BOSTON — There are two types of people: those who set a trend, and those who smell one. Alma Bott is both.
Like an estimated 250,000 people across America, Alma is raising a skunk while trying not to raise a stink.
"Skunks are unique companions and they also have a shock value," says the teenager. "When my neighbor saw Jasper for the first time, she said, 'Love may be blind, but there are other senses to consider.' "
Alma says she did extensive research before welcoming a skunk into her house. It wasn't the odor that worried her: Breeding farms de-scent skunks by removing the two spray glands. What Alma had to weigh was the profile of the pet.
"They are extremely intelligent and extremely hardheaded. This is a powerful combination," says Jane Bone, founder of Skunks As Pets Inc. "An owner must have [patience] to live with and deal with these animals on a daily basis.
"[Skunks] are very demanding. They want to eat now! They want to play now! They want to snuggle with you now! What you are doing doesn't matter at all."
Shelor Brumbeloe of Augusta, Ga., laughs about skunks' inquisitiveness.
"They clear bookshelves to see what's behind them. They go through suitcases to see what's in them. They empty flowerpots to see what's in the dirt," says Ms. Brumbeloe of her pets Major, Barron, Tricksy, Hercules, and Hershey. "They are inquisitive, but not destructive."
The novelty and allure of exotic pets is akin to antiques or haute couture fashion: the rarer the better. Potbellied pigs, iguanas, sugar gliders, geckos, boa constrictors, and other such creatures are receiving more attention - and commanding higher prices.
Much of the surging interest in fashionable pets can be traced to the Internet, which has a wealth of Web sites on exotic pets - some of them credible, some incredible.
For instance, the Web briefings for skunks range from diet to potty-training procedures. Sometimes the information is confusing. One site recommends cat food for skunks while denouncing dog food. Another site affirms just the opposite. Most, however, agree that skunks need lots of vegetables, a little fruit, and sometimes baked or boiled chicken or canned fish.
Other important factors must be considered before adopting any exotic pet, wildlife experts say.
For instance, domesticating wild skunks is illegal in the US because they can be carriers of rabies. Some states, however, permit pet skunks, which must be purchased from USDA-approved breeding farms. They raise baby skunks, which cost $125 to $800 and are kept in a quarantined environment to protect them from exposure to rabies. Brumbeloe keeps hers indoors except for such events as the birthday parties of other skunks, which are festive occasions in the insular world of skunk owners.
Among the attractions of owning a pet skunk is its smooth, luxuriously silky coat. Owners tenderly describe waking up in the morning with a skunk fur ball huddled next to them in bed.
Not surprisingly, earlier this century, and even a hundred years before that, skunks used to be highly valued for their fur. However, they were sold under deceptive labels such as "midnight sable." The trading thrived until a 1952 truth-in-labeling act forced sellers to honestly identify their products.
In the wild, skunks are either black, white, or striped. But captive breeding has added many tones including gray, albino, chocolate, and the popular but rare violet.
"Living with a skunk is like living with a two-year-old," says Ms. Bone. "For those of us who have survived, these are the smartest, most lovable and devoted animals you could live with."
The following Web sites offer more information:
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society