Thursday was National Puppy Day. Yes, that’s a thing apparently. I had no idea to be perfectly honest – or maybe I just forgot. Given that we have a seven-month-old puppy in the house and the fact that I’m a big puppy lover, you’d think I’d know about something that important.
Puppies are one of Earth’s great treasures. I would hope that on other planets in galaxies far, far away, they have an equivalently cute and cuddly baby animal. But, I highly doubt there is anything as precious as a little puppy. I mean, those baby marmoset monkeys are awfully charming, and though I’m not a cat person, kittens – way cute – are still not puppy-level cute in my book.
Come to think of it, I did have an encounter with a critter that if not for its villainous ways, would give puppies a run for their money. It happened last summer when I was guiding a couple of anglers on the St. Joseph River in Niles, Michigan. We decided we needed a bag of ice, as it was unbearably hot and most of the ice in the cooler had already melted. Nobody wants to drink lukewarm beverages on a sweltering day.
I parked the boat as close as I could get to a “party store,” so I didn’t have to trespass in someone’s yard and climbed up the bank to the street, through the nastiest thicket of brush you can imagine. I stood waiting for traffic to clear and readied myself to jump the guardrail designed to keep vehicles from plummeting into the river. It was around lunch time and the street was bustling with vehicles.
I could barely see the guys in the boat and they occasionally inquired as to what was taking me so long. I yelled back, “This traffic is terrible and I can’t budge!” It was then that I saw it; a tiny little ball of black and white fur ambling directly towards me. There was barely two feet of space between the drop off and the street curb and this thing was using it like a superhighway.
My initial response was to jump out of the way, then run. Unfortunately, that wasn’t in the cards as going back the way I came meant tumbling through a malicious wall of multiflora rose, honeysuckle shrubs and lush poison ivy, only to land on a scree of repurposed concrete and boulder rip rap. While death was unlikely, utter agony and embarrassment was assured.
The other option was go over the guardrail into the busy street. It’s sort of a blind corner there anyway, and cars were already honking at me. Having been hit by a car when I was a kid, I had learned that horrific lesson fairly early in life. No thanks. That left me no choice but to deal with the sinister creature before me.
I processed all of this in a matter of a few seconds. The guys in the boat were all “what are you waiting for dude?” and I was all, “there’s a (enter swear word here) baby skunk man!”. They probably thought I was joking, because I heard them laughing. But, the baby skunk was on a mission to get to the exact spot where I was standing.
My mind rattled through reams of data as I tried to remember if baby skunks were capable of spraying. I even said out loud, “Can you even spray?” I took mammalogy in college and I thought it was kind of boring, frankly. I must have missed the skunk lecture because for the life of me, I couldn’t remember much about skunks.
The skunk stopped and slowly raised its charming little head to look at me. I’m going to adapt a quote from the movie Jaws here – the part where Captain Quint describe the sinking of the USS Indianapolis – ya know the thing about a shark (skunk), he's got...lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'...”
That’s the thing; the baby skunk only a few feet from me seemed fake. It looked like a chintzy stuffed-animal you’d win at the county fair after toppling a pyramid of 19 pound “milk bottles” with a petri dish of a baseball. When the carny begs reluctantly through his nicotine speckled tooth, “Whutchu want?” while pointing grim-reaper style at the Made in China junk hanging all over the place, you pick the little skunk because it’s the cutest thing up there. The lady will have the skunk, sir.
Baby skunks are deceivingly charming and about the size of a four-week-old Labrador puppy. But, they’re black AND white – which is even cooler. It gazed at me with those beady little black eyes and I noticed its tail began to twitch, then rise from the grass, much like the head of a cobra that was preparing to strike.
It was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.
The traffic had not subsided in the least. I’d gaze down at the skunk, then look back up frantically – back and forth – knowing that at any moment the inevitable would occur. I began to wave at passing vehicles so close I literally had to pull my hands back so they weren’t clipped by rearview mirrors. Then I went full traffic cop – arms straight out with palms turned up. Alas, the drivers ignored me and continued to honk in a most heinous manner. One lady even flipped me off and yelled “loser!” through her open windows. I bellowed back, “Get an air-conditioning lady!” The things we say during moments of sheer terror.
The baby skunk was facing me, it’s tail in full let-em-have-it mode. Then it started to spin around so it could line me up for the shot. I mean seriously, these things don’t learn how to do this from their parents, spraying a mist of “chemicals” comes with the standard package. And, they spray it from “anal scent glands.” That’s really all you need to know.
It started to shuffle its feet as if to prepare for the big push. I spread my legs as wide as I could get them and managed to sort of levitate. Somehow, I got over the little ball of hate with a desperate lung. Miraculously I didn’t crush it. Essentially, we switched places in an area about the size of your average pizza pan.
I heard it making little grunting noises as it tried ever so hard to spray for what was likely the first time. Incredibly, I remember thinking that the grunts made it even cuter. At that point, the traffic was nearly bumper to bumper, so I jumped on top of the guardrail and did the tightrope thing, much like an oafish squirrel lumbering down a powerline. The cars finally began to slam on their brakes as they realized a crazy man was going to cross the road come hell or high water.
I reached the other side of the street, and then, just like that, it was over. And yes, if you’re wondering, I took a different route back to the boat with a hard-earned bag of ice.
Jay Anglin writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Argus. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.