The tiny infant wiggles in my hand, eager for her feeding. Her eyes and ears are still shut tight at two weeks of age. Her senses are reduced to the basics. She can feel the warmth of my hands holding her, and will be able to smell and taste the warm milk that she’s waiting for. Her hair is getting longer, the distinct white stripes are striking against the shiny black coat. There is even a little white stripe down the middle of her petite little face. Weighing in at only a few ounces, the baby skunk is a perfect miniature of the adult she will someday be. There is already a slightly sweet, musky odor to her coat, not unpleasant, but a hint of her future arsenal.
I’ve had this baby and her two siblings since they were newborns. They still had their umbilical cords when mom was killed by a car and thankfully a Good Samaritan heard the cries of the babies and brought them to the wildlife center where I volunteer. The first week of round the clock feedings left me exhausted and sleep deprived, but now that they can sleep through the night, I’m as grateful as any new mother. The baby must be stimulated to eliminate so I dip a tissue in warm water and stroke her gently under her tail. She kicks her tiny legs and starts sucking at my skin, knowing that feeding always follows what I jokingly call the diaper change. That chore done, I reach for her “bottle”. The babies are so tiny that they must be fed with a syringe with a nipple attached.
The skunk’s squeaks become almost frantic in anticipation of her meal. She squirms blindly, swinging her head from side to and her cries sound like the twittering of a bird. I guide the nipple over her little pink tongue and she latches on with determination. It takes all my concentration to focus on the seemingly simple task. One hand holds the baby, the other holds the syringe and slowly, drop by drop, eases the milk into her mouth. I have to look at what I’m doing the whole time to make sure I don’t go to fast and choke her, or too slow and cause her to release the nipple and look elsewhere. It can be a challenge to get the nipple back in if they drop it so I have to pay close attention.
By nature, I have a hard time sitting still. I have a super busy stressful job, a dozen hobbies and a family. I have a houseful of rescued pets, usually have ten projects going at once and rarely sit through a movie or TV program. I realize it’s probably good for me to have to just sit still and breathe deep and try to relax for a few minutes every 3 hours while I feed the skunks. Thankfully I can bring them to work with me and feed them between calls. The nurturing that this particular project entails is right up my alley though, as I’ve always loved taking care of the orphaned and broken, the very young and the very old.
Especially now that my own children are grown, I feel the need to baby something. I am fascinated by these tiny creatures in my care. I have bottle raised endless orphans. Raccoons, puppies, squirrels, kittens, lambs, calves and more. Their need for a loving touch, warmth, nurturing and milk is all the same. Paul is forever patient with my dragging home everything I can find. He doesn’t bat an eye at my feeding baby skunks at the kitchen table. In fact, the day that I brought them home he was delighted. Paul loves skunks and thanked me for bringing them in. I looked at him in awe. Where did I find this guy? It made me love him all the more. Our children are wonderful, compassionate people who grew up surrounded by the needy animals that always filled our home but the novelty is gone for them. Their friends would be completely thrilled by the baby animals and my kids would just want to go play because it was nothing new to them.
The baby relaxes in my hand as the warm milk fills her belly. It’s funny how different they are from people and yet so many things are the same. My own babies used to make little noises and kick their feet when they were hungry too. And they would go from almost frantic eagerness to total relaxation and bliss in minutes. I used to stare at my babies faces while they nursed, overwhelmed by the joy and privilege of caring for them. That’s been many years now, but the bliss on the tiny creatures face brings it all back. Eventually, the sucking becomes intermittent, and slowly the skunk flops back in my hand, mouth still open, tiny pink tongue visible, a dribble of milk around her mouth. She is flat on her back in what I call a milk coma, completely content. I stare at her for a moment, taking in the baby soft feet, the tiny paws with the nails that are becoming longer by the day. Someday those nails will dig for insects and rodents.
I stroke her soft rounded belly in awe. We really don’t want the skunks acclimated to people. They will be released to the wild when they are old enough and need to not rely on people forever. Still, baby things must be nurtured or they do not thrive. No matter how well you feed them, if they get no stimulation and stroking, they will wither and die. I have always had mixed feelings about raising wild babies. I rail in frustration that they don’t have their mother to care for them, to show them how to be wild. It’s usually human intervention that orphans them. Cars, loose dogs, tractors etc, disrupting their homes in the first place, so I feel the need to try and make up for it. I have to give them a chance and yet I’m torn. It’s such a struggle to survive even when raised by mom. How will these babies learn the skills they need? Much of their behavior is instinctive but some is also learned. Would it have been better to have put them down at one day of age than to possibly have them starve or be eaten by a predator the first night on their own?
The baby sleeps peacefully as I contemplate her future. The hope with wild babies is that we can find someone with remote property that is willing to feed them out for a while so they can acclimate. Not everyone is willing to have 3 potential stink bombs released on their land, but some people welcome wildlife in need. Skunks are overall beneficial creatures who eat bugs and rodents and are pretty harmless as long as no one bothers them. The hungry cries of the siblings break me out of my musings and I return the sleeping infant to her soft warm incubator and reach for the next one. As with my own children, I can only do my best and after that it’s up to them.