2007-05-03 / Columns

A nose for news

Recently, while walking through a meadow of tall rushes, I saw something fluffy and white moving close to the ground. Upon closer inspection I realized it was the tail of a striped skunk: Mephitis mephitis. The animal was unaware of me. Being downwind of the skunk, I decided to see how close I could get without disturbing it.

Over the next two hours I crept closer and closer until I was within four feet of the skunk, all the while watching it forage. I was close enough to hear it chew, look into its eyes, and check out the pads on its feet.

At this range, I was questioning my wisdom. How much risk was there? Would I be sprayed?

Only once in the entire encounter did I feel doomed. In an open meadow with no cover, the skunk finally acknowledged me. It looked straight at me and into me. The skunk became very still, assessing the situation, body and tail ready for defense. I froze, stopped breathing, acutely aware of the hair on the back of my neck and the tingling in my body.

Although the moment seemed eternal, within a few seconds the skunk decided I was harmless and returned to hunting. Frozen to the spot, I remained and the skunk moved on its way. I was astonished that it had not deemed me threatening, even though I was within striking distance. Somewhere there was an important lesson to be learned.

Striped skunk Striped skunk From the experience, I became aware of the beauty and luxuriance of the striped skunk. It is easily identified by its long fur and conspicuous white stripes on a black background running down the back and joining into a single stripe on the head. There is a white star on the forehead of the black face. It is assumed that this striking color pattern serves as a warning to predators.

Few animals prey on this species, although great horned owls have been known to capture skunks. The striped skunk is the size of a small house cat, males larger than females.

This skunk is found throughout most of California with the exception of the southeastern deserts. It is commonly found in chaparral, riparian areas and meadows, but also in cities and gardens. Truly omnivorous, striped skunks will eat insects, mice, earthworms, and vegetable matter such as berries, bulbs or corms.

Seeing spots

Another skunk found in the Santa Monica Mountains is the spotted skunk, Spilogale putorious. This skunk is about half the size of the striped skunk and has a broken pattern of white blotches on a black background. It shares the same diet and range as the striped skunk. The spotted skunk is well known for stamping its front feet to ward off predators and it may even lift into a handstand with its tail and hind legs high overhead. A unique subspecies of spotted skunk, Spilogale putorious amphiala, is found only on the Channel Islands.

Trademark trait

While many animals are dependent on scent for communication, as in courtship or territory markings, a skunk uses scent as its primary defense mechanism.

To deter danger, a noxious fluid is ejected from an anal gland that is surrounded by voluntary muscles. This fluid can be shot as far as 10 to 15 feet with great accuracy. Beyond its powerful odor, the fluid's effect has been described as painful, burning the skin and eyes.

Before it sprays, the skunk will send a warning by turning its rear toward the predator and raising its tail high in the air. This act alone is usually enough to serve as a deterrent.

My recent experience with the striped skunk opened many questions concerning the daily life of skunks. Normally, an animal the size of a skunk would be wary in an open meadow with little cover, especially if there were another large attentive animal close by (me). But this skunk seemed unthreatened, even completely unaware of my presence.

Does having such a powerful defense mechanism allow the skunk to move through life with seemingly less concern and more freedom? Does this freedom permit the skunk to be less mindful of its environment?

Taking these questions a step further; I began to look at the defense mechanisms humans create to protect themselves, both physically and emotionally. While these walls serve as protection, do they also block our awareness of individuals, community and environment? Do these defenses create "freedom" from pain? Is that really freedom? At what cost do we build our defenses?

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