THE FIRST TIME I meet Jerry Dragoo, he doesn't stink. That will change. But at the moment, sitting in his office at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, he seems like just another assistant professor of biology dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, except that his Western belt buckle, instead of the usual turquoise or embossed silver, features a spotted skunk standing on its forelegs.
The buckle signifies Dragoo's passion. He studies skunks; his research has changed science's view of them. He rescues, rehabilitates, and relocates skunks. He responds to half a dozen e- mail questions every day from all over the country asking about skunks. (Question: "My pet skunk tears up the carpet. What should I do?" Answer: "Put down tile. Skunks are diggers.") When Dragoo goes home at night, he lives with skunks—four in his backyard, three in his house. All of them are fully loaded, and they occasionally discharge their weapons in the living room. "My wife has a problem with that," says Dragoo.
Though skunks are one of the most recognizable animals in America, the field of skunk studies is not crowded. Notwithstanding such beloved cartoon and film characters as Pepe Le Pew and Flower (Bambi’s friend), real skunks don’t inspire much affection among the general public. The animal is also short on glamour, though in the 1800s and early 1900s skunk fur was prized by clothiers and often marketed as "Alaskan sable."
Jerry Dragoo is genetically equipped for intimacy with skunks. Now 40, he remembers the day he discovered his fated field of study. As an undergraduate he was drawn to the mustelids, the carnivorous weasel family that includes badgers, otters, minks, and wolverines. "Small ferocious animals" he says. "I liked that, being kind of small myself." The mustelids also included one mild-mannered oddball (a description that also fits Dragoo), the skunk.
When a professor asked Dragoo to research spotted skunks, he was a little disappointed. After capturing his first one in a wire live trap, he sat there making field notes. When he rose abruptly, he felt a drizzle. He looked up. No clouds. He looked down and saw oily yellow spots on his notes and shirt. Olfactory data. He sniffed tentatively, but didn’t smell anything.
"And I thought, 'Why do skunks have such a bad name?' But three days later when I came back to school, they kicked me out of the building." Dragoo, it turns out, has almost no sense of smell. He had found his calling, and has pursued it ever since.
Soon after arriving at Fort Hays State University in Oklahoma, where he got his masters degree in biology, he skinned a road-killed skunk in the lab. The department chairman quickly got wind of it and phoned in his reaction: "You will not skin skunks in this building." Dragoo got the same indignant order shortly after starting work on his doctorate at Texas A&M, where he studied, among other things, hog-nosed skunks. By then he was fearless. Instead of collecting his research animals with traps, he was running them down and grabbing their tails, with predictable consequences.
"People ask how many times I've been sprayed, and I tell them six or seven." He pauses. "Per animal." Not long ago a hooded skunk nailed him nine times in less than ten seconds, a feat that filled him with admiration. Do his colleagues find him hard to work with? "I've heard that," he deadpans. He has been kicked out of meetings, shunned in public places, and evicted from apartments. "If people smell a skunk and I'm around," he says, "I get blamed. Most of the time I'm guilty. But not every time," he adds, his tail up a little.
The business end of a skunk features two nipples, located on either side of the anus. These are the weapons that fire the skunk’s musk. The nipples are flexible and can rotate like anti-aircraft guns. Although a skunk has poor vision, it won't miss if its attacker is within 10 feet and visible. Skunks aim for the eyes.
Dragoo's major contribution to skunk studies stems from his work as an evolutionary biologist. He's interested in the genetic differences and similarities among related species, which helps explain how they are related. In the early-1990s he began sequencing particular genes in skunks and other mustelids to see how the subfamilies overlapped.
"But I couldn't get the skunks to group with the mustelids," he says. Assuming that he had done something wrong, Dragoo started over, but got the same results. That’s when he realized that at some point millions of years ago, North American skunks (striped, hooded, spotted, and hog- nosed) and the Asian stink badger had branched off on the tree of life to form their own distinct family. He named it Mephitidae after mephitis, the Latin word for a foul gas or smell.
A new family classification is rare, so Dragoo's 1997 paper, co-authored by Rodney L. Honeycutt of Texas A&M, created a stir. Says Don Wilson, senior scientist and curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History: "The molecular evidence is pretty convincing."
Now Dragoo is applying for funding to study the ecology of rabies in skunks. Skunks are a major carrier of the disease, but Dragoo says animal-control officers and homeowners are more frightened of them than they need to be, since not all skunks are rabid and the rabies virus is treatable in humans. Fear of rabies spells big trouble for many innocent animals. Dragoo recalls a baby skunk that some children found in their yard and spent time petting before he was called. The local animal-control officer insisted that Dragoo turn it over to be killed and tested for rabies.
Each year between May and September, when adult female skunks and their litters forage widely, Dragoo gets calls from homeowners who want to know how to get rid of them. He has heard of people trying moth balls, loud music, and rags soaked in ammonia to encourage skunks to leave. But he tries to convince callers to be patient, because skunks are fun to watch, they won't spray unless they feel threatened (and even then they try to escape first), they eat lots of mice and bugs, and they usually move on.
When nuisance skunks are trapped, injured or orphaned, Dragoo is often asked to get them. It's a delicate and often fragrant operation. He drives the captured animals to his house in Tijeras—his Subaru wagon carries an unmistakable tang—and puts them in one of the large holding cages in his backyard. He and his profoundly tolerant wife, Gwen, who is the head veterinary technician at the Albuquerque Biological Park, fatten young animals for a month or two on fruit, vegetables, eggs, tuna, dog and cat food, yogurt, cheese, an occasional frozen mouse, Honey-Nut Cheerios, tomato hornworms, moths and June bugs that stray into the house, and anything else that comes to hand. Skunks, to state the obvious, are omnivores, though they do draw the line at lima beans.
When independence day rolls around, Dragoo lets the animals go in nearby Cibola National Forest. But first they must be caught.
"Hi kids!" Dragoo says. "Who wants to be first?" He grabs one by the tail and puts it into a pet carrier. The pen’s other resident runs from Dragoo, sometimes hissing or charging forward, then stamping its front feet. As Dragoo closes in, this striper whirls and squirts. Bull's eye! But Dragoo, unfazed, grabs it by the tail and stuffs it into the carrier. "I'm happy when they spray me," he says, "because that means they have some fear of humans."
He captures the other two without incident. En route to the forest, the skunks remain silent and, more important, odorless. Dragoo is neither.
"You stink," Gwen says amiably. The smell coming off him, acrid and almost palpable, contains a hint of horseradish. Gwen says the smell of spotted skunk spray reminds her of gasoline. Dragoo grins and says, "Rose petals."
As for the seven permanent residents at the Dragoo place, the four who live outside are Charlie, Bugbane, Stinky Pete, and Rosebud; the three indoor skunks are Siren, Shadow and OnRéy.
During the day, the house skunks sleep in cabinets beneath an aquarium or in bookcases flanking a mantel swarming with skunky figurines. On the night I visit, the cabinet doors thump as the skunks enter and exit. All the lower kitchen cabinets have hooks to prevent rummaging. The skunks sometimes get into dressers and throw out all the clothing. "When they figure out the refrigerator," says Dragoo, "we're in trouble."
Gwen scoops up OnRéy so I can pet her. Her hair is coarse and shiny, she's shaped like a furry football, and her eyes sparkle. I overcome the defensive mechanism built into my genes eons ago and admit it: she's pretty.
I'm still not ready to join the incipient Dragoo Institute for the Betterment of Skunks and Skunk Reputations (http://dragoo.org) But I am glad to know Dragoo is out there, running down skunks, figuring them out and stinking to high heaven.
©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.