Recently I moved back home to save some money. Outside of the normal amount of shame and embarrassment that comes with moving in with parents, there’s something else that has made this move difficult; skunks. This year, more than any other that I can remember, our neighborhood has been invaded by skunks. They’re living in our culverts. They’re spraying our dogs. They’re pretty much making our lives stinky. Now, I’ve always been a deeply spiritual person who believes all animals share a purpose in this world. The beautiful hummingbird helps spread pollen from plant to plant. The helpful Egret keeps insects away from cattle. The plump housecat can make a great stew during a harsh winter. But, for the life of me, I cannot understand the skunk’s purpose.
Luckily, found enlightenment in Elisabeth Janos’s book, Country Folk Medicine: Tales of Skunk Oil, Sassafras Tea, and Other Old-Time Remedies. Janos explains how skunks often came in handy for country remedies. She says:
“Skunk oil, rendered from skunk fat, was one of the more popular healing substances used by our grandparents in the Northeast, reportedly because it had a better “penetrating powers” and “staying properties” (I’ll say) than most of the other oil that were used.”
Janos goes on to tout the healing powers of skunk oil when applied to broken bones and arthritic hands. But my absolute favorite skunk story comes from some hill-person she interviewed. He explains how skunks enhanced his love life:
“On a nice night, in the fall, it was considered pretty romantic to take a young farm gal and your dog and go roaming around the fields waiting for the free-running dog to find and bay a skunk. Sometimes we would go out with one or two other couples. When a dog spotted a skunk, the fun and excitement started. Everyone would take off in a dead run. The frenzied barking of the dog and the overpowering smell of skunk made a beacon you couldn’t miss”
Nothing says true romance like a good ole fashioned skunk hunt. Personally, I think this guy was pulling Jonas’s leg. No girl I’ve dated would attend a skunk hunt and I’ve dated some pretty rough women. But, at least I have a better idea of the skunk’s true purpose: bringing hill-folk closer together.
My explanation is certainly more gentle than, Grzimke’s Animal Life Encyclopedia. The folks at Grzimke argue,
“The striped skunk is an important vector of rabies in North America, and because of that, is often considered undesirable around human habitations. Also, the noxious smell of skunks typically annoys landowners, who fear their pets may get sprayed. In some areas, striped skunks are important predators of duck eggs. In others, skunks may kill bees or damage beehives and thus are considered pests.“
Lastly, Wikipedia argues that skunks help people by eating insects and other rodents. They also explain that the skunk’s number one enemy is the Great Horned Owl. Why? Because owls have a notoriously bad sense of smell. Who knew?
Grzimke, Bernhard, Neil Schlager, and Donna Olendorf. Detroit, MI: Gale Press, 2003. (Vol. 14 p. 327).
Janos Elisabeth, Country Folk Medicine: Tales of Skunk Oil, Sassafras Tea, and Other Old-Time Remedies. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 1990.