This has been a week of unexpected occurrences. I expected to engage my dear wife in conversation when I turned to speak as we sat on the couch. I did not expect Clyde to lunge in for a face lick just as I opened my mouth to speak. Slimy dog tongue across the teeth is never a good thing.

I expected to get an extra half hour of sleep, perhaps to be awakened by a gentle touch and word that breakfast was ready. I did not expect several blows to my back with frenzied exhortations to get up because water was pouring through the ceiling onto the couch. When I headed for the attic to investigate the leak, I expected to climb to the top of the step ladder, give a little jump and lever myself up through the trap door. I did not expect that not only had the opening apparently become a foot or so higher but it had shrunk dramatically in width since I built the house 30 years ago. I used to get through it with a winter coat and tool belt instead of having to practically strip to make it through the opening.

I expected some pleasantry when the phone rang as I was heading out the door to work. I did not expect to be informed that a skunk had got into the building and decided to discharge several times in the stairwell, spreading the scent through all three floors.

The latter may have been the least unexpected occurrence of the bunch. It seems as if this is the year for, as Dr. Wifey used to call them, “skunk events.” I have been called dozens of times by people in some level of frenzy asking for the skunk scent removal recipe. I was also asked if there was some “fancy term” for when a skunk sprays. There really should be but search as I might, even some of the dusty tomes only refer to it as “spraying.” This is, of course, the perfect opening for some of my biologist friends to point out my ignorance.

Even without a fancy term, it is still a pretty good trick. The anal glands on either side of the anus partially extrude and form little nozzles that the skunk can actually aim. Once it has worked out a firing solution the sphincter muscle gives a powerful squeeze and up to 3 ounces of a mixture of three compounds (E)-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, and 2-quinolinemethanethiol.) These thiols mean basically it will be a hideous, sulphur-smelling mess.

The skunk is certainly the most dramatic musk-producer but actually most mammals have anal glands — including humans, although ours are more internal than anal. These glands are most often used to add some olfactory character to fecal remains so another individual stopping to give a sniff can discern age, size, health, gender, sexual receptiveness and a host of other factors.

Everything from apes to elephants, lemurs to leopards, mice to marsupials, and pandas to people communicate with scents and pheromones plastered on their poop as it is excreted. However, a group known as the mustelids really move the anal gland artistry to a higher level.

In general, the mustelids are weasel-like animals. The various species of skunks represent the pinnacle of this evolution, using theirs as a long-range defensive weapon. However, the entire family is typified by a piercingly unpleasant extrusion from their anal glands when disturbed. The skunk’s chemical warfare may be detected at a range of 8 miles by even the relatively weak human nose but they all share the pervasiveness. Even the much less potent musk of mink will still be detectable after several weeks, particularly in wet weather.

Mustelids are found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. The smallest and largest members both reside in North America. The least weasel, found on both sides of the Atlantic, is a tiny bit of ravenous fur. A female may weigh no more than a single ounce while a truly huge wild male may hit 6. These are the animals, when they turn white in the winter, that were used to produce the “ermine” garments that were de rigor for European and Native American royalty.

The other end of the spectrum is occupied by the wolverine, also known as glutton, carcajou, quickhatch or skunk bear. A bit longer-legged than most other mustelids, this fearsome animal makes its home in the tundra of the northern USA and Canada. Named the skunk bear for its particularly pungent musk, the wolverine uses this foul excrescence not only to mark territory but also taint leftovers from its kills to ensure no scavenger will get a share.

It is not only its own kills but those of other predators, for the wolverine maintains all of the weasel family’s vicious pugnaciousness and routinely drives even wolves and bears off their kills. After eating their fill, the wolverine drags its anal glands across the leftovers leaving a vile residue. The horrible smell that wards off even a hungry grizzly is apparently nothing more than seasoning to the wolverine palate when it returns.

This apparently does not extend to other wolverines, who will also eschew a tainted cache if they are not the ones who tainted it. This behavior can have particularly bad consequence if it is the winter food cache of a human family that the wolverine decides to mark.

I guess I should quit complaining about ill fortune and simply be glad I live too far south for wolverines. ...

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Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-star.


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