A Taste of Skunk

Even though his back legs are paralyzed, Rocky the sheep still manages to move around the pasture.

I took the internship for a number of reasons, perhaps first and foremost because I believed it to be ideal for my career aspirations.  I like doing the dirty work.  It’s unnerving to have so many fragile lives in my hands and unsettling to be surrounded by so much death.  The sad truth is that many of the animals we received did not survive.  This is not a job for those seeking instant gratification.
However, in my first two weeks, I witnessed the rewards of the work rehabbers do: releasing a sharp-shinned hawk and watching him fly away into the treetops; opening the cage door for a road runner as he took tentative steps back into the wilderness after weeks of force feeding; admiring the determination of Rocky the sheep, a permanent resident, who managed to walk though he could not use his two back legs.  Inspiration from livestock–who would have known?

I thought I’d pass out the first time I had to give an animal a shot, especially when the amount of fluid being injected was enough to fill a child’s Sippy cup.  I’ve always been queasy around needles and the “B” word–blood.  But I managed to remain standing on both feet after tucking the first fifteen injections under my belt.  I did get a little nauseous when I had to empty the body freezer, a frosty storage of deceased patients.  It was part of the job, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.

Remembering how far I was from the hustle and bustle of city life, I often stared up at the starlit sky, no light pollution blotting out the dark and fiery expanse overhead.  One night, a group of us interns climbed onto the roof of one of the trailers and watched the sun set between the rolling landscapes.  We were joined by an ornery vulture that made a game out of pecking at our feet.  The black vulture was nicknamed “Mort” by many interns.  He imprinted on humans and, consequently, thought we were his flock.  His days were spent skipping behind the feet of workers as flight was, sadly, more of a second nature to him.

A group of co-workers standing at the top of Enchanted Rock in Fredericksburg, Texas.

The hill country offers fantastic opportunities for outdoor excursions, and I’m glad so many interns took advantage of them.  A group of us spent a day hiking at Enchanted Rock, climbing up the steep face of a mammoth rock, a terrain change from the plains after flat, flat plains to which Ohio made me accustomed.  Near the end of the hike, we ventured into a cave and came out nearly unscathed.  I knew Enchanted Rock would be a place to take the parents if Mom and Dad visited.

All WRR interns, of which there can be up to twenty-one, live on property in one of three trailers.  The trailers are clustered together on 187 acres of Texas hill country.  My first week at WRR, my trailer started to reek of skunk, faintly at first and then becoming so nauseating I had to sleep in another trailer the following night.  (They welcomed me with open arms but did not fail to mention that I carried with me a most unappealing odor.)

Once, when I had two days off in a row, I spent one of the days with other interns going back and forth between boonie-ville and civilization.  We went to church, ran the typical grown-up errands and saw a movie in the evening.  On the way to the movie, I handed out some yogurt-covered raisins I had stored in a sealed plastic bag inside the cupboard.  Chewing on them, we noted a unique taste.  It didn’t become entirely dissatisfying until someone pinned down the source of the flavor–the skunk smell.  Needless to say it took a while before me and my belongings were one hundred percent aired out of polecat.

A baby skunk with the black and white color sequence reversed. This little guy was orphaned with his brothers and sisters when Mama skunk became road kill.

One night, the skunk sprayed continuously.  Even interns who had become desensitized to the odor could not stand it.  Based on the smell–it had a hint of onion to it–and the frequency of his sprays, we theorized that he was likely seizing from distemper.  On day three of continuous spraying, an intern from another trailer sported a head lamp and crawled into the bowels of our abode, belly crawling across the dirt.  He resurfaced empty-handed, leaving me a bit skeptical (“Are you sure you covered every inch in there?”) and all of us worried that we’d die of intoxicating asphyxiation at some point in the night.  But just after sunset, the same intern spotted the culprit’s nose sticking out of one of the two holes under the trailer.  He and two other workers were quick to react, and after crawling back into the dark foreboding depths–an act soon to be dubbed the second leap for mankind–the skunk was removed.  We guessed correctly that the skunk had distemper, a disease with symptoms similar to and often confused with rabies.

Skunks are a rabies vector species, a category that also includes foxes, bats, dogs, cats, coyotes and raccoons. Distemper can be contracted by any of these vectors, but unlike rabies, it cannot be transmitted to humans.  Unfortunately, the period between acquisition, symptoms and death is rapid, days at the least and weeks at the most.  It’s a nasty disease marked by lethargy, loss of appetite, seizing and discharge from the eyes.  In only a short span of time, the bodies of afflicted animals become a mess of lost hope.  At least wildlife caretakers can give the animal a comfortable, more dignified end.  At the very least, that is what we wish for them.

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