Among the many advantages of country living in Southeast Texas are mild winters, an abundance of open space and a variety of native wildlife. I do not mind mowing the lawn twelve months of each year, and I love watching from our hilltop home as morning fog snakes its way along the Navasota and Brazos River valleys. A small herd of whitetail deer sometime come for brief afternoon visits, then move silently on to browse as glorious sunsets streak the sky, showing off their pastel scarlets, blues and pinkish grays. However, there are some drawbacks.
When my wife, Cue, and I sold our home in town, we had the opportunity to rent a comfortable, roomy house that is closer to my work and not inconveniently far from town. Best of all, it sits on one acre surrounded by almost 100 acres of pasture, where the landowner grazes several head of dark red Bonsmara cattle. Another home is nearby just out of shouting distance. Our neighbors both work and we do not see much of them or they us, although we do swap pies and other sweets when holidays roll around.
After a couple of months in our new home, we discovered that other country residents had over the years taken a liking to our house, for it had been vacant for some time before we moved in. We had evidently inherited a burrowing critter that decided to continue living rent-free beneath the concrete foundation only a few feet from the front porch. My wife and I were both reared in the country, she more so than I, so we knew what to do.
Using a live trap baited with juicy frankfurters, we succeeded in catching four adult possums — or is the plural possi? I don’t know — over a period of a couple of weeks. In turn, I took each of the marsupials with me on the way to work and released them near a creek bottom that looked like good possum habitat. The last one I let go was in no hurry to leave the cage, but with some gentle prodding and a few comments about the legitimacy of its birth, it slowly ambled away, casting a disrespectful glare over its shoulder in my direction. I covered the entrance to the den and the burrowing ceased, but there were other denizens intent upon becoming our neighbors.
Early the next summer, two very large rat snakes made the mistake of attempting to take up residence in the shrubbery near the front porch. We do not live-trap snakes. Let’s just say their eviction was swift and final and leave it at that. A smaller version of the previously mentioned reptiles tried the same tactic in the backyard shrubs earlier in the year, only to meet a similar end. For the next four months, all was quiet in terms of invaders, but I still had a nagging suspicion we would have more visitors.
The week before Thanksgiving the burrowing resumed near the front porch. Shortly thereafter came a series of unmistakable odors that frequently found their way into the house. The stakes of country living had gone up, so out came the live trap and wieners.
Three days passed, but nothing ventured to sample the cuisine. I went online and learned that skunks like wet cat food, so we picked up a can on our next trip to the supermarket. Half the feline feast went into the trap and our expectations were high. The next morning I checked the trap and there, to my chagrin, was the neighbor’s cat. I promptly set free one of the quickest felines I’ve ever seen. I mentioned this to our neighbors, explaining that my prey was skunks, not cats, and that their pet appeared to be in good spirits the last time I saw it, an observation they confirmed. Later that day I rebaited the trap with pork chop trimmings from the previous night’s dinner, hoping the cat had learned its lesson.
I could tell from the entrance to the aforementioned den that the skunk was coming and going at will each night. A week passed, but the animal continued to snub my offerings. I moved the trap from place to place where it appeared the animal was traveling, but still no joy. At 4:30 Christmas morning, Cue and I simultaneously sat straight up in bed and in one voice loudly whispered, “Good grief! What is that SMELL?” Rhetorical question aside, we got up and headed for the coffee pot, but not before I put on enough clothes to go outside and took my shotgun from the closet. Flashlight in hand, I crept around the back corner of the house and almost came face to face with the monochromatic menace. Before I could bring my weapon to bear, the invader turned and darted into yet another burrow I hadn’t before noticed.
I had no choice but to declare war.
The next day I upped the ante and bought a stout steel trap, placed it near the entrance of the most likely hole, and added some more pork chop trimmings near the trip lever. I expectantly checked the trap the next morning, found it empty, and was instantly struck by a sobering thought. Although I’d mentioned to my neighbors that I had live-trapped their cat, I hadn’t considered having to explain to a rather muscular young man and his red-haired wife how their formerly normal cat may have made it home with only three legs. I immediately tripped the trap and stowed it in the garage, saying a silent thank you to the patron saint of cats.
More online information was required. I learned that skunks do not like the odor of ammonia and that I should soak some rags in the compound and stuff them into the hole. The same site also noted skunks don’t like pepper spray. I discussed the latter point briefly with our youngest daughter Shannon during a phone conversation a few days before we were supposed to go to her house for a visit some 120 miles away. “So, is Cue going to get down on her stomach and wait for the skunk to come out so she can pepper-spray it? Who’s going to spray whom first? Oh, and if she gets sprayed, you can just tie her to the top of the truck when you come see us. I have plenty of tomato juice.” I laughed. Cue was not even mildly amused.
With the pepper spray idea out of the equation, I tried the ammonia and rags approach, then filled in the hole with sandy clay. Three days later, the hole had been reopened, and at the entrance lay two violently shredded rags. This was a classic clash of wills, I finally understood, and not even Captain Ahab pursued his quarry with more vengeance than I. Patience, I reasoned, was the ticket, and I knew eventually the trap would do its job.
I faithfully continued to check the trap, made sure the bait was fresh, and moved the trap to what I thought would be a more inviting position. I’d read that sardines are excellent bait for trapping skunks and, despite Shannon’s observation that both skunks and sardines stink, this baiting tactic turned the tide in our favor.
In the course of a month, we captured and released eight skunks and it appears we have won the battle. According to an online source, skunks do not tend to congregate unless they live where winters are severe so they can help each other keep warm. My mental picture of such a gathering is not a pretty one, and winters in Southeast Texas don’t normally qualify as severe by any stretch. Maybe our house has for so long been a refuge that the skunk grapevine is recommending us through some animal B&B hookup. You know — nice, spacious, warm den, sardines served nightly.
Country living in Texas is the best there is anywhere, but around our house, my wife and I are hoping that change is in the air. We will both breathe easier if there is. The last critter we caught and released was a possum, so I guess we’ve come full circle.
Davie Lewis is an instructor at Blinn College, where he has taught freshman English, composition and literature, technical writing, and mass communications classes.