Great White Hunter or Never hit a skunk with a broom.

My father was a scholar and a true intellectual. He wrote many books which he sometimes referred to by their weight, started the University of Santa Cruz, was a university professor emeritus, could quote long passages from obscure books, and was renown as a historian of the people… He also raised chickens… In between his literary pursuits and his academic achievements, he spent much of his time dressed in faded denim coveralls puttering around on what he referred to as, “Scruffy Acres.”

Drawing Eggs

Along with several goats which he would join in their pen and sit and watch for hours. a couple of horses that he took great pleasure in riding, he, at one point or other had upwards of 150 exotic chickens. From the Houdans with their Phyllis Diller hairdos to the Cochinchinas, which looked for all the world as if they were wearing bell bottom pants, he raised, wrote about, drew pictures of, and communed with, an army of chickens.

The bustling mob of unruly birds spent their nights in a palatial chicken coup, which had once been a large two story outbuilding, but had been given over to an avian high rise with wire walls and numerous perches. They even had an extraordinary view of the redwood valley below. During the day they roamed and scratched, and copulated, and fought in a pen that covered something like an acre of dusty land, shaded by the largest chestnut tree I had ever seen.

The bounty

The bounty of multicolored eggs was prodigious (he had a soft spot for Aracaunas, as do I) and the running battle with a variety of predators was fierce. Raccoons, possums, skunks, bobcats, foxes, hawks, and wild dogs seemed to circle the farm like movie Indians circling a wagon train. Which brings me to my Sainted Mother, a women of short stature and determined character.

As a young woman in North Carolina, she had been called The Little Rebel, but in the advanced years of her marriage to my father, he called her, “She Who Must Be Obeyed” and of course, “Great White Hunter”, as she had become the primary defender of the city of chickens.

My father was a sound sleeper and could not be roused, but my mother was ever alert and would leap out of bed at the slightest disturbance ready to do battle for the homestead. Particularly against the dreaded raccoons, who were determined and creative in their assault of the massive chicken coop. They would dig and pry, and climb the walls seeking entrance and if they could not get inside, they would shake the wire walls and then when the chickens flew about in a panic, they would squeeze underneath the coop, reach up through the wire floor, grab the chickens feet, pull them through and bite them off.

Our Lady of Bonny Doon

I had strapped a powerful flashlight to the old double barreled shot gun which was kept in a broom closet by the back door and at the first panicked squawk from the chicken coop, my mother would rise, slip into a old pair of my father’s army boots and rush down to do battle. Any predator that found itself in the center of that floodlight passed on to the other side. Right in the middle of a chicken dinner, a look of surprise, eyes lit up like a little pair of headlights and Boom! My mother would dispatch them to their just rewards. During all of which, of course, my father would sleep oblivious.

In the morning, my mother would call me and I would return to the old farmstead and take the creature down for burial in the raccoon graveyard at the bottom of the hill. Sometimes I wonder what people will think when they stumble by chance on that cemetery of chicken thieves. like African explorers who stumbled on the graveyards of elephants and wonder at the mystery of nature.

Not all raccoons in the neighborhood were doomed to be caught in my mother’s deadly sights. She kept a humane trap set out by the old gas pump and the tending, adjusting, setting of the trap became something of a family legend. On her way out to a night on the town, all dressed in her finest outfit, she would stop and wire an old chicken bone in the back of the trap. As the raccoons figured out one set up, she would adjust her approach, like an ongoing game of chess. When the raccoons figured out if they only went part way into the trap and reached out for the bait the door would not close completely, she figured out she could put a small log on the trap door that would push the animal inside when the trap sprung.

Raccoons that were captured in this manner were relocated to an area on the coast near Davenport about 6 miles from our house. We would spray paint their behinds with day glow orange paint and if they took the hint and stayed away, they were free to go on their way, but if they were caught a second time, they joined the group at the bottom of the hill. Nowadays in Vancouver, I also raise chickens, although only four at the moment. I also have numerous koi and like my mother keep a humane trap set most of the time. Generally though, I only catch Murphy The Half Blind Devil Dog…

Raccoons kill chickens, but skunks usually just steal the eggs. Where the raccoon is fearless and will defend his kill, even when faced with superior firepower, the skunk slip into the coop before it is locked up for the night like a small shadow and then sneak away with its little golden treasure leaving only a faint smell to tell you that you are missing something. Catching them is problematic and shooting them is nasty.

A friend of my father told us once in a proud manner that he had trapped several hundred skunks over the years, using a humane trap that had solid, sheet metal walls so the skunk could not see out. The theory being that if the skunk could not see you, it would not spray you. He told us in a somewhat superior manner that he would capture the skunks and take them up behind the university campus and let them go… A distance of only a mile or so.

We didn’t have the heart to tell him that at a distance like that, it was more than likely he had been only catching a very few skunks that would then immediately return to his coop like homing pigeons. My father and I had a vision that the skunks used him as a kind of commuter bus. They would drop by for a quick meal, and get transported back to their homes behind the college. The only downside for them was a brisk morning walk, which they probably enjoyed and kept them fit and healthy.

One night, when I was still living at home, my mother came to me in a state and told me that a skunk had slipped in through the back door and was hiding behind the refrigerator. At her direction, I came down to the kitchen and helped her slowly slide the refrigerator away from the wall. We could see the skunk back there hiding in the shadows, watching us warily with its little bright, beadlike eyes. I’ve got to say, that skunks really are cute. You have this urge to pick them up and stroke their pointed little noses and even the smell does not seem that bad when they have not let loose.

So we slowly pull the fridge away from the wall, and the little beggar squeezes back behind the cabinet to the left and hides behind the pots and pans. My Sainted Mother, on her hands and knees, armed with thick work gloves and with a cardboard box standing by, begins to pull the pots and pans slowly out of the cabinet. When a skunk is getting ready to spray you, it taps one of its hind feet on the ground, a little like a rattlesnake warning you off. The closer you get, the faster the rhythm.

Mother would reach into the cabinet… The tapping would increase… Like she was radioactive and the little stinker was a geiger counter. She would pull back, and the tapping would decrease. As she finally got quite close to it, it again squeezed behind the cabinetry into a space under the sink behind the trash can and the cleaning supplies.

This whole process took place over several hours. We would leave food out and take a break, hoping that the skunk would decide to leave on its own, we talked to it, we pleaded, to no avail, and then inevitably, we would move onto the next phase. Mother slowly pulled out the trash can from under the sink and the little bastard just squeezed through to the space behind the drawer where she kept all the lids in the house. From there, it went on to the space behind the bag drawer, and then to the liquor cabinet. At this point, it took a left hand turn and squeezed through to the drawer where the place mats were kept.

At each step, you could feel the tension rising in my mother like steam in a pressure cooker. She would, ever so slowly, pull out a drawer, just in time to see the white and black tail disappear into the next sanctuary. Slowly, slowly the smell of skunk was getting stronger… Tap, tap, tap, the hind foot would go, warning her to be careful, as if saying, “Don’t make me do this.”

When the skunk finally squeezed behind the old gas stove which was the last refuge available, my mother had finally had enough and smacked the thing with a broom, which resulted in an explosion of smell that can barely be described.

I’m sure all of you have smelled skunk now and then in your lives. We pass it on the freeway and it doesn’t seem that bad. Sometimes at a distance of miles and a period of days, it can even be rather pleasant, in a funny kind of way. I remember hearing that skunk oil was once even used in a sanitized form as a carrier in fine perfumes. Well, that’s not how it is when the thing rips one off in your kitchen.

First off, the smell is so intense that your nostrils feel like they are trying to clap shut like the hatches of a sinking ship. It transcends even the concept of being a smell and becomes a physical force that crashes into you like the surf. It’s like being maced! Your breath catches in your chest and your eyes are stung shut in a blur of tears.

In the midst of this blazing fog of war, my mother uses the broom to shove the little shit out from behind the stove, grabs it with her work gloves, and stuffs it into the waiting cardboard box. We then rushed it out of the house, put it into the old Toyota station wagon and drove it down to Davenport to a place with no kitchens.

The house smelled of skunk for months, despite the application of every cleaning agent known to man. She tried bleach, tomato sauce, comet, dish soap… She sprayed air fresheners, lysol, squeezed orange peels, set up fans…

Oh, Great White Hunter! Don’t poke the rattlesnake. Don’t stir the nest. Never hit a skunk with a broom.

Setting the trap
Father looking on
Great White Hunter

One Response to “Great White Hunter or Never hit a skunk with a broom.”
  1. Katie Tetzlaff Larsen says:

    Makes me fall in love with Clan Smith all over again. Just look at them! No wonder we …
    thought they were magic!

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