In his cage, the young skunk lowered his head and stamped his front feet. “Tap-tap; tap-tap.” Then, he lunged forward, tail in the air, stopping less than a foot from my face. He would repeat this dance twice, but on the third lunge, he would swing his butt around and spray, aiming for my eyes.
Somehow, I had ended up the caretaker for the three orphaned skunks retrieved from beneath the cabins at the summer camp where I was a counselor. They were still a little wild, and we would have them de-scented after we knew they would survive the loss of their parent. Every day I fed and cleaned up after them, and got to know them a little bit.
Mostly, once they got over fear of their new home, they became accustomed to me, and two of them even came to me when it was feeding time. The third was less trustful, probably the oldest, and remained defensive. The first week was one of gaining mutual familiarity and trust. It was a learning experience on both my and the skunks’ part. Soap, tomato juice and frequent dunks in the lake allayed some of the evidence of my mistakes, but by virtue of ‘teaching’ swimming, sailing and horseback riding, I spent most of my days outdoors, anyway, which helped my popularity except at meals and bedtime.
On a trail ride one day, I was the last through a gate, and dismounted to close it. The horse I was on was a little hard to control and I had been a little rough with her when she tried to overtake the kids once we turned for the barn. I was hot, tired, probably smelly and out of patience when I closed the gate and tried to remount, and I hadn’t noticed the ears flat back on her head and the wide nostrils. She danced away as I put my foot in the stirrup, then circled, dragging me to the ground. I was able to get my foot untangled, as she pulled the reins out of my hand. She stood ten feet away, legs spread, eyes bulging, and breathing heavily. I stood and I yelled, cursed and threw my hat at her. She turned and ran for the barn.
It was over a mile through Texas brush in boots more suitable for riding than walking, and by the time I got to the corral, I was dustier, hotter and angrier than before. Doc was waiting for me with a bucket of water and a look of concern that was replaced by a sly grin when he saw that I was okay. An old cowboy, Doc had been “rode hard and put up wet” a few too many times, but the summer of gentle work and no alcohol had been very good for him. He knew pretty much everything there was to know about horses, and quite a bit about people, too.
“I was about to send out the rescue party,” he said, “Old Betsy came back pretty agitated.”
I elaborating somewhat about my own state of agitation and what I would do to that mangy mare, etc. Doc couldn’t have heard much of it since he had poured the bucket over my head to cool me down (in more ways than one), but he got the drift.
“The campers are under control,” he said reminding me of my first responsibility, “but we need to get to work on you.” In response to my inquiring look, he went on, “First you need to show that mare over there that you’re a better man than she is. Apologize and calm her down.”
He stared hard at me, and I nodded. “Second, you need to show yourself that you can get back on that horse. Ride her back up to the gate, go through and back again.”
It took a while for me to calm her down, but she seemed to sense that I was apologizing. Getting back on was scary for both of us, but we trotted around the corral a few times and things seemed okay. As we rode back to the gate, her tension increased, but this time I was watching the signs, and could take it slow. We rode around until she was calmer, then I dismounted and opened the gate and led her through. I closed the gate, remounted and we rode a ways, then returned. This time I talked softly to her as we neared the gate. She shied a little as I dismounted and led her through, then closed the gate. Her fear rose and I just waited, talking softly and rubbing her muzzle, with no quick moves. I slowly moved to her side, then mounted quickly as she skittered sideways, but I sat still in the saddle, quietly talking to her. Once she settled down we rode a bit, then repeated the process, which was easier for both of us.
When we returned, Doc was grinning. “She teach you some things?” he asked. I nodded. “Then there’s hope for you yet,” he said. From Doc that was high praise.
In some ways, I suspect animals are easier to read than people. I can usually tell when a dog or horse — or maybe skunk — is afraid or feeling aggressive, but humans have thwarted me in that regard. I can usually tell if someone is down or excited, but human emotions and ambitions are far more complicated than those of animals.
One of my peers at the office was very good at responding to what the higher ups wanted to hear. He was self-promoting, sometimes subtly, often not, but he persevered. He was friendly with me, but what I discovered later was his backstabbing and rumor mongering, directed to his upper level audience. After a time, I realized that he saw me as competition for his advancement, but it was a race I didn’t know I was competing in. He did advance, sometimes to my detriment, but most of the time I was only able to see the signs of his actions in retrospect. It felt a little like that day returning to the corral, knowing I had missed the signals that were right before me.
However, I also realized that he was in a competition I wanted no part of. I suppose I could have played that game and become more like him, ambitious, aggressive and devious. I might even have been better at it than him, but as Lily Tomlin says, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”
I think back on the lessons I learned from the skunks, Old Betsy and Doc about mutual respect, and about seeing and reading the signs. I think I’m better for it, and it has made for better relationships and work environment. When I occasionally miss a sign, I hear that “Tap-tap; tap-tap,” and slow down. But for me, an occasional honest skunk smell is better than always smelling like a rat.