Polecats and Other Odiferous Subjects
My Webster''s New World Dictionary defines the word "skunk"
thusly: 1. Any of several bushy-tailed mammals (family
Mustelid'') of the New World... and 2. [Colloquial] a
despicable, offensive person. The colloquial definition certainly
fits Osaka bin Laden. I believe that we have been, and still are in
the Chinese Year of the Snake but I would term it the year of the
What led me to look up this definition? There was a recent item
in our newspaper about the police in our town capturing a rabid
animal. The article mentioned that we should be wary of any
strangely acting raccoons or skunks. The mention of skunks
brought to mind a couple of memories. One was of my high
school days when some of my more adventurous classmates were
involved in the trapping of these odiferous creatures. Needless to
say, those guys were not welcomed to class after a successful
mission! I may have mentioned before my witnessing a skunk
spraying an unsuspecting lady as she and the skunk encountered
each other when the skunk emerged from behind a wall. Not a
pleasant sight, or smell. If you''re wondering why anyone would
want to trap a skunk, the answer is that the fur of a skunk is
really quite beautiful. Indeed, at one time there were so-called
"Alaskan sable" coats, actually made with skunk fur. Then the
government stepped in and made the manufacturers characterize
the fur a bit more accurately. The skunk fur business hasn''t been
the same since.
Shortly after seeing the news article, I came upon what I thought
were two related articles in the December 2001 issue of the
Smithsonian magazine. One, titled "Skunk Man" was by Steve
Kemper. The other, "Fire and Brimstone" by John Ross, was a
short article with marvelous pictures of sulfur mining in Java.
Now I have to plead guilty to a gross ignorance of my organic
chemistry. Initially, when I started this piece, I thought to tie in
the fact that many sulfur-containing compounds are on the
unpleasant side as far as odor is concerned. Just compare water,
H2O, with hydrogen sulfide, H2S. Replacing that atom of oxygen
in water with an atom of sulfur results in the compound
responsible for the smell of rotten eggs. Hydrogen sulfide can
also kill you if you breathe in too much of it. Which brings back
the memory of my analytical chemistry class, in which we
generated hydrogen sulfide in a lab with minimal exhaust hood
facilities and the lab often reeked of rotten eggs. They say that
you''re in real danger when you stop smelling it.
Back to skunks, I remember our organic chemistry professor
telling us that eau de skunk was beta methyl indole. I''m rather
impressed that after 58 years, I still remember this compound and
its tie-in with the skunk. However, when I began this column, I
thought that the odor of beta methyl indole was due to the fact
that it was a sulfur compound. Fortunately, being a true scientist
and wanting to impress you that I knew the formula, I looked it
up in my Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. I''m mortified.
There''s not a speck of sulfur in the formula! Humiliated, I will
maintain that the article on sulfur mining is still relevant, if only
because the skunk and sulfur mining share a foul smelling,
Let''s turn to the "skunk man", an assistant professor at the
University of New Mexico in Albuquerque by the interesting
name of Jerry Dragoo. Stifle that impulse to rhyme it with Mr.
Magoo! On the other hand, the two do share something in
common, if my memory is correct. They both suffer from a
deficiency in one of their senses, Magoo''s being his rather poor
eyesight. Dragoo''s only became apparent to him relatively late
in life, I would guess in his late teens or early 20s.
He was an undergraduate in college when he developed an
interest in mustelids (Mustelid'' in the definition cited in my
opening paragraph). According to my dictionary, the mustelids
are a class of animals that includes weasels, martens, minks and
polecats among others. Polecat is just a fancy term for a skunk.
Dragoo actually was interested in small ferocious mustelids like
minks and wolverines. His professor, however, must have had a
premonition. He asked Dragoo to carry out research on the
spotted skunk. Dutifully, Dragoo went out and trapped a skunk.
As he was making notes and studying the little guy, he noticed a
spray and an oily substance on his notes. You and I now know it
was one of those indoles. Yet, Dragoo never noticed anything
out of the ordinary except that the drizzle of oily stuff came out
of a cloudless sky! It wasn''t until a couple days later, when
Dragoo came back to class and was promptly ejected, that his
sensory deficiency became apparent. He had virtually no sense
of smell! It was obvious that he had found his calling.
As he pursued his studies of skunks on the way to his doctorate,
he broadened his research to other kinds of skunks such as the
hooded and hog-nosed skunks. He also decided it was silly to go
to all the trouble of trapping the critters and adopted the more
straightforward approach of just going out and grabbing them by
the tail! Needless to say, he''s been kicked out of many places,
including apartments, since first discovering his sensory
Along the way, Dragoo has actually become a celebrity of sorts
in the mustelid research community. He and a colleague from
Texas A & M, Rodney Honeycut, published a paper in 1997 that
shook up that community. In spite of his somewhat weird
behavior, Dragoo had a serious mission. He wanted to see how
the skunk fit into the evolutionary scheme of things in the
mustelid family. Accordingly, he joined the modern trend of
sequencing genes and came up with a startling conclusion. The
skunks didn''t fit in the mustelid group at all! Dragoo''s idea is
that the North American skunk and what can only be presumed
to be another smelly critter, the Asian stink badger, branched off
millions of years ago to form their own family. If Dragoo is
correct, we all should make a note in our dictionaries and strike
"polecat" from the list of the family Mustelid''.
I have to say something about sulfur since I made the
commitment. The fire and brimstone article is aptly titled,
brimstone being an ancient term for sulfur. The fire alludes to
the Javanese miners who gather the sulfur by descending down
some 700 feet or so into a volcano that is still literally belching
fire and brimstone. These miners use a technique that employs
ceramic pipes to condense the fumes spewing from the volcano.
The fumes condense to form huge stalagmites of sulfur. The
miners go down into the volcano, hack up the deposits of yellow
sulfur into chunks they load in baskets to carry back up to be
unloaded. The place reeks with sulfur dioxide fumes and every
so often the volcano belches out steam mixing in with the other
gases. For two round trips a day into this hellhole, the workers
are paid two dollars, a healthy wage for Java!
It''s worth looking up the article to see the photos of these miners
at work. You''ll appreciate your own line of work much more!
Unless, of course, you''re a fireman or policeman in New York.
Speaking of occupations, one reason I became a chemist is that I
received a chemistry set when I was a kid. My 8-year old
grandson got a chemistry set for Christmas. He being rather
young to go it alone in the world of chemicals, it was agreed that
the set should remain in old Bortrum''s custody and that
experiments should be carried out jointly. Well, I opened the set
and started reading the manual. The environmental/safety people
and probably the lawyers must have written the instructions,
which contain such statements as "TREAT EVERY CHEMICAL
AS THOUGH IT IS THE MOST DEADLY POISON!" Every
container has a WARNING or DANGER label. When I was a
kid, I don''t recall any such emphasis on the hazards involved. I
guess it''s a good idea but hey, after reading the instructions, I''m
not so sure old Dr. Bortrum can handle this chemistry set! After
all, he thought the skunk''s odor was due to sulfur!
Allen F. Bortrum