My Pet Skunk

An ode to a faithful childhood friend

Darcie Wilder

We got a skunk because our building didn’t allow dogs. There were no rules about skunks. My mother had pet skunks in Ohio, which she remembered fondly: Arpege, after the perfume; and Reesy, named after a lecture her friend gave about how pets are a "responsibility." I named my skunk Snoopy, after watching him explore the bathroom floor.

My mother had hyped up skunks for a long time. Their loyalty, affectionate nature, the way they sleep all day and stay up all night gathering weird things for their nest. The way they eat raw eggs on the kitchen floor and nuzzle their nose into the crook behind your earlobe. They stomp when they get mad. Something about the essence of a skunk is more doglike than cat. As a family, we longed for a wet-nosed busybody, a desperate-for-attention creature. Our cats were ok. But they were not skunks.

Author's mother and Arpège in Ohio, Early 1980s

Before you ask: these skunks had no skunk-spraying gland. It seems obvious that a pet skunk would be de-skunked, but people still want to know. From what I have been told, de-skunking is a humane procedure that does not interfere with the skunk’s sense that they can defend themselves (as declawing a cat denies them one of their most basic feline instincts and defenses). The skunk still has the urge to spray upon provocation, and even assumes the position — butt out, tail up, curled around to watch you as it threatens you with its ass. But the spray will not spray because the gland has been removed. He thinks he is spraying, but he is not. Thus, it’s not that weird. End of skunk butt talk.

I’ve always taken a generous view of what can be considered a pet. The “weird girl with weird animals” stereotype, if you will. I suppose I inherited this from my parents. Animals would just appear in our apartment. We had fish as toddlers but that ended when we kept plopping the remote control in the tank. Then there were the guinea pigs (Harry, Sally), the newts (Wade Boggs, Chuck Knoblauch, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez) we caught near a pond upstate. There was the turtle (Greenie) that we were only going to watch for a month before he moved in permanently, the parakeet (Libby) that ate our books, the mouse (William) that met a cruel fate during my father’s business trip, and the rat (Monty) that rubbed his little hands together like a scheming Mr. Burns. There was the first cat (Molly), who disappeared suspiciously after the guy painting our apartment asked “how much for her?”, and then the kitten (Donnie) my mother bought off a bunch of kids in the street who had found and crowded around him. Then there was the third and final cat (Charlie), inherited from someone in the building who had died. Then there was also the prairie dog (Dylan) and then, the skunk.

Ever the honest family, we theorized (full disclosure: I was eight, so my involvement in the plan was minimal, but I was a bastion of excitement, support, charisma) that purchasing a skunk from a breeder (more disclosure: I would not, in my seasoned beliefs now, frequent a breeder of any kind) in a state (Ohio) where skunk ownership was legal, would be legal. Clear enough. The second half of the plan — the legally dubious part — was the transport of the animal across state lines, to a state (New York) where skunk sale and purchase was outlawed, as well as skunk domestication. There was some magical thinking that there would be some wiggle room if its purchase was legal, but this seems like bullshit. My parents, both lawyers, enjoyed these types of too-clever technicalities.

My mother had explained away most questions and concerns about skunk companionship with the assertion that it’s more popular in Ohio. This, while also technically true, is also sort of dishonest. While skunk ownership is “more common” in the Midwest, it is nowhere near “normal.” Of the Midwesterners I have asked, none of them identified with having a pet skunk.

On Labor Day 1998, we left New York with an empty dog crate and returned from Ohio with Snoopy, then only a few months old. I still remember his svelte little skunk bod squirming into any little crevices he could find. I held him, similarly small and fresh-faced, just so, so frickin’ excited. I loved the little dude so much. We let him adjust by giving him jurisdiction of the bathroom, his crate and some blankets with familiar smells in case the mood struck him for a nap. He sniffed the floor, roamed around. I recall this vividly, sitting with my knees up under my chin, watching him, thinking of names. First idea was Weasel, because what a genius idea to name a weird animal after another animal (if you are eight). The second was Snoopy. Snoopy stuck.

Author meeting Snoopy upon adoption, Labor Day 1998

Snoopy took up his new life in our closets. At some points he preferred my brother’s; other times he moved into the coat closet in the foyer. He would create a nest that was defiantly his — distinct somehow from the other piles of stuff in the apartment. The closets still smell like Snoopy; it is an inarticulable smell that lingers, like when you sniff your dog’s paws, except with the smell of a woodland creature. Pure.

My father liked Snoopy but loved Reesy, the second of my mom’s Ohio skunks. He used to serenade her with little songs he had come up with, simple sentiments to random tunes (“My girl Reesy / She’s a skunk, she’s a skunk”) She would sleep curled up on his feet, sometimes on her back, so comfortable that it would terrify him until he woke her up to confirm she was still alive. “Girl skunks are better behaved than boy skunks,” he said.

Although nocturnal, Snoopy would still sleep next to us, his nose in that spot between earlobe and neck, so ticklish and sweet that I still, to this day, have not been able to replicate the feeling of overpowering love. I imagine it is what parents feel when looking upon their firstborn for the very first time.

Skunks have the demands of a cat with the personality of a dog. Snoopy kept to himself until he woke up in the afternoon, ambling out of the dark for dog food kibble and whatever else he could find, curling up for more naps, living his domesticated life. I’m sure he could’ve survived in the wild and might’ve preferred that. But, again, I was eight years old and I was not making the decisions.

I will unequivocally admit that dealing with his shit was gross. A skunk is not the kind of pet who is walked. Snoopy would shit on newspapers on the floor in the corner, or on the bathroom tiles, or sometimes in his little cave, which was grossest of all. But Snoopy, as one of God’s creatures, was just following his instincts, and his other qualities more than made up for it. We tried to handle it as best as we could. (This was difficult, and I don’t need to talk about it anymore).

Sadly, Snoopy lived a shorter than average life. Perhaps he never recovered from my parents’ divorce, or maybe 9/11 affected him more than I expected. We have our theories about his illness, lore so engrained I can’t remember how much of it was truly confirmed by the vet. Our conspiracy theories and suspicions surrounding his untimely, early death seem plausible and, in retrospect, devastatingly avoidable. Hindsight is 20/20. In 2002, at the too-young age of five and a half years old, Snoopy (like my great-grandfather) succumbed to spinal cancer.

While his life was mainly peaceful and pleasant, it was not entirely without turmoil. A few years after getting him, my best friend was going through a chaotic time. Always wanting a dog, we took in her family’s dog for a week (my mother was incapable of turning down an animal's company). In retrospect, this is an astoundingly terrible idea. My mother, God rest her soul, what the fuck. To bring in a Doberman, wow. Awful. For a week. See, dogs and skunks do not get along like on cute internet videos. They are predators and prey. Snoopy did not enjoy this large animal in his home, and I can not blame him. In fact, I feel viscerally upset at the idea, and that my child self couldn’t be the caretaker he deserved. Snoopy, there is no excuse.

Did the dog’s presence kill Snoopy? I can’t say for sure, but shortly after its brief yet brutal stay, Snoopy fell ill. We took him to the vet where he was sent to a specialist, who did an ultrasound on his little skunk belly. They shaved his enormous round underside and smeared jelly on his blubber, which was charming and cute despite being dire. Snoopy could do anything with a bumbling awkward mannerism that was somehow, with his little paws, graceful. He laid down in the chair with his naked belly and the vet, looking inside him, found cancer. Maybe the cancer had been there and the stress of the dog had kicked down his immune system. Or maybe the stress led to his body freaking out. There is no good answer.

Author's father and Reesy in Manhattan, Late 1980s

Snoopy’s decline mostly occurred in my room over the course of many months. He laid on a small old circular rug. He was still himself but fading more and more, he could hardly scramble up on the couch to knock stuff off the coffee table anymore. He couldn’t walk very well, and then at all. I would pick him up and he would wobble, not only from his blubber but his loosening joints. He would fall backwards in my arms.

One night I strangely had the urge to sleep in my mother’s bed. It wasn’t unheard of, but just kind of random and uncommon for me as a 12- or 13-year-old, whatever I was. Maybe I was sad (divorce, 9/11, middle school), or cold (my window broke open permanently from age eight until present day). Whatever the reason, that night we slept with Snoopy between us. Around 2 a.m., my mom woke me up and gently told me Snoopy was gone. He had died between us, cuddling while we slept. She woke up and took him into the living room because sleeping next to a dead skunk for longer than it takes to realize the skunk is dead is very gross.

I asked if I could say goodbye. Snoopy was in a plastic bag on the floor. (I would have chosen something more timeless and respectful, like canvas, linen, or paper.) I laid next to him, my cheek on the warped parquet floor, and pet his thick wiry fur. I thanked him for being the best pet I had had, and the best skunk I had, period. I cried a little, feeling somehow that it had made sense — this gentle departure — and went back to bed. By the time I woke up in the morning, my mom had gotten rid of his body.

Years later, upon looking through my dead mother’s computer, I found — no exaggeration — about 100 pictures of skunks up for adoption. There were so many different skunks, blonde and black-and-white, babies and adults. But they were all photographed in homes, curled up on living room couches or exploring ethernet nests in computer rooms. Each picture had that 2000s digital camera automatic flash, making it feel even more nostalgic. After Snoopy, my mother would revisit the possibility of another skunk every few years, making plans but never following through. There was no one else after Snoop.