- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

SPRING, Texas — W. Don Olhausen, a 58-year-old wildlife biologist from this small town north of Houston, can’t help his feelings. He has had a lifelong love affair with … skunks — with full approval of his wife, Camille.

He is a skunk advocate, skunk doctor, skunk nurturer and baby sitter all wrapped into one in his capacity as the only licensed animal rehabilitator in Texas, and probably far beyond, specializing exclusively in skunks.

“They really don’t deserve their reputation,” Mr. Olhausen said as he strolled under pine trees towering over the community. “They are very loving and affectionate, and if you do something good for them, they remember it for a very long time.”

Yet, it is an animal like no other. If bears, wolves, sharks and even snakes threaten their life and limb, skunks will target their adversaries’ social acceptability.

They cannot seriously injure anybody, let alone take a human life. But they can be brutally effective in destroying it.

Mr. Olhausen remembers one such episode from early in his career with a sad smile because it ended up costing one of his beloved skunks its life.

It was in the late 1980s, outside Cleveland, Texas, he recalls. A family trapped a skunk that had been burrowing under their mobile home in search for grubs, the creature’s dietary staple.

Eager to get rid of the scourge, the homeowner took a gun and shot the immobilized animal.

“Well, it did not die immediately,” Mr. Olhausen said with a sigh. “And before dying, it released its protective spray full blast.”

The spray emitted by highly developed scent glands located near the tail contains a mixture of sulfur and salt compounds, which is viscous, malodorous and persistent.

If it hits a human directly in the eye, it can cause temporary blindness. But the main problem, biologists say, is its pungent, insufferable stench that will not go away with a simple wash.

“In this particular case,” Mr. Olhausen recalls, “the spray got into the intake of the home’s ventilation system and the odor would float into the house every time heating or air conditioning was turned on.”

Guests stopped coming. The wife left and moved back with her parents because she was suffering constant asthma attacks.

Fearful of turning on air conditioning, the owner had to sweat alone in stifling South Texas summer heat.

What’s more, six months later, the stench was still there as if it all had happened yesterday. In the end, the man had to hire a contractor to practically take apart the mobile home, remove the ventilation system and install a new one.

“It was thousands of dollars worth of repairs,” Mr. Olhausen said. “What can I tell you? Never mess with a skunk.”

If you get sprayed, your clothes are gone. Specialists recommend throwing them away because no reasonable amount of washing or dry cleaning will remove the stains or the stench.

For hair, which most likely will be hit because skunks usually aim at the head, the quickest and surest way to get rid of the stench is to shave it off.

If that is unacceptable, Mr. Olhausen recommends ferret shampoo that can be found at most pet stores, or a homemade mix of hydrogen peroxide, ammonia, baking soda and dishwashing liquid, followed by a second washing in tomato juice.

But whatever remedy is chosen, the procedure will have to be repeated — again and again and, most likely, again.

In the meantime, forget cuddling with your children or your dates, not to mention intimate moments.

“If you get it in your hair, you may have to stay in isolation for up to two to three weeks,” Mr. Olhausen said.

Dogs that have the nasty habit of chasing skunks can cause problems, too.

Mr. Olhausen recalls a recent call from a suburb of Houston where a pooch prowling a back yard received an early-morning shower from a skunk, ran back into the house and, feeling an urgent need for a hug, jumped into bed with its owners.

They are so efficient in using their defenses that only one creature — the great horned owl, which is impervious to scents — remains their serious natural enemy.

Unconfirmed reports a few years ago said the Pentagon was studying skunks to look into the feasibility of a so-called “stink bomb” that could be used for crowd control.

But in all of his 20-plus years of working with skunks — and he has taken care of about 100 of them — Mr. Olhausen has never been the target of a skunk attack, he says.

“They really do it as a last resort,” said the biologist, whose charges are mainly baby skunks whose mother has been hit by a car. “And they give plenty of warning.”

A nervous skunk, Mr. Olhausen said, first will stomp its front feet, then turn around and arch its back, giving the real or perceived aggressor plenty of time to retreat.

Otherwise, their presence is good, he said, because they consume a lot of plant-destroying insects.

And if you land on a skunk’s good side, it can become your best friend.

An injured female skunk that Mr. Olhausen nursed back to health and released into a nearby forest a few years ago still comes to see him, he says, each time with her new brood in tow.

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