Thursday, July 21, 2011

Why You Should Never Have a Pet Skunk - Part of My Sixteenth Summer

Last week I got into a discussion with my sister and brother-in-law regarding the existence of skunks in South Florida. We're not sure if there are any here. Up North, the stink of skunk drifting in through an open window is as much a part of a summer night as the flash of a lightning bug or a train's distant whistle, but here we've never smelled it. Maybe it's because we live on an island, yes an actual island accessed only by bridge and surrounded by water, and no skunks have been brave enough to make the swim across. Maybe there are skunks out west where it's more wooded, though I've never seen nor smelled one out there either. My brother-in-law thought perhaps there could be skunks in the densely forested state park down the road where there are thousands of raccoons and God knows what else creeping around. Still, no smell.

I do know of at least one skunk though, that lived in South Florida.

I've never been one for exotic pets (see my run-in with a pet snake here) and I've never understood people who wanted anything more than a dog or a cat. Growing up in the country, I always knew of folks who had pet raccoons, squirrels and the like. Usually these pets were the result of someone finding an injured or orphaned baby animal and rescuing it. A boy I was in love with in kindergarten, and by in love I mean I chased him around the playground trying to make him kiss me, had a pet flying squirrel. His mom even brought it in to show our class for show and tell. I was not particularly impressed. Give me a pile of purring kittens any day. I even knew a girl who claimed to have a pet skunk at home as well, but I never saw actual evidence of its existence and frankly, I didn't want to. Eww.

My mother is not like me when it comes to animals. I can barely stand a dog, but my mother has always loved having a mess of animals and by the time I was sixteen my mother had acquired three monkeys (Rhesus Macaques if you were wondering). They lived in a large cage we had built alongside our house. It was zoo-like in nature with perches and swings, a kiddie pool and a little covered house for them to go inside when it rained or if they needed a moment to themselves. Everyone loved coming over to my parents' house to marvel over the monkeys, but as with the flying squirrel and other exotic pets I had encountered thus far, I was not impressed. I didn't like the monkeys at all.

My roommates however, were quite fond of getting high and trekking over to my parents' house to laugh at the monkeys. Apparently monkeys are even more amusing when one is completely baked.

Now, as luck would have it, our junky little house sat in a neighborhood across from a mall. It was one of those malls which had once been the place to be in town, but had since gone terribly downhill. Many shops were vacant or closing and the big chains had been replaced by junk stores that looked like they'd be more at home in a flea market. In the back of the mall though, there was a pet store specializing in the very exotic pets I couldn't stand. The place was dark, so when you'd walk in from the sunny outside you'd find yourself temporarily blinded, standing in a fetid blackness that reeked of ammonia soaked cedar chips, your ears filled with a cacophony of skittering, cheeping, croaking and bubbling. Once your eyes adjusted you'd see a wall of fish tanks, all edged with algae and needing to be scrubbed and cages upon cages of smelly desperate things that needed to be in the wild instead of in a deteriorating mall running on wheels that led nowhere or burning on heated rocks under artificial suns. It was no kind of life for any living thing and I didn't like going to the pet store, but the reason for our frequent visits was that this pet store sold monkey chow and my mother was always asking us to pick it up for her on our way over.

It always seemed unusual to me that this store sold monkey chow. I had (and still have) never known anyone besides my mother who kept monkeys as pets, so I wondered how it could have been profitable for a store to sell their food. Are there that many people who have monkeys?

One day, on one of our excursions to procure monkey chow for my mother, my boyfriend David spotted a new exotic pet. David liked the idea of unexpected animals. He was exactly the sort of person who'd like to have something like an enormous and terrifying lizard or snake, or for that matter a damned monkey, just so he could go out in public with it and shock people. More than loving the companionship of the pet, David loved the idea of being known as the guy with the enormous and terrifying lizard or snake or monkey or whatever.

But lots of people had pythons and iguanas that they took out and about, because as everyone knows animals just love live music, especially Industrial. No one, as David surmised, had a skunk. As soon as he saw the skunk huddled in its cage, David fell very much in love with the idea of being known as "that guy with the skunk." He could not live another day unless he could be "that guy with the skunk." Sadly, I had no interest in being the girlfriend of "that guy with the skunk" and the whole thing made me profoundly uncomfortable in a way that I couldn't properly articulate at the time. I just knew it was a bad idea and that I didn't like it.

"Look, we already have cats and we barely remember to feed them," I said.

Just the week before, Jim had found a pregnant tortoise shell cat that he named Wondercat Aura Rainbow Sugar Magnolia Scarlet Begonia Elf. Wondercat for short. Seeing that this name was idiotic on many levels, I renamed the cat Sarah and then had to compromise with Jim with the name of Sarah the Wondercat. Sarah was about to give birth in my bedroom closet at any minute. We were certain to have a number of kittens running around, so why did we need a skunk on top of that?

My boyfriend was able to talk me into anything. He had enticed me to smoke pot, try hallucinogens and he even convinced me that he needed a pet skunk, although convince isn't particularly accurate. I wasn't convinced so much as resigned.

The skunk cost three hundred dollars. Three hundred dollars happened to be the exact amount of money that David had left to last him for the rest of the summer. I had seventeen dollars left from a twenty my dad had given me out of pity two weeks earlier, so together we had a total of three hundred seventeen dollars. We had to pay rent, utilities and most importantly, we had to eat. Neither of us had a job though we were actively searching. By actively searching I mean we were talking about how we needed jobs. David applied at The Gap and I asked a couple places if they were hiring. They weren't. Neither was The Gap.

So using all of our money to buy a skunk was a great idea obviously and really, you know, it wasn't all of our money anyway. We'd have seventeen dollars left. David was convinced that we could strategically invest the ten, five and two ones in some kind of drug deal and make a killing. If we were super lucky, we'd have thirty four dollars when all was said and done.

That never happened.

What did happen was we left the pet store with a skunk in a cardboard cat carrier, took it home and locked it in the salmon colored bathroom with some cat food and a dish of water while we took my mother her monkey chow. David named him Squiggy.

When we came back and David tried to get the skunk to, I presume, cuddle with him, the skunk viciously attacked him from its hiding spot behind the toilet and try as he might, the skunk wouldn't warm up to him.

"At least it's de-smelled," I said and that was really the most optimistic thing I'd said in probably a year, so it took a magnificent amount of effort for me to get it out.

I had no plans to go near the skunk. Squiggy caused me what I guess was cognitive dissonance and that was the same sense I had about the monkeys. I hated these animals on one level. They were icky, foul smelling and frightening. Both the monkeys and the skunk had dangerous teeth and nails. On the other hand though, I felt a terrible empathy for the captive animals. I pitied them with a pity so visceral that if I didn't consciously repress it, I could bring myself to tears imagining how the animals felt caged and forced to live at the whims of humans.

Our roommate Jim had an impressive collection of videos to watch when high or tripping. He had lots of old cartoons, Fritz the Cat, obscure anime and fantasy films like The Dark Crystal. Among his collection was a movie called Fantastic Planet, an animated film from France about a planet where the native species of giants kept humans as their pets. I really loved this movie and I tried to explain to my boyfriend, who had just spent every last cent of his money on a skunk, how the skunk probably felt a lot like the human pets on an alien planet felt. My breath, however, was wasted.

I can't say that David didn't put a valiant effort into taming his skunk. He did. He spent hours in that bathroom trying to get the thing to act like a cat. But skunks aren't cats. They aren't domestic animals and the skunk never managed to see us as something other than a threat. Each time we tried to approach it, the skunk would growl and hiss and come at us. The thing reminded me very much of a badger.

"This isn't working out very well," I observed to David.

He didn't know what to do.

"Can you return it?" I asked.

"I don't think so. It's an animal, not a pair of pants that doesn't fit right, you know."

I urged him to try, to call the pet store, but he didn't want to give up. We had only had the skunk for a weekend, albeit an extremely long and tiresome weekend.

David decided that his last ditch effort at taming Squiggy would be to cram him back in the cardboard carrier and take him to my mother, who had a way with animals and might be able to do something with him. She too tried with no success. At the end of two days spent with the skunk in her guest bathroom, wreaking all kinds of havoc, she said she'd take the skunk back to the pet store if we didn't.

"Just leave it on the counter and walk out if they won't return it," she advised.

We crammed Squiggy back in the carrier and drove to the pet store. In the end, after all sorts of haggling, David managed to return the skunk for a partial refund of one hundred and fifty dollars. To me, the pessimist, he had wasted half of his money on a senseless whim, but to him, the optimist, he had managed to get half of his money back. That night he used it to buy drugs, ironically another kind of skunk, which he intended to sell, so again we were left with my seventeen dollars. 

But at least we no longer had a skunk in our bathroom and while my boyfriend wouldn't be known as "that guy with the skunk" at least he could say he was "that guy who HAD a skunk" however briefly, which counts for something.

Funniest thing though. The other night my husband and I were driving down the beach road in front of the state park. We had the windows rolled down to catch the sea breeze and what did we smell? I kid you not.


Head Ant said...

The most exotic pet I owned was a fire bellied toad that I forgot to give water to for a few days...

Anonymous said...

Why didn't you just let the skunk go?

Books & BS said...

My mother's cousin had a pet skunk when I was a little kid. Somehow the thing liked people though and he could walk it on a leash with his dog. I think though he got it as a baby so it only knew him as it's mother and it probably thought it was a dog.
The most exotic pet I ever had was an African clawed frog when I was in college. The thing went from being tiny to growing huge, until we had to feed it fish. And it would eat ten fish in one day. It was mean too. If you tried to put your hand in the aquarium it tried to bite. And being college, at some of our parties, someone spilled a entire bottle of guiness in the aquarium and the thing lived.

Kerry said...

For a while a few years ago I wanted a pet skunk. I thought it would be awesome and scare the neighbors and whatnot. :) Unfortunately they're even more nocturnal than cats, and I decided it was best to leave them to their skunky ways in the wild.

JoeinVegas said...

At least is was de-smelled.

Kiera said...

Okay, what is it with Florida and exotic pets?? My mom is from Florida and they had flying squirrels AND a rhesus monkey. My grandma made her a diaper so she could roam the house in relative freedom. Then again, my grandma was a huge animal nut and they also had dogs, horses, a miniature bull and a parakeet that could keep time with music by ringing a bell. My father, oddly enough, owned a skunk when he was younger, denatured. He kept it in his room and he actually tamed it, probably because it had been caught quite young. He said it was the best pet he ever had.

wagthedad said...

I had no idea there was even a market on skunks ANYWHERE. But I do miss the smell. 50 years from now, when we're all driving electric cars (ha ha) or walking, we'll feel the same way about the smell of gasoline.

mary said...

first of all, a skunk from a petstore? that doesn't sound odd to you????? If u ever done research on a petstore, they SUCK at caring for animals... let alone exotic ones. when buying a skunk....GET IT FROM A BREEDER AS A BABY. they actually know what they are doing, hence the skunk will then be nice. getting it from a baby, also means it knows YOU as mommy or daddy. so they will be comfortable around you, causing them to be nice. read up on exotic animals before buying one. and another thing, how selfish of you two to buy ANY animal knowing you obviously can't afford to PROPERLY care for it.

Alison Jackson said...

Your grandma made your mom a diaper ???

Alison Jackson said...

Keira this reads so funny, it looks like your dad had a skunk when your dad was younger and denatured Lol. I'm sorry but it was cute !

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