The Friday morning was like any other: Eat breakfast, read newspaper, walk the dog. A pleasant routine enjoyed over several decades and with many dogs. Leaving the house with Bobbi McGee, our eight-year- old, strong-willed, red-haired Shiba Inu (my husband swears she is channelling Janis Joplin complete with loud piercing screams), I heard an unusual noise come from our neighbour’s driveway. Scrape, scrape, scrape, scrape. My first thought was: it’s kind of early for Dave to be working around the house. Then I saw the source of the noise.
From around the corner of a parked car came two skunks shuffling toward me. One of the skunks had a jam jar stuck on his head that he was pushing along the road. The unencumbered skunk who appeared agitated in empathy seemed to have a thought bubble above his head: “Help my friend.” Since my dog and I had been skunked a mere two months before, my thought bubble said, “Oh no! Not again.”
I quickly tucked the dog under my arm and made a beeline for the front door as the jam-jar-headed skunk squeezed under the fence and disappeared into our other neighbour’s yard.
Dog owners know the horrors of their pets being skunked. Timing can make this unanticipated malodorous experience particularly dreadful. Since skunks are nocturnal, your dog could be skunked late at night, which means no sleep until the dog is washed. Or it can happen early in the morning when you’re getting ready for work. The last time we were skunked was in the morning and I didn’t realize that the despicable creature’s foul-smelling fluid hit the umbrella drying on the front steps. With the smell still strong in my nose I unwittingly folded up the umbrella and put it in my briefcase. It was only much later that I realized why people were staring at me on the bus.
However, the plight of this poor creature weighed heavily on me. I was hoping he would be smart enough to wedge the jar into some convenient crevice and pull it off. Maybe a crow could help him. Those smart birds have an uncanny ability to strategize.
I finally braved the unknown and went outside to continue the dog walk. Halfway down the street, I heard that odd but familiar sound: scrape, waddle, waddle, scrape, waddle, waddle. I felt like I was in a nature documentary written by Stephen King. I was being stalked by a hypoglycemic terrified pest. Glancing over my shoulder. I saw the unfortunate jam-jar headed skunk follow me. My compassion gene kicked in. The skunk stopped dead in his tracks and stared at me through the thick glass. I stared back at him. “Look. I will take that jam jar off your head but you must first promise not to spray me. Promise?”
It was as if the creature understood my unstated bargain. I took hold of the jar and held on while he started to really suffocate. He rolled on his back and pumped his little legs in the air. A battle of life and death had begun.
As I pushed on his shoulders to help him I noticed the fur was incredibly soft, just like a cat. Skunks are very soft; in fact, their pelts were once made into fashionable fur coats and hawked as Alaskan sable. I have never knowingly been this close to these adorable feral creatures. I thought: so gorgeously extravagant in the art of daily living. Disney was clever to name its skunk Pepe Le Pew, the fashionable French skunk who strolls the streets of Paris.
After a few long seconds, the jam jar popped off. Somehow I knew it would: Since it went on his head, ultimately it had to come off. The skunk righted himself on all four legs with a certain amount of dignity and stood staring at me. I stared back at him. A good deed was done.
He turned, waddled off and thanked me as only a skunk can. He did not spray me.
As I continued my walk, I felt my clammy hands holding the leash and my heart beat hard in my chest. And I silently thanked Kelly McGonigal, a neuroscientist whose research I had just read. After a decade of telling her patients they should avoid stress like the plague, McGonigal said that startling research proved that stress only has a negative health consequence if you believe it will.
Her radical suggestion? Instead of fearing stress, befriend it.
She writes that stress correlates to a lower risk of death. Stress boosts the production of neurons that may improve performance. Bursts of stress may strengthen the immune system. Stress can make you more social and help you make friends. Stress can improve learning and improve memory. Stress helps you connect to your instincts.
If there is a cosmic consciousness in skunks, my dogs and I may never have to stress about being skunked again. But there is another moral to the story: Now that we diligently save glass jars for recycling, please make sure to keep lids on those empty jars. Jam is like crack cocaine to curious skunks. They are lovely creatures who deserve to live. Did I tell you how soft they are?
Roxanne Davies lives in North Vancouver.
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