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The "Fall Shuffle"

The “Fall Shuffle”

By Bill Stork, DVM

By way of the Inter-web, any forward-thinking man or woman can look up the crucial contents of an at-home or on-the-road emergency preparedness kit (EPK).

My friend Dave is a self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist. He bought the Cambridge Ace Hardware. One can never be too prepared.

If you are risk aversive, not up for managing an entire store, or otherwise employed, then UW-extension, FEMA, and the American Red Cross all have extremely complete suggestions. The common, if not obvious, items are bottled water, K-Rations for a week or so, a jar of peanut butter, blankets, flashlights, cell phone chargers, rain poncho, hand warmers and a multi-tool such as a Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman. (Why anyone would go anywhere without a Leatherman is a mystery to me.)

There are personal permutations. The Sheila Barnes Kit would include no less than a 5-gallon pail of Clorox Wet-Wipes and ten pounds of pretzels. My friend John lives at 8800 feet of elevation in Ophir, Colorado. Along with the quinoa, couscous, and Gogurt, he packs an avalanche beacon in his sons Ellis' and Marshall’s lunches from Halloween to Easter.

For the environmentally conscious, Left-leaning, Subaru pilots a company called Preparewise, which offers organic, free-range, and gluten-free EPKs. (Yes, really.) With Amazon Prime, they can be ordered in 1-click and shipped the next day for only $229.95 (marked down from $269.95). I sense an un-tapped sponsorship opportunity for NPR.

The Wisconsin variant on the EPK would include fresh batteries for a radio tuned to WTMJ. There is compelling anecdotal evidence that God is a Packer fan, but it’s not our nature to be presumptuous. In the unlikely event a tornado, derecho, or a significant shift of the New Madrid Fault should strike at noon on a football Sunday, we do not want to miss Wayne’s play-by-play, Larry’s color commentary, and “The Dagger” when the green and gold salt away another Bears evisceration.

They are not called emergencies for nothing.

If your address is anywhere between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi, the Cheddar Curtain and Lake Superior, and if you have an Australian Shepherd-Blue Heeler cross, Jack Russell Terrorist, Border Collie, Lab, German Short-haired Pointer, or equivalent, then your kit should also include a quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, 2tsp dish soap, and a quarter cup of baking soda.

You will someday find yourself a part of “The Fall Shuffle”.

Raccoons, woodchucks, opossums, and rabbits generally give birth between May and June. Our children take at least 18 years to leave the nest. Small mammals hang with their parents until fall, then pair off and seek mates and shelter.

This quest for food, territory, and companionship is what wildlife ecologists call “The Fall Shuffle”. (My son Calvin says, “C’mon Dad, we’re just hangin’ out…”)

This instinctive ritual to insure the perpetuation of the species can result in tunnels to fit a 20-pound Dachshund under your barn, if your property is host to a family of groundhogs. These indigenous mammals are mobile in the autumn. They are regrettably oblivious to man’s intrusion and propensity to pave their pastures, making them a virtual road-kill buffet for Red Tail Hawks and other raptors.

But these are not, perhaps, the most perilous participants in the fall shuffle. According to Jason O’Brien at the Iowa State University Extension, members of the family Mephitis are primarily nocturnal. Well, Dr. O’Brien, evidently north of Dubuque the striped skunk is not opposed to lookin’ for lovin’ at dawn, and I have a 2014, gently used, ¾-ton Ram Diesel “For Sale” as evidence.

Early in my years of veterinary practice, Marilyn Claas was always my first client in the barn (unless Dean Frey was milking for Vernon Strasburg). If she had a down cow or dystocia, she’d grab the barn phone and call. I like to consider myself generally of the good natured type. That said, without a bowl of Corn Flakes and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and 10 minutes with yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, I’m more like a bear with a sore butt. So, by July of 1992 I had settled into 4:38am as the optimum time to rack out. I can be fed, teeth brushed, “nature” answered, and out the door by 5:30. Marilyn sold her cows 20 years ago, but I’m not willing to take that chance.

Monday, October the 19th…

Waiting for my pupils to adjust in the sepia-toned light of the bathroom off the barn wood floor, I smile at the outline of her form curled softly, the covers gathered ‘round her neck. Finding her temple, I pull a few strands of auburn and kiss Sheila goodbye.

Making just enough sound to have been there, I recede. Accelerating my shuffle, I reach for the switches and aim for the bright lights of the kitchen. At the door Token is chomping at the bit, and Remmi wags, resigned to her sister’s ritual.

In mid-October there is frost on the pasture-yard just outside the bedroom window, a quarter inch of ice on the horse tanks, and 5:30AM is darker than a coal miner’s crack. There’s a moment of silence between throaty howls of Northwest wind through the half-dressed hundred year oaks. From beneath the leaves drifted against the wilted hostas comes an innocent shuffle. In a mad dash against November’s inevitable permafrost, and fueled by hormones like a pimply high school boy, a young striped skunk digs his den and makes his play.

Since the truck is nearly 30 feet away and I’m obligated by my Y chromosome to carry a week’s provisions in one trip, I trap my white plastic afternoon coffee mug between my lower canines and upper incisors. The Stanley vacuum-seal stainless morning mug doesn’t leak, so it goes in the back pocket of my coveralls with 4 strands of baler twine, opposite the Littman Cardio-Pro stethoscope. Its acoustics have been enhanced and the bell cemented in place with dried cow manure. The strap of the laptop bag flung over my head leaves one hand for a pile of neatly folded khakis and polos for the afternoon of dogs and cats, and the right for a Farm and Fleet bag with leftover LD’s brisket sandwich and broken corn chips for lunch.

Right on schedule to start my first set of ab crunches and catch New Day on CNN at The Lakers Health Club by 5:55, I hook the loop of the bag on my pinky to wrench the knob open. The door flings against the Culligan dispenser, cueing Token to shoot off like a Greyhound after the rabbit. Her pads digging for purchase against the driveway, she takes flight over the concrete deer figurine lying peacefully on the retaining wall.

Token has organized the wildlife on this 6.8 acre swamp in western Jefferson County since she was eight months old. Dubbed “Stork Hollow” by Calvin’s friend Thomas, the groundhogs are in their holes under the barn, “chippies” and squirrels in the trees, and the red fox in the culvert under Wolf Rd. Token is convinced that Poe’s crows stay aloft thanks to her threat on the ground.

A flock of wild turkeys that look like reverse-evolution in action outweigh and out-number her 10:1; they get a free pass.

It was as certain as property taxes and prostate exams.

It took six years, nearly to the day. In the face of crisis, I find it useful to maintain a moment of calm.  A consequence of inevitability; there may have even been a thread of relief, like catching your son with his first Playboy. Whether it is olfactory or psychologic, there is a quick cycle of denial: “Is someone roasting hickory nuts, or is the barn on fire?” I thought. Then there was acceptance. The unmistakable hot-in-your-nostrils skunk smell singed the hairs like a marsh fire, and brought me near to nausea.

Back from her circuit, Token crouched in “loaded” position next to her door in the truck. She was waiting for the sweep of my finger and “saddle up”. She had a look of proud satisfaction like she’d just corralled a herd of a hundred Texas Longhorns, all by herself.

It was going to be a minute.

I bought time doing everything else. I loaded Remmi, put the clothes and lunch on the front seat, took the garbage to the curb, started a load of laundry, swept the garage floor… looking for just one more thing before I had to come up with a plan.

The “skunk” lecture at the University of Illinois had been 25 years ago. If there was more to it than “git the hanus stuff off as fast as possible,” I was sleeping. I had hot running water and Dawn in the barn, but my mind scrambled for the proportions of peroxide and baking soda. Charter High Speed Internet would take 4 minutes to boot, then I’d have to chase down the ingredients. It was 11 minutes to the clinic, where we had a raised tub, respirator, gloves, and DE-SKUNK shampoo.

I made a run for it.

I had endured a few jabs down at Steve’s Car and Truck Service when they did the first oil change on my truck and found the heated seats and steering wheel. I reached for some cred and rationalized they’d be a blessing in a blizzard after a dystocia in mid-January, with one of Herriot’s lazy winds blowing up the nape of my neck.

Pride was out the window on October 19. It was 38 degrees, and we were hugging the curves on Hwy A doing 75, hoping Officer Bob was still in bed. Health papers and back issues of Dairy Vet magazine swirled around the cab like confetti in a parade, as we had all 4 windows and the back glass wide open, like a cross-ventilated hog barn. I had the seat heaters set on medium rare. I hoped somehow that Token would stay in the geographic center of the truck, and touch nothing.

We made it to the clinic in just under eight minutes. Luca and Zoe across the street were in full-throat, but we paid them no heed. I stopped the truck in the middle of the parking lot and flung the doors wide. Remmi’s teeth chattered, but her look was “just another Monday with my sister”.

Hoping to create some tunnel ventilation, I opened the windows in the waiting room, “hub”, and kennel as wide as they would go, and reached for a stack of sacrificial towels and the bottle of this magic shampoo we were about to field trial. I pulled a pair of OB sleeves to my armpit, like I was replacing a prolapsed uterus, and reinforced them with nitrile exam gloves. Token’s look of smug satisfaction had morphed to uncertain and apologetic. She stood like a sawhorse as I rinsed and repeated until the bottle was empty and the water heater ran cold.

We have the most dedicated and purpose-driven staff I’ve ever known; this could test them. I stripped the bedding from my truck and threw the towels in the rolling garbage bin, then deposited it in the furthest corner of the yard.

Two weeks out, there’s only a hint of the incident lingering in the clinic. According to Darwin, the vile substance “renders all that it touches, forever useless.” I couldn’t have eroded the resale value of my truck further if I smoked 50 cent cigars for the next 200 thousand miles, and stored retained placentas under the seat.

There will be a time I will stop to appreciate this highly evolved little burrowing mammal. Weighing little more than a barn cat, she’s developed an organ capable of shooting a witch's brew of sulfur-containing thiols 10-20 feet, with accuracy. At point-blank it can cause vomiting and temporary blindness, and can fend off bears. It is detectable by the human nose up to a mile, and can linger in the environment for up to two years.

Any chance at the memory fading is lost every time Token runs through wet grass or in the rain. I ponder. These visually gorgeous little mammals made an indelible impression on The Father of Evolution, and predatory omnivores weighing as much as B.J. Raji are no match for the skunk.

What has prevented them from taking over the world faster than Taylor Swift?

Why was Token unfazed?

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