A game of cat and mouse – with a skunk

Do they really qualify as 'empty nesters' if skunks move in, too?

I was overjoyed to find the ranch house. In our new freedom as empty nesters, Ray, the four cats, and I were moving from Montana to Arizona. Our plan was to rent a house while we looked for the ideal home to buy. I had lined up a job near Sedona and was desperately looking for a suitable house we could afford. As soon as I saw the ad for a rental house on a working ranch, I knew I'd found our home.

A ramshackle manufactured house with panoramic views, it sat perched on a bluff above the main ranch. The covered front porch overlooked lush pastures, which featured grazing horses, gigantic cottonwood trees, and a meandering year-round creek. In contrast, problems such as nonfunctional air conditioning, outdated appliances, and well-worn 1970s decor seemed minor.

Surrounding the ranch was the desert – and its denizens. Turkey vultures with 6-foot wingspans soared at eye level. The backyard tree was home to a melodious mockingbird. At dusk Ray and I would sit on our porch watching a family of skunks parade along the hillside in single file, their tails held high like flags of their olfactory infamy.

Wild creatures also sneaked into the house. Cockroaches lounged in the shower, and once I stepped on a baby scorpion with my bare foot. One night our son's 19-year-old friend, Ben, slept on the couch. Sensing something moving above him, he awoke to find a tarantula five inches from his face. Thoughtfully, he left it for me in a canning jar on the kitchen table.

The screens had been ripped off the corners of both storm doors, allowing our cats to go in and out freely. Unfortunately, other animals discovered this passageway, and one night I awoke to find a skunk in the dining room eating from the cats' food dish. When he saw me, he ran into the living room. I couldn't find him and assumed he had gone out the front door.

Assumptions are dangerous things.

The next morning I arose early. As I was dressing for my first day on the job, I noticed the house smelled strongly of skunk, and the floors were littered with skunk pellets. Snowball, our ancient Himalayan cat, must have met the skunk personally since she reeked.

But if the skunk had not gone out the front door, the question was, "Where is he?" We finally tracked him down behind an empty freezer in the family room. The floor of this addition was a step lower than the main house and opened onto the front porch with sliding glass doors.

I whispered to Ray, "We've got to get him out of here without upsetting him."

To block the skunk from escaping into other parts of the house, we tipped over the dining room chairs, constructing a fence along the step. Like soldiers in trenches, we hid behind the makeshift barrier and waited for the skunk to make his move.

He didn't move. We waited some more. He still didn't move. Then, tired of waiting, Ray did an Indiana Jones imitation and leapt up and over the chairs, ran to the freezer, pulled it out from the wall a few inches, vaulted back over the chairs, and hid.

The creature still didn't move.

Ray repeated his daring feat. This time the skunk casually peeked his head out from behind the askew freezer before retreating backfor protection.

Ray sighed as he jumped over the barrier a third time and rotated the freezer to expose the skunk. Finally, the unruffled creature began to leisurely cross the family room.

In no hurry, he casually inspected everything he passed. After what seemed like an eternity, he sauntered to the open sliding glass door. At that exact moment, Mittens, our 15-year-old tabby, arrived at the opposite side of the threshold. She hissed at the skunk, which darted back into the house and hid behind a large bookshelf.

Ray sprinted through the house, out the living room door, grabbed Mittens, and shut her in a bedroom. As he slid back into position beside me, I pointed to a bookcase and whispered, "He's behind that." I checked my watch; I needed to leave for work soon. Great, I thought, I'll not only be late for my first day of work, I'll smell like a skunk.

Impatient, Ray nimbly hurdled the barrier, slid out the bookcase, and bounded back over the row of chairs. The skunk – exposed but unperturbed – held his tail erect as he meandered to the sliding glass door and stepped outside. Ray ran to the door and quickly closed it.

Amazingly, I made it to work on time, and if I smelled of skunk, no one was brave enough to tell me.

Ray bought a case of air freshener and fixed the screen doors. We both vacuumed up skunk droppings and for days afterward, brushed Nature's Miracle skunk odor remover through Snowball's long white fur.

Despite its drawbacks, we enjoyed the peacefulness of the ranch house and lived there until we moved into a fixer-upper we purchased on five acres near Prescott.

We must be magnets for wild creatures, though, because shortly after moving to our new home, a four-foot-long rattlesnake coiled up on our front porch and stubbornly refused to move.

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