Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Heather Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Onion and Perfy — the Whole Story

Onion and Perfy playing near their rabbit hutch home

My brother and I had lots of pets, growing up on the ranch — dogs, cats, the milk cow’s calves, an orphan calf. But the most unusual pets were two young skunks my brother brought home one day after helping Dad fix fence. A mother skunk waddled past in the tall grass, with four little babies trailing behind in single file.

My brother Rocky ran up behind the marching line and grabbed the rearmost babies. He recalls that the mama skunk looked back at him but kept right on marching. The two kidnapped babies hissed and squirmed, and he put them into an old porcelain pot (with a handle) that was in the back of the Jeep. It was a container we sometimes used for carrying oats out to the pasture to catch the horses, and it also served as a handy place for fence staples when fixing fence. Rocky used his cowboy hat as a “lid” to keep the babies from crawling out of this bucket and brought them home.

The versatile hat that covered the skunk bucket;
Rocky clowns around with Khamette while baby sister looks on.

We had some old rabbit hutches behind the barn and selected one of those for our skunks. My brother and I loaded it into our Jeep and brought it around to the house yard. We repaired the broken door and made a cozy “nest” in the hutch for the baby skunks, using rags and straw.

The young skunks were upset at first and sprayed us when we handled them. Mom had to wash our clothes to get the smell out. But a baby skunk’s scent is not as strong and offensive as that of an adult; it was more like the smell of strong onions. I named my skunk Onion. Rocky wanted a fancier name for his pet and chose “Evening in Paris” (a perfume), but that was too long a name, and it soon got shortened to Perfume and eventually Perfy.

Onion and Perfy adjusted quickly to their new home. After the first day they no longer sprayed and accepted us as friends. They’d come to the door of their hutch whenever anyone approached, hoping for food. They loved to eat, and we fed them raw eggs and canned cat food.

After they got used to us, Rocky and I often took them out of the hutch and played with them in the yard, letting them cavort in the tall grass around the edges. Being nocturnal, however, Onion and Perfy did most of their playing in their hutch at night, taking naps during the day. The hutch was close to our parents’ bedroom window, and at night Mom and Dad could hear the skunks rattling around in the hutch playing with old bones, cat food cans, and any other “toys” we gave them.

These skunks never did spray after they got to know us, but if they were startled or a stranger came near, they’d threaten to spray. They’d arch their plumy little tails high in the air, bang their front feet on the ground — scooting backward in the same motion — in an effective gesture that warned: “Don’t come any closer, or I’ll let you have it!”

We didn’t have their scent glands removed by our veterinarian, as some people did with pet skunks, because we didn’t want to keep them in captivity forever. We’d decided to turn them loose again after they grew up and didn’t want to deprive them of their natural defense against predators. Toward the end of summer we left them loose for longer periods of time. Onion and Perfy enjoyed rummaging around in our yard and pasture, digging up worms and grubs with their long, strong claws and catching an occasional mouse. The diet of skunks in our region consists mainly of insects, mice, and snakes.

In studying about skunks, I learned that they even catch rattlesnakes. Being agile and quick like a cat, the skunk teases the snake into striking, then dodges the strike and grabs the snake by the neck, right behind the head. We never saw Onion or Perfy catch a snake, but they loved to eat the rattlesnakes we killed (when we were irrigating or riding range) and brought home to them. They’d eat everything but the bones.

By fall the two skunks were nearly full grown, and we decided to turn them loose before winter. They’d adapted to their partial freedom and enjoyed their rambling and hunting adventures (digging or mousing in the pasture) but always came back to us. Eventually we no longer put them into the hutch and just left them free. We fed them an occasional handout of cat food or table scraps at the back door, but by late fall they wandered farther afield, and some days we didn’t see them at all. They were becoming self-sufficient and didn’t need us anymore.

Rocky and I are heading out to ride range and hopefully bring home a snake for our skunks.

During that winter we didn’t see them at all and hoped they were doing all right. Skunks spend part of the winter sleeping, in a protected place. We suspected they might be sleeping under one of the old buildings in the barnyard because there was a burrow hole under one end and it smelled faintly like skunk.

The next spring I went out the back door one evening after dark and nearly tripped over a big skunk. It startled me, and I was afraid it might spray. But this big fellow merely looked at me as if in disgust because I’d been so clumsy — and ambled off into the night. He didn’t seem alarmed at all by my presence. We never knew for sure, but I suspect he was one of our old pets, come back to pay us a visit and to see if there were any table scraps by the back door.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all of her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

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