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I have never done well with perfume.

I could be depended upon to begin to blow my nose and hack at church, weddings, funerals and other important dress-up occasions. Taking a teenage daughter to a dance after she apparently applied perfume with a paint roller could be assured to have me risking hypothermia driving home with all the windows open.

This came to the fore again in a recent meeting, held in a windowless room, packed with people. The incredible profusion of scented products was the strongest I had encountered in recent history. Some of these were complimentary; others clashed terribly but, taken in concert, in a windowless basement room, they formed a miasma that immediately slammed my sinuses shut, initiated a series of sneezing fits, and nearly sent me into anaphylactic shock.

Coming home from the event, I sat down to go through the mail and discovered one of the writing magazines I get had gone under and, in lieu of a refund, I had been given a subscription to a mens’ health publication. I was barely past the table of contents when I began to encounter double page ads for various perfumes for men. These consist of two pages stuck together, advertising on front and back, and, for anyone dumb enough to separate the pages, inside a patch containing the advertiser’s cologne, ready for application. There were no fewer than six of these in a single magazine, each smelling so bad while closed I cannot imagine how hideous it might be to open the pages. I tore them all out and set the magazine on the porch to air out before I tried reading it.

My negative reaction to strong scent is by no means common and certainly is not shared throughout the wild world. There are actually quite a few species that seem quite driven to apply strong scents to themselves.

The most direct method, used primarily by herd type animals, involves application of a scent derived from their own body. Across many species, the most common source of this scent is urine and the predominate users are males. The best example, and the one familiar to the most people, is the billy-goat. We kept goats all the while we were raising children and found them to be an interesting and useful animal (the goats, not the kids). However, we got started under sort of emergency conditions and so had our first two does, Fronia and Iris, for several months before it came time to “freshen” them.

Freshening, starting the lactation cycle anew, by definition required a male goat. I made some inquiries and shortly a big white buck goat was delivered. We had never encountered a smell so disgusting or pervasive. I noticed right away this essence was achieved by the buck urinating on his beard and front legs. Turns out they even have a little aiming device to make sure they do not lose a drop of this precious elixir.

We could not deal with “eau du buck” and gave him a bath, including a rinse in buttermilk, which was claimed to remove the last traces. It worked pretty well, so well in fact that the girls would have nothing to do with him. We missed a whole heat cycle until he got himself redolent again and they fell in love.

Direct application happens in many wild deer and goat species. Others, like the elk, handle it differently. A bull elk will go to a “wallow,” a muddy wet hole he has scraped out with his feet and antlers. He walks back and forth, dribbling urine and then drops down to roll and slide until his back and sides are covered with the reeking mud.

The behavior humans may be most familiar with is the scent-rolling which many canines, including domesticated dogs, as well as bears, foxes and many mustelid species employ. You may wonder why your otherwise fairly well-behaved house dog goes berserk when finding some particularly fetid mess, sliding and rolling until they are covered with reeking goo. The standard explanation is that, in the wild, it hides their scent from their prey. Our goats used to periodically go on alert and carefully track the smell of carrion drifting on the breeze as our resident bear moved by in the woods. The scent was even stronger and more obvious than the musky bear odor, so this explanation fails.

In the case of humans, individual animals seem to have particular preferences. The list of favorites includes rotting carcasses, dead worms, fish at any stage of decomposition and various types and ages of feces. Apart from individual preference, at least for the canids, there is one essence preferred over all others. When offered a choice — scent-rolling in fox excrement is the nadir of wonderful for dogs, bears, even some wild felines. The persistent, skunky essence seems irresistible.

The question remains — why? Many behavioral studies seem to indicate it is much the same as playing loud music with your car windows open, going shirtless in 30 degree weather so people can see your tattoos or putting on cologne with a paint roller. Apparently it is simply to call attention to themselves. In some wolf packs, when a member came in wearing something wonderful, fox essence or eau of dead wolverine, all the pack members would rush up, sniff him thoroughly, and rush off on his back trail to find the source and anoint themselves.

I do not care. I am still not going to roll on those magazine inserts.

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


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