Choice Victuals

For smithsonian’s writers, the curiouser the better

hooded skunk
Wikimedia Commons

For anybody who loves learning all sorts of new stuff, editing Smithsonian is about the most fun you can have. Unless, that is, you count our writers and photographers, who go where the stories are. For T. Edward Nickens, tracking doyenne-of-the-desert Pinau Merlin (see Mexico, dodging border patrol agents on high-speed chases through remote cactus flats, and trailing sidewinders. After all that, Nickens asked Merlin for a look inside her refrigerator.

"I’ve been around enough naturalists to know that there’s always something unusual in the vegetable crisper," Nickens says. Merlin pulled out droppings of elk and ringtail cat. Vulture pellets. Film canisters of small bones. The bodies of a Gambel quail, rock squirrel, ground squirrel, two pocket mice, a javelina. And assorted tamales, of course. These, Nickens reports, tasted just fine.

Not every story yields culinary satisfactions. Profiling skunk researcher Jerry Dragoo ("Skunk Man," p. 108), Steve Kemper remembered that Indians and trappers ate the odoriferous critters. So Kemper asked Dragoo if he had ever tried one. "Yes," he answered, "one time." And how was it? "Not something I’d recommend," Dragoo responded cryptically.

Something else that Kemper concluded was not such a good idea: mimicking a skunk’s anxiety behavior. Kemper was with Dragoo and his wife, Gwen, next to a skittish little hooded skunk named Charlie. Recalls Kemper: "Dragoo told me how skunks stomp their forefeet when they get nervous or angry, and he then imitated the movement, lifting his arms and slamming them down. Charlie watched with growing alarm. Gwen watched Charlie, also with growing alarm. ‘Honey,’ she said to her husband, displaying her own anxiety behavior, ‘don’t do that!’"

Kemper has written about all sorts of animals for Smithsonian, from anacondas to iguanas, poisonous spiders, beluga whales, Canada geese and bighorn sheep. But, he says, the ride he took in Dragoo’s car within inches of four of the skunk man’s untamed friends "takes the prize for the oddest moment reporting from the field."

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