Gracie is sitting on the floor of the great room, nose almost to the pine boards, intently focused on whatever is going on down there.
“Has she had the babies?” I ask quietly, creeping down the stairs into the room. Then, from a few feet away, I hear what has caught my cat’s rapt attention: little mewlings are coming from under the floorboards.
My downstairs boarder is a mama again.
I should explain that when I added the great room onto the house, I had it built on piers rather than on a foundation, which means there’s a crawlspace under the room which is (theoretically) closed off with plywood-and-trellis panels. Evidently, it’s a four-star accommodation for a skunk doe who is looking to snuggle down for the winter and deliver her kits in an easily defensible place. It has the added advantage of being warmed a little by the heating vent into the room above. She’s got the equivalent of radiant heat in the ceiling. Canny lass.
I used to try to seal up the space down there, nailing hardware cloth to the bottom of the plywood panels, bending it outward along the ground and putting rocks on top to hold it, but no wire mesh is going to last long against a skunks’s persistent digging. Eventually I gave up and just accepted that these fur-folks are part of the farm, and if you want to get technical about it, I’m in their space just as much as the other way around, so, as long as everybody minds her own business, we can all live together peacefully. There has been only one notable Olfactory Incident under the floor. I’m not sure whether I had a deviated septum before that, but I do now. Normally, however, spraying isn’t a problem, and, as skunks are rodent killers, I figure Mrs. S. earns her keep.
Besides, the babies are adorable.
One summer several years ago I was planting some impatiens beside the front steps. I finished, sat back on my heels, and looked up to find a couple of skunk kits peeking out from behind the hostas.
Now, my first rule in dealing with little wild folks is to get the heck away from them as quickly and quietly as possible because the mother is not going to take kindly to any two-legged approaching her young. Plus, this irate mama was going to be a skunk. (See above under ‘Olfactory Incident.’)
I would like to claim that I calmly got up and walked up the steps. Actually I set a new personal best for vertical jump. Once safely on the porch, I faced another problem: inside the house, the cat was by now clawing at the screen door, having caught sight of the skunk kits. If I opened that door, the cat would shoot through and then we’d have a real mess.
Carefully I turned. Four little striped kits were watching me. “Hi, babies,” I said as casually as I could. “Where’s your mom, hmm?” There was a rustle in the hostas. Oh, s–t, here it comes! I thought. I buried my face in the shoulder of my tee shirt, squeezed my eyes shut, and held my breath.
I cracked open an eyelid. Five skunklets. No mama. Drawing a cautious breath, I waited, frozen in place, for her to come out from under the great room. After several moments during which the kits ventured a few feet farther, investigating the lupines, I finally straightened. “Mama’s out hunting, is that it?” It seemed odd, skunks being nocturnal critters, but I supposed not unheard of.
Three of the kits were play-wrestling by this time, exactly like domestic kittens. One was grooming. One, the little all-black one with no stripe at all, was sitting and looking at me.
Gingerly, in case Mrs. Skunk actually was just lying low, waiting for the dumb human to come within range, I walked down the steps. The kits paused in their play to watch me, but seemed too young to recognize danger, or so I thought at first, until I realized that they were so accustomed to the sound of my voice coming from above their den, they just thought I was part of the environment.
I left them playing, and headed for the compost pile and the wheelbarrow to get on with my gardening chores. The area was reeking with skunk spray. Cautiously I approached to get the barrow and found the remains of a dead skunk lying a few feet away where the predator–probably a raccoon or fox–had dropped the carcass.
Somehow I knew right away that it was Mama Skunk. The babies had come out of the den because she hadn’t returned home the night before with something for them to eat. They were hungry.
I turned around to go back to the house and get a couple of cans of cat food for them, and the kits were waddling across the yard toward me. “No, no, little ones, don’t come over here!” I said, hastily shooing them back toward the house. They fell into line behind me, keeping about four feet away.
I named them Coco, Chanel, Windsong, Yardley, and Prince Matchabelli, and soon they were following me around the yard, playing a few feet away as I worked in the gardens. They were too young for their spray to have much power, but it was cute to watch them trying to act tough, stamping their back feet and letting fly with the barest whiff of scent. Aware that this wouldn’t be a laughing matter in a few weeks, I puzzled over how to get them to leave. Trapping wasn’t an option. They weren’t old enough to look after themselves completely, I didn’t think.
In the end, the kits themselves took the decision out of my hands, moving out to the woods. I saw them now and again in the evening, so I knew they were all right, but they never returned to the den. I feared an invasion in the fall, but apparently one of the females took up residence and the rest found somewhere else to call home.
That was several years ago now, and, since the life expectancy of a skunk in the wild is only two or three years, I know that the present occupant of the den isn’t one of my original five. But I like to think the legend of the Leaping Two-Legged Who Took Care of Us Once has been passed down in the tales mama skunks tell their little ones while Gracie and I stare down at the floorboards and listen to the soft mewling sounds coming from the Downstairs Boarder.