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13 december 2015

About 15 years ago, a major street on the west side of Arlington, Texas, was seeing a lot of traffic congestion. The street ran parallel to railroad tracks, with many acres of overgrown old pecan orchards between. The city thought it would be a good idea to cut a new road through the old orchards, between the existing street and the tracks. It was a good idea for traffic but a very bad one for skunks.

Within a month or two, the substantial population of skunks that had lived hemmed in by the old street and the tracks had been killed trying to cross the new road. As Alyce Miller notes in Skunk for the Reaktion Animal series, skunks are solitary, shy, and anything but aggressive – despite their reputation. But they are also fearless. They see a person or a bear or probably even a rhinoceros approaching and they figure they'll get a wide berth. Then they see a car and they're wrong. Habitat destruction is vividly exemplified by the crushing of animals when their homes become throughways.

Miller says that skunks are drawn to suburban habitats, but they are not as brazen as raccoons and possums (which will walk into our garage and even our kitchen for snacks). Skunks are also more feared and persecuted than raccoons and possums, and more quickly exterminated where they appear. Other small omnivores can live in the trees and undergrowth of a "mature" residential landscape, but I sense that skunks need some access to an unbroken forest of at least a few acres. They need a base from which to conduct raids on trashcans (and henhouses and beehives – which our neighbors keep, but which have attracted no skunks to date).

Miller stresses that skunks are misunderstood, but conveys warnings against running right out and getting one as a pet. They'll dig through your carpet. They're not so much housebroken as habitual, so you might be able to spot their favorite latrine and install a litterbox there. De-scenting them is atrociously painful for the skunk, and keeping a "fully-loaded" skunk around can be atrocious in other ways. One of the heroes of Miller's book is Jerry Dragoo, an anosmic skunk researcher from New Mexico who established central facts about the history of skunk evolution and has gone on to live on close terms with present-day skunks. Dragoo also counsels against living with skunks. They are cuter than heck but they apparently make cats look trainable. And in most states they are illegal.

Not in Indiana, though, where Miller teaches. Part of her involvement in the book came from her involvement in a skunk rescue there, and her own photos of her favorite skunks are prominent illustrations here. She covers not only skunks she has known, but the history of the natural history of the beast (and its increasingly realistic depictions in scientific illustration). She looks at skunk folklore, particularly in Native American mythology. Skunks were once hunted for the fur trade, and paradoxically their musk is a perfume ingredient; Miller has a chapter on skunks as commodities. They are not much eaten. They've figured as popular-culture touchstones for the repulsive.

In cartoons they are mostly adorable: well, Pepe Le Pew may never succeed in romance, but you have to admire his self-confidence. By contrast, Miss Ma'mselle Hepzibah in Walt Kelly's Pogo was always sweet-smelling and honestly, pretty hot for a comic-strip character.

Conservation gets less play in Skunk than in some other Reaktion Animal books, because the skunk (at least its common North American varieties) is not yet close to being endangered. It has few predators (aside from owls, who are anosmic too). People may kill skunks inadvertently but they do not actively hunt them. Habitat loss is encroaching on skunks, as I've seen first-hand, but there are lots of woods left and skunks are small and resourceful.

I have more respect than fear now for skunks, after reading Miller's book, and I have so little sense of smell left myself that I am not afraid of meeting one. The last time I was close to a skunk was when wandering through some waste ground near a park with my partner, a few years ago in north Arlington. A skunk walked up the path in our direction. My partner said that a good idea would be to run at the skunk with arms waving. She did so and the skunk walked away. Miller says that the skunk would have walked away anyway, or passed us unperturbed. One less thing to worry about in any event.

Miller, Alyce L. Skunk. London: Reaktion, 2015.