When Death Comes Knocking, Don’t Answer the Door

An orphaned skunk explores its new digs.  Before their scent gland develops, they stomp angrily at predators. It's incredibly adorable.
An orphaned skunk explores its new digs. Before their scent gland develops, they stomp angrily at predators. It’s incredibly adorable.

In a fast-paced workplace filled with high amounts of stress and the occasionally somber atmosphere, it is imperative to fit in a smile or a laugh whenever possible to lighten the daily load.  Naturally, with every job, I do my best to make sure that this task is fulfilled, within professional reason.  It’s always a welcome surprise when the plan somehow backfires.

A head-on collision with a particularly fruitful baby season left staff and interns frazzled beyond capacity.  One great aspect of this field of work is the exceptional teamwork, outfitted with any wildlife rescue organization.  Picking up where others left off is a recurring theme in the animal care world, and my intern friend Amanda and I were asked to do just that.  A staff member requested that we clean out one of the pre-release enclosures outside, so we frolicked to the cage door to survey the scene.  Most recently, Amanda and I had watched the wrangling of a bobcat for transport out of this bivouac.  The feline looked cute and cuddly until the wrestling match, during which I could visibly see droplets of saliva spraying out of her open, sharp-fanged, hissing mouth.  Mature bobcats might only grow to the size of a medium house dog, but they are equally as ferocious as a starved adult male lion presented with the opportunity to dig into a five-course meal.  And to think someone had kept this cat as a pet.  No wonder she had been handed over to us.

Thinking the enclosure lay completely empty after the removal of the bobcat, Amanda and I stepped inside.  As I leaned down to pick up the crate from the floor, Amanda asked me if there was something inside.  Seizing the opportunity to pull a practical joke, I replied with a “no” but immediately followed that up with a class act of hissing noises and thrashing of the crate.

“No, really, I think there’s something in there,” she said.

Realizing my impersonation of a bobcat had not been convincing, I started to reply.  “No, there’s nothing–” I cut myself off.  Seeing a tuft of hair, I immediately thought it was the bobcat, somehow still in the crate inside this cage that we were told was no longer inhabited.  However, a double-take revealed the distinctive white stripe of a skunk, now dangling from my extended arm in a crate not more than a foot from the rest of my body.  A quick recap of what I had just done–the hissing and the crate rattling–and a run-down of potential consequences of said actions–a spray to the face landing at number one on the list–resulted in immediate action on my part.  I set the crate on the ground and booked it out of there, abandoning a gaping Amanda.

While collecting my pride, Amanda started to laugh.

“He’s not alive, you know.”

“Wha?” I breathed.

Slowly, I approached the enclosure, and Amanda turned the crate to me so that I could see the skunk was indeed no longer with us.  Eventually, it came to light that someone forgot to remove the skunk after he was euthanized.  The staff member instructing us to clean out the cage also did not anticipate that we would encounter a deceased animal.  All said and done, it was definitely not how I would have reacted to removing a carcass if I had been forewarned, but it certainly makes for an entertaining story.  And from there on out, I made sure to quadruple check all future enclosures I was asked to clean, for animals both alive and dead.

One of the saddest parts of this job is when an animal dies in your hands.  It happens to every rehabber, but I learned not to sit back and let death run its course when it seems all hope is lost.

A litter of orphaned skunks already weaned off the bottle will playfully fight for food.  Their meal, at this stage, consists of fruits & veggies, dog chow & cooked meat.
A litter of orphaned skunks already weaned off the bottle will playfully fight for food. Their meal, at this stage, consists of fruits & veggies, dog chow & cooked meat.

Barricaded in the skunk room, I busied myself filling syringes with warm formula for the newborns.  Mammalian formula is specialized for each species with a carefully calculated ratio of fat to protein, mimicking the female’s milk as close as possible.  Oftentimes, Good Samaritans will try to nurse a baby animal on his or her own, using cat or dog or powdered or whole milk, not realizing the repercussions of their actions.  Even if the infant survives through juvenile or adulthood, residual issues almost always remain.

I removed a baby skunk from an incubator, so young that his eyes were still closed.  His breathing was shallow, and I gave him the injections and oral medications he was receiving.   As I was situating him to begin the syringe feed, my heart caught in my throat.  I could no longer see a rise and fall of his back.  Putting my hand near his nose, I didn’t feel any air escaping either.  Maybe it was all the black and white in the room but in the middle of an exasperated sigh, I started thinking of the Disney classic 101 Dalmatians.  I envisioned the somber scene in which Roger, the owner of Pongo, the pups’ father, sits in a chair holding what appears to be a stillborn puppy.  Instead of accepting death, Roger begins intensely rubbing the puppy’s back to the point of revival.  The scene reminded me of the act of mammalian stimulation, rubbing the nether regions of newborns during feeding time to get them to defecate.  Rehabbers mimic this motherly, instinctual act with cotton balls.  Combining these two thoughts, I instantly set to stimulating the baby skunk and rubbing his back.  I cannot be sure how much time passed, as we all know moments of distress disobey the laws of time, but I likely continued rubbing for nearly a minute.  And all at once, without forewarning, the skunk gasped, an incredibly loud noise for such a small creature.  His breathing evened out and I squeezed my hands in a comforting, restraining gesture of joy and relief.  He was alive!

After all was said and done, I learned a valuable lesson that day; when death comes knocking, don’t answer the door.  Instead, yell at him to go away, for life has only just begun.

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