nearly-demolished dam is every bit as fascinating. Why did you devote so much time and energy to these elements?
The great hydroelectric dams of the West represent a phase of this country’s development that touches upon some central aspects of who we are as Americans—especially our relationship with the land itself. Those dams stand as some of our greatest technological achievements.

But those same dams also embody a level of hubris that we are only now fully beginning to confront and grapple with. These enormously impressive machines that we at one time thought represented the best of who we were turned out to have a dark side.

And yet the dam engineers are portrayed as incredibly smart, dedicated, and resourceful individuals.
Anyone who works on the river is encouraged to think of the Glen Canyon Dam as evil and the people who are associated with it as misguided and wrong. But that’s just not true, and this was something I needed to discover. Another discovery was that the battle that the engineers fought to save the dam is so compelling as a story, in terms of sheer drama, that it almost threatens to overshadow the speed run itself.

In the end, perhaps the theme that resonates most deeply for me is that the collision of ideas between the two worlds at the center of this story— the values of science represented by the Glen Canyon Dam and the values of nature represented by the unruly citizens of the river—was crystallized and underscored by the flood of 1983 in a way that had never been done before. You have these two separate subcultures that don’t even speak the same language and which, in many ways, truly hate one another—and yet they were united, unwittingly, by an event that challenged them both. 

How did you get both sides—the engineers and the river guides—to trust you?
I could never even pretend to do what the engineers do. I was quite forthright, however, about my ignorance, and I asked them to teach me what I didn’t know. People can open up when you demonstrate a willingness to listen to their stories with attentiveness and respect.

Within the corps of river guides, I literally worked my way into the matrix by living and laboring alongside of them. I was never really considered an insider, but with time, the men and women who row the dories came to accept my presence and took me under their wing—mainly because they are decent and generous people; but also in part, perhaps, because I was rowing their sewage down the river. 

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On the (Very Smelly) Trail of the Skunk Takeover

I bought a striped skunk skull online from a man named Terry. It arrived yesterday from Duluth, Minnesota, in a nondescript cardboard box that weighed almost nothing. I opened the box and removed the skull from a cocoon of bubble wrap.

I hold it in my hand now. It’s much smaller than I expected. It fits comfortably on the screen of my smartphone. I sit at my desk, turning the skull over to inspect its ridged surfaces, tracing my finger along the delicate zygomatic arches. I count its white teeth.

Meanwhile, at the end of my overgrown backyard, beneath a small garden shed, skunks are sleeping among the roots, hidden in the cool earth, waiting for the night to come.

In my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a pleasantly average city of 190,000 residents that sits two and a half hours northeast of Chicago, nothing too exciting ever seems to happen. But in the hot summer months, a thick, immovable cloud of skunk odor envelops the entire city. Skunks are everywhere. I have seen them ambling up my driveway at night toward my trash cans—like sturdy black cats, marked with two broad white stripes that run the length of their oil-black sides. My neighbors Cindy and Monty Burch own a dog—Robinson, an affable brown Labrador—that was sprayed by skunks nine times in the summer of 2012 and five times the summer before that. Dog owners across the city have experienced the same problem. Only the trees are safe—striped skunks are reluctant climbers.

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Last October, when Wayne Weeks set traps in his Grand Rapids yard to catch the squirrels that nest in his roof, he accidentally caught a skunk instead. His four-year-old son thought it was a kitten and asked to play with it. Jaya Neal Rapp’s two dogs were sprayed by a skunk that visited her yard to eat the fruit that fell from a neighbor’s overhanging mulberry tree. I even heard a story about a local woman on her way home from a hair salon who tried to shovel a dead skunk from the road outside her house and was sprayed in the face by its still-active reflexes.

Thirteen years ago, when my neighbor Cindy moved to Eastown, a Grand Rapids suburb on the east side of the city, there were no skunks, she says—or at least she never saw any. Suddenly, four years ago, skunks were everywhere.

Many of my neighbors have begun talking about a plan to organize against the skunks. They want the animals eradicated, and they want the city to do it for them. On the well-kept sidewalks of East Grand Rapids, when residents meet, they talk about the rotten lingering stink of skunks—a smell that clings to everything and settles in the low-lying parts of town like dirty water.

The skunk explosion isn’t just happening in Grand Rapids. Across the United States, skunks are infiltrating urban areas in astounding numbers. We are colliding with them, and they are colliding with us. “We’re spreading out more,” says Jerry Dragoo, a biologist at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, who has spent his career researching skunks. “I get a lot of calls from rural areas, but I get them from the middle of towns as well. Concrete. Pavement. We have encroached on a lot of their habitat, but they’re very adaptable. They do well in human habitats. We provide them with food, water, and shelter. They’ll eat just about anything. If you feed your dog or cat outside, they’ll take advantage of that. They move in under sheds and things.”

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The striped skunk, by far the most common but not the only skunk in North America, has one of the largest ranges of any skunk species—an enormous region extending southward from British Columbia and Hudson Bay in the north through the United States to northern Mexico. It is present in every state except Hawaii and Alaska. No habitat beneath elevations of around 13,000 feet is considered unlivable.

Existing near humans suits skunks, says Luanne Johnson, a conservation biologist who studies them on Martha’s Vineyard. “If you build it, they will come,” she says. “People love a vegetation border around their house, with a mini forest separating them from their neighbors. That’s ideal for skunks. They sleep in those areas or under decks and come out at night and cruise the yard and eat birdseed and dog poop.”

In 2009, The New York Times reported on a growing presence of skunks in Manhattan. A migration has begun, with the animals crossing the Harlem River from the Bronx and arriving at the northern tip of Manhattan—a place where skunk numbers previously had been low. Their populations exploded. They now are sighted regularly on the Jersey shore.

In August 2013, on the West Coast, employees reported seeing skunks in Dodger Stadium, in the concretized sprawl of downtown Los Angeles. “When I’m here at midnight, I see whole families come in, mamas and papas, the whole bunch,” a Dodgers employee told the Los Angeles Times.

Parts of Illinois are inundated with record numbers of skunks. Statewide, 11,500 problem skunks were reported in 2011—a 33 percent increase over 2010, a year that saw a 46 percent increase over the year before it. An animal-control specialist in Palatine, a northwestern suburb of Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune that he sometimes traps 15 skunks a day.

Stanley Gehrt already knows this. A wildlife specialist at Ohio State, Gehrt says skunks are ascendant, at least in the states he studies. “The Great Lakes states,” he says. “Wisconsin, obviously. Indiana at the border of Illinois. Ohio. Most of the upper Midwestern states, and Michigan, too.”

If a circle is drawn around this region, Grand Rapids sits at its epicenter—like the bull’s-eye of a dartboard.

I’m a molecular biologist, so the moment I realize I have skunks living in my 
yard, I become obsessed with them. Within a few weeks, I have the skunk skull on my desk, a stack of articles on skunks, and a copy of The Biology of the Striped Skunk, by B. J. Verts—the definitive textbook on the animal, published in 1967. (In fact, it’s the only textbook on the striped skunk.) I’m waiting for a bottle of skunk essence to arrive in the mail. In my spare time, I read archived news stories on skunks. Among my favorite headlines: “GAS MAN SPRAYED BY RABID SKUNK” (2012), “POLICE: ARGUMENT ESCALATED AFTER MAN SPRAYED BY SKUNK” (2008), and “OFFICER INVESTIGATED IN BURNING OF SKUNK” (1995).

Most important, I have become nocturnal. Each night, I stand on the deck that looks out on my backyard. I lean expectantly over the wet grass, like a whaler on the prow of a boat. And I watch for skunks. 

The skunk is a superlative animal. On arriving in the New World and meeting them for the first time, early naturalists referred collectively to members of the skunk family as the stinkards. With the exception of two distantly related species of stink badgers, found only in Asia, the skunk is native to the Americas. They are classified as a distinct family—a group of 11 carnivorous mammals known as the Mephitidae—with each species occupying its own distinct range and, in some cases, sharing territory.

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“There are five species north of Mexico,” explains Dragoo, who calls himself a mephitologist. “You have the striped skunk, which is Mephitis mephitis, and then you have the hooded skunk, which is primarily Central American, but it does get into Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and that’s Mephitis macroura. Then there are two spotted skunks—the eastern form and the western form—and those are Spilogale putorius and Spilogale gracilis. And then we also have the white-backed hog-nosed skunk, which is Conepatus leuconotus.”

Location is everything, Dragoo says. The skunks beneath my shed can only be striped skunks; no other species ventures this far north. The ranges of eastern and western spotted skunks go farther south and are circumscribed, slightly overlapping east of the Continental Divide. But the striped skunk is found almost all over the U.S., feeding voraciously on everything from beetles, squirrels, and frogs to bird eggs, berries, grains, human-generated garbage, and animal feces. A small animal—males average six pounds, females four pounds or so—skunks achieve population densities that can range from 0.1 to 38 individuals per square kilometer.

Skunk numbers are at their highest in late summer, when recently born juveniles begin to explore their habitat. They have almost no predators—a potential meal that makes a predator reek for a month has diminishing returns. Coyotes, foxes, and great horned owls will eat a skunk, but only to avoid death by starvation. Even so, in the wild, skunks don’t live long: a four-year-old is a wise old anomaly.

Across the country, 2013 could have been named Year of the Rabid Skunk. In mid-July, an article in the Vermont Standard carried the headline “ELDERLY MAN RECOVERING FROM RABID SKUNK ATTACK.” Walking along a quiet road, an 84-year-old man noticed a skunk following close behind; when he lost his footing, the skunk attacked, biting him repeatedly on the ankles. One week later, a five-month-old child was bitten on the face by a rabid skunk at a Little Falls, Minnesota, day-care facility. “He got bit a number of times,” the county sheriff told the news media. “It was an unusually large skunk, almost the size of, probably, a cocker spaniel.” The following week, a woman visiting a Six Flags amusement park in Massachusetts was bitten by a rabid skunk.

Reports continued to come in from across the country: rabid skunks turned up in Boulder, Colorado, for the first time in 50 years; a 15-year high in the number of rabid skunks in Missouri; skunk rabies on the rise in North Carolina; rabid skunks in Arizona. In August, the Ohio Department of Health began a vaccination program, setting baits laced with rabies vaccine across a 4,334-square-mile region of the eastern part of the state. Similar efforts were under way in parts of Texas. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was testing a rabies vaccine in several states.

“We do see about a five-year cycle in the number of rabid skunks reported nationally,” says Jesse Blanton, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rabies branch. “The last peak was around 2009, 2010, so we may be just beginning to see cases fluctuating upward.”

Rabies in skunks means only one thing: lots of skunks. “Skunk populations rise until the point where some disease comes in, rabies or distemper or perhaps something else,” says Philip Myers, a biologist at the University of Michigan.

“When the populations are really dense, the disease is transmitted quickly from animal to animal, and the population is knocked back,” Myers adds. “When it’s knocked back far enough, transmission stops, the disease disappears for a while, and the population builds back up. That cycle just repeats.”

The skunk's Latin names are revealing. The striped skunk’s name of Mephitis mephitis is derived from Mefitis, the Roman goddess of noxious vapors. The putorius in the spotted skunk’s Spilogale putorius is from the Latin putere—to stink or be rotten.

One rainy night, I watch a 30-second, slow-motion YouTube clip of a skunk spraying in extreme close-up. Once seen, the footage—taken from a 2009 Nature program called Is That Skunk?—can never be unseen.

The skunk’s anus, looming on the screen as large as a planet, flexes with a single muscular contraction—rolling outward, slowly everting. The scent glands emerge from it, one on either side. Dark and rounded, they resemble kidney beans. Each gland releases a high-powered geyser of yellow liquid, the color of egg yolk.

It aerosolizes into a fine mist.

“I’m a chemical ecologist,” says William Wood, a professor emeritus at Humboldt State University, in Northern California. “I’m interested in how chemicals carry messages in nature.”

Wood has spent more time studying the chemical composition of skunk spray than anyone alive. “It’s a fairly unique odor,” he says. “I don’t know any way to describe it other than a rotten-egg odor or a thiol odor.”

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On the desk in front of me as I talk to Wood sits a small glass screw-top jar. Inside the jar is the wax-sealed bottle of skunk scent I’d ordered from Buck Stop Scents and Lures, of Stanton, Michigan, a hunting-supply company. A day before, I removed the bottle from the jar and shook it, watching the viscous liquid swirl around. I open the bottle. The moment I break the wax seal, the pungently aggressive odor of rotten eggs fills the room. With my nose over the bottle, I gag. For the next hour, my stomach lurches and rumbles. It’s the familiar smell that wafts into my room late at night after a dog has tangled with a skunk in a nearby backyard.

A skunk can spray more than ten feet, aiming it precisely in twin, threadlike streams.

“It can be emetic,” Luanne Johnson says. “It can cause temporary blindness. It’s disorienting, and it totally disables your sense of smell. A predator can no longer function as a predator for a period of time if it gets a good hit.”

I ask Wood what it is about these thiol-rich chemical compounds that make such a distinctive smell. “They fit into an odor receptor in our nose,” he says. “It’s the sulfur that does it.”

The most efficient way to remove skunk odor from clothing, says Wood, is to wash it in a mixture of one cup of bleach per gallon of water. For pets, wash them in a quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, a quarter-cup of baking soda, and a teaspoon of liquid soap.

Wood believes humans are sensitive to the compounds in skunk spray for an important reason: they act as an environmental messenger.

“Hydrogen sulfide is found in areas that don’t have oxygen,” he says, “and I think, evolutionarily, as oxygen breathers, this is a signal that there is no oxygen in the air there, or in the mud, or wherever it is.”

My stomach lurches again. 

I attend a skunk-related meeting at the Eastown Community Association building. Five or six of us sit around a wooden table, describing recent skunk encounters, while Lindsey Ruffin, executive director of the association, scribbles notes. When a retired local attorney suggests paying a $50 bounty for every skunk tail collected, I keep my head down. A few weeks later, we set up an e-mail address for residents to report skunk sightings. The messages arrive slowly at first, then in a flood: skunks in yards every night, skunks spraying dogs, skunks sitting proudly atop trash cans.

In winter, snow and ice blankets everything in Grand Rapids. But the skunks remain active. “They’re not true hibernators,” says Luanne Johnson. “They go into a torpor, and they’ll reduce their metabolism for a period of time when it’s really cold out.”

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If temperatures climb above 20 degrees, they emerge to find food. In still-frozen backyards they’ll target birdseed, slices of leftover pizza, and compost bins overflowing with vegetables.

“Skunks sleep in groups for the winter, because of their body heat, and it’s usually one male and however many females he secures,” says Johnson. “He has this little harem that he keeps for the winter.”

A skunk can lose half its body weight during the cold months. In February they emerge. After mating in March, females give birth in May to litters of two to ten mouse-size kits. One year, local exterminator John Benson tells me, he trapped a female skunk with a litter of eight. “That was the biggest one I’ve ever had,” he says.

A lot of my neighbors would like the elected officials of Grand Rapids to approach the increase in skunk numbers aggressively, like a few other cities have. In 2011, Avalon, New Jersey, had a serious skunk problem. Located on Seven Mile Island—a barrier island off the Jersey coastline—Avalon was teeming with the animals. Locals had had enough. Mayor Martin Pagliughi employed trappers to haul the skunks away. “We’re trapping them and putting them in the witness protection program,” he joked to the Press of Atlantic City. “We don’t know where they’re going.”

In fact, Pagliughi had begun removing skunks around 2009. Back then trappers had relocated approximately 80 skunks, releasing many of them across the water in Upper Township, New Jersey, infuriating residents. After a request from Upper Township mayor Richard Palumbo, Pagliughi agreed to stop releasing skunks there.

Last summer, officials in Vernon Hills, Illinois, hired a trapper to thin skunk populations there. But most cities seem to stay out of it.

Is eradication even possible in Grand Rapids?

“We don’t have a program as a city, nor, as far as I know, does the county have any program,” says Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell. “It surely isn’t a good time to be talking about the city adding new enforcement programs when we’re trying to figure out how to live within our means.”

Still, many nights, Heartwell tells me, like other people across the city—in Heritage Hill and Alger Heights or to the south in the city of Kentwood—he or his wife closes their bedroom window because of the smell of skunks wafting inside.

“I don’t want to be so cavalier as to say we just have to learn to live with it,” Heartwell says. “But I think that individuals or neighborhoods are going to have to take action on their own using private-sector pest-control companies.”

It's a few minutes before midnight. A full moon lights the tree trunks. I stand on my deck, watching over the strange stillness of a city backyard at night. At around 9:30 a few nights earlier, as I carried a bag of trash outside, a skunk exploded from beneath one of the ferns in my yard, white stripe visible along its flank like a Nike swoosh. It ran along a fence, weasel-like, before disappearing into a thick wall of foliage.

It was one of the skunks that lives beneath my shed. I am watching for it now. Perhaps it is out scouring for food. Maybe it is dead. In a typical year, approximately 30 percent of skunks will die of disease—rabies or distemper, overrun by ticks or internal parasites. Another third will die of human-related causes, like being hit by a car or trapped by an exterminator. After a half-hour, a solid-looking opossum wanders out from the undergrowth instead, slipping between the shadows. An hour later I go to bed.

But in the morning I smell skunk again. My Honda Pilot—I had considered it an unthreatening presence—was sprayed by a skunk in the night. As I load my kids into the car, a noxious cloud fills the interior: the sulfurous, cloying smell of rotten eggs, garlic, and marsh gas.

We drive wordlessly to school. The smell is still there when I pick my kids up in the afternoon.

Jerry Dragoo, who has a poor sense of smell, is unable to smell skunks, a discovery he made decades ago as an undergraduate student. He’d been dispatched to the southern part of New Mexico for fieldwork, where part of his job was trapping them.

“I managed to catch one, and it sprayed me,” he says. “It wasn’t that big a deal. I 
thought, What’s everybody so concerned about? Three days later, when I went back to class, they wouldn’t let me in the building.”

For Dragoo, getting sprayed is an occupational hazard. He has been sprayed so many times, he now remembers only superlative instances. “I was sprayed by one animal nine times in eleven seconds,” he says with pride.

“A half-hour later it sprayed me again, three more times.”

Don VandenBos leans over an ancient rust-pocked chest freezer and hands me a still-warm skunk carcass. As I take the skunk and hold it like a baby, VandenBos, who operates a Grand Rapids Critter Control franchise, walks absentmindedly around his workshop, which smells of motor oil and skunks. In the workshop, a multitude of narrow wire traps is stacked against the walls.

A few minutes earlier, VandenBos had taken a trap, with the skunk inside, and lowered it carefully into a large garbage can primed with carbon dioxide gas. Early that morning, he tells me, a homeowner in East Grand Rapids had managed to trap the skunk, then realized he didn’t know what to do with it.

“We get that about once a week,” he says. “Somebody will catch a skunk—surprise the heck out of them—and they don’t know what to do. I don’t advise putting it in your car. I’ve done it. Put it in my wife’s car.”

He stops and makes a sour face. “Not a good thing,” he says.

The best way to eliminate problem skunks, says VandenBos, is to board up crawl spaces beneath the structures where they make their dens and ensure there are no food scraps or birdseed for them to eat. It’s better to let an animal-removal expert trap and dispose of a problem skunk. Don’t try this at home.

The skunk is a small juvenile male weighing perhaps two pounds, probably born earlier this year. We inspect it. Fleas crawl through its black, burr-filled fur. Its nose is caked with dried mud. I pull its lips away from its white teeth. When I grab it around the scruff of the neck to move it, I think I feel a distant pulse throb from somewhere in its thick body. On its shoulders are two thin white stripes, like faint parentheses—each a few inches long, almost not there at all.

“You’ll find everything from solid white to solid black,” VandenBos says, pointing to the markings on its back.

Tall, skinny, and sixty-something, VandenBos bends over the skunk again, trying to show me its scent glands. I take a step backward. As he pulls and kneads at the skin around the anus, I put a storage rack between the skunk and me. Eventually, to my relief, VandenBos gives up.

“As soon as this body turns chilly,” he says, “them fleas are going to start jumping.” He puts the skunk in a plastic bag, opens the chest freezer, and places it inside, where it joins a confusion of other bulging bags.

A few days after meeting VandenBos, my wife and I stand at a window at midnight, watching a skunk loitering in our driveway. Its back is almost completely white—two stripes that merge into one wide band. 

Summer is now upon us in Grand Rapids, and the battle is being fought again. It takes place in parks and backyards, and in the shady, half-forgotten, garbage-choked spaces behind apartment buildings. The lines are drawn. If the summer is long and dry, and food is scarce, hungry skunks will pour from the outskirts into the city, like worms migrating from rain-filled soil. And if their population densities are high enough, perhaps rabies or distemper outbreaks will ignite, spreading through the streets to keep them at bay. No one knows yet what the hot summer months will hold. Cindy and Monty Burch are waiting to find out, along with hundreds of dog owners across Grand Rapids. Perhaps this year, if enough skunks infiltrate the city limits, officials will be forced to intercede.

I stand on my deck and focus on the shed at the bottom of the yard, surrounded now by a thick bank of hostas. It floats strangely in the darkness. In an odd way, I have begun to hope for a glimpse—a black body with a white tilde—moving quickly through the shadows. I never use my shed anyway. The skunks can have it. Fern fronds bounce on the breeze in the half-light.

I smell nothing.

But I know the skunks are down there somewhere, waiting.

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