Skunk on The Loose

“Skunk on The Loose” story wrote By Elizabeth Sherrill, Hingham, Massachusetts.

It was a rustling in the woods that made me glance out the window beside my computer. At the edge of the trees, I caught sight of a skunk, his black-and-white pattern duplicating the dappled light. He seemed to be busy burrowing, maybe? My knowledge of skunks began and ended with their dreadful odor.

The next moment, though, the animal emerged from beneath the trees and zigzagged across the lawn: plume-like tail, striped back and … where his head should have been, a bizarre-looking yellow helmet. As he came closer I saw what the “helmet” was: a plastic yogurt container.

The cartoon struck a rock, and the creature whirled in another direction, only to bump up against our picnic table. For a second he stood still, shaking his head frantically. But the yogurt carton was wedged fast. The skunk charged blindly back into the woods.

I stared at him in dismay. How long had he been running in darkness and terror?

It would be the work of a second for me, I thought, to pull that thing off. But the idea of pursuing a skunk through the undergrowth kept me immobilized at the window. How would I ever catch him? And then what? Wouldn’t he spray me?

I sat down and tried to pick up the thread of the story due in the mail that afternoon. But I could think only of an animal running till he dropped from exhaustion. Hadn’t this sort of thing happened before? Might animal experts know what to do?

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I dialed the local SPCA. “We only handle domestic animals,” the woman told me. “You want the Department of Wildlife.” She gave me a number in New Paltz, New York.

By now the skunk was probably a long way off. Maybe someone else would see him. Someone braver and more athletic.

I dialed the number in New Paltz. A man in the Department of Wildlife listened to my story, then held a muffled conversation. “If skunks can’t see you,” he said, “they don’t spray.”

Well … that sounded all right, as long as the skunk’s head was inside the container. “What happens after the carton comes off?” I asked.

“Make sure,” the man advised, “that he doesn’t feel threatened.”

I wondered how one went about reassuring a terrified skunk.

“You could throw a blanket over him,” the wildlife man suggested, “then run while he’s finding his way out.”

“That might work,” I said, but I must have sounded as unsure as I felt because the man asked where I was calling from and began looking up names of conservation officers in my area.

How long would it take, I wondered, for someone to get here? Where would the skunk be by then? I was gripped by a sudden strange urgency. I thanked the man, hung up and ran outside. Without stopping to change out of my next-to-best slacks, and forgetting about the blanket theory, I ran up our driveway to the road.

Of course, the skunk wasn’t there. Nor did I know why I was. In his frenzy, when I had seen him last, the animal had been heading the opposite way, straight down the hill into the woods. But my feet never slowed. I turned left and dashed down the street as though rushing to a long-ordained appointment. I had run perhaps a hundred yards when a black-and-white streak emerged from the bushes beside the road and ran straight at me, the carton bumping the pavement with each step.

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I stopped and grabbed hold of the yogurt carton before the astonishment of finding the skunk hit me. The animal was tugging and twisting, unexpectedly strong, to get away. His front claws scrabbled against the slippery yellow plastic, his body strained backward, and still, he could not wrench free of the carton’s vise-like neck. It took both of my hands tugging the other way to hold on until a small black head suddenly popped free.

And there we were, facing each other, two feet apart. I don’t know what he saw, and how threatening or not the apparition was, but what I saw was a sharp quivering nose, two small round ears, and alert black eyes that stared straight into mine.

For fully 10 seconds we held each other’s gaze. Then the skunk turned, ran a few yards and vanished into a culvert that goes beneath the road. I stood there, looking after him. Three minutes could not have passed since I had hung up the telephone.

But a timeless parable had played itself out, I thought as I headed back down the drive. The skunk was all those needs I hesitate to get involved in: Involvement takes time and I have deadlines to meet. I probably can’t do anything anyway. Somebody else can handle it better. Besides, involvement can be ugly, and the stench may rub off on me.

And all these things, of course, may be true. But I’ve got a yellow pencil holder on my desk, a rather scratched and battered one, to remind me that every now and then God’s answer to a need is me.

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