This Was Then: Mephitis mephitis

The odorous woods-pussy.


Updated 1-5-2024

Skunks have lived on Martha’s Vineyard for at least four or five hundred years. (Except, that is, for about 50 of them. We’ll get to that shortly.) Nantucket, on the other hand, hosts neither skunks or raccoons, and apparently never has.

When writer James Freeman visited the Vineyard in 1807, he made a list of all of the wild mammals then found here. It is interesting to learn not only which beasts were native to the Island at the beginning of the 19th century, but also the order in which he lists them. He writes: “Besides domestick animals, the quadrupeds which are found on Martha’s Vineyard are these which follow: the skunk, the musquash [muskrat]; the mink; four or five species of ground mice; the mole; the rabbit, [and] otter … There are no deer, foxes, nor squirrels.” So the skunk (Mephitis mephitis) was not only present and accounted for, it was first in line.

Archeological studies of middens found near Squibnocket have revealed skunk remains mixed into the shell heaps and rubbish left by 16th century Wampanoag cooks. Early English colonists named them “polecats,” after the similar-looking (but only distantly related) European ferret-like animals — a term still used in parts of the American South today. By the 1880s, the term “wood pussy” or “woods-pussy” caught favor, another nickname used throughout the 20th century, and even today. (A 1908 article in Good Housekeeping magazine about the town of Wellesley’s wildlife, for instance, notes, “What one of our young ladies terms ‘the odorous wood pussy’ can be found when wanted.”)

The word “skunk,” however, is derived from the Wôpanâak word “sukôk” (su-konk), which translates as “ejects body fluid,” and appears in English writing as early as 1634. (Other words English-speaking Americans have borrowed from Wôpanâak — the Wampanoag dialect of Massachusett, an Algonquian language — include “raccoon,” “chipmunk,” “squash,” and “pumpkin,” among many others.) The first recorded use of the word “skunk” as an insult was not until 1841. (“He’s a skunk — a bad chap about the heart,” wrote William Simms in his 1841 novel, “The Kinsmen.”)

Gale Huntington of Vineyard Haven reported a conversation he once had with fisherman Benjamin Mayhew Sr. (1883–1957) of Chilmark: “In his opinion,” Huntington recalled, “the local skunks must have been a subspecies or race, for they were larger than the mainland skunks, with a very narrow, and at times almost nonexistent, white stripe.”

Allen Keith of Chilmark, in his booklet “The Mammals of Martha’s Vineyard,” aligns with Huntington’s theories. “The resident Island population was apparently somewhat different from the skunks on the nearby mainland, and may have been a distinct race … They seem to have been larger than those on the nearby mainland, and their pelage was what is often called a ‘Star Skunk,’ having either no white stripe on their sides or a very slight one, and only a small white spot on the forehead and the tip of the tail. Due to their size and coloration, their pelts were more valuable than those of mainland.”

Skunks were occasionally on the menu, too, for Wampanoag and settlers alike. (Tip for home chefs: Be sure to remove the scent glands before boiling or roasting.) Skunk oil was sold widely as a medicinal balm throughout the 1800s, and the skins sold for nearly the price of a red fox pelt well into the 20th century (although it was often renamed “Alaska sable” in the store). Skunk fur farms, or “skunkeries,” were attempted in a number of locations, including Mashpee and Western Massachusetts. By 1866, tailor James Barrows was offering cash for “muskrat, skunks, and cat skins” at his Edgartown storefront. (His shop burned down a year later; he moved with his family to Chicago.)

By 1910, skunks had been completely eliminated from the Vineyard, mostly by the Island’s sheep farmers, in what Huntington called “a brutal and determined poisoning campaign.” So had raccoons. The white-tailed deer had been gone so long (since about 1720) that old stories of their existence on the Island were met with skepticism.

Conservationist Thornton Waldo Burgess, a Sandwich native, took an interest in Vineyard wildlife in the late 1920s. He was the author of dozens of popular children’s books, including “The Adventures of Jimmy Skunk” (1918) and “The Adventures of Bobby Coon” (1920), and was the originator of the “Peter Cottontail” character. Burgess offered a $100 reward for anyone who could find another heath hen, a once-common species of prairie chicken which by 1928 had dwindled to a single bird in West Tisbury. In 1931, Burgess came to the Island and personally caught, photographed, and banded that very last heath hen. (It died the following spring, and the species became extinct.)

By the 1930s, the skunk had become a common comic trope in the movies — in Three Stooges shorts, Disney cartoons, Abbott and Costello routines, and Warner Brothers’ “Pepé Le Pew” character (introduced in 1945). By 1950, Hollywood comic Jack Rourke’s pet skunk Oolick had become a fixture of early television programs. Soon, pet skunks (usually, but not always, de-scented) became something of an American fad. By 1954, pet shops were reporting that they were unable to keep pet skunks in stock. (“Take a pet skunk out for a walk on a leash, and you can meet more new people in 15 minutes than you would normally meet in a month,” wrote nationally syndicated pet columnist H.H. Miller.)

And, like anywhere, the Island was susceptible to fads. Unusual pets were not uncommon on the Island. The Barnacle Club kept a pair of alligators named Bozzy and Dickey for years in their Main Street headquarters in Vineyard Haven, where they would often sun themselves in the window. And there are several tales of pet monkeys and apes on the Island, at least one of which (in 1915) escaped into the wilds of Chilmark.

And that is almost certainly how skunks were reintroduced to the Vineyard after a 50-year hiatus. John Hughes of Vineyard Haven recalled college kids bringing skunks on leashes to the Island in the 1950s, only to release them at summer’s end. Tweed Roosevelt remembers bringing his pet skunk to the Island about 1954. “I had it until it was time for me to go back to school, and Mother realized that I couldn’t take it back to school, and Mother gave it to Craig [Kingsbury],” he recalled.

Craig Kingsbury of Vineyard Haven firmly denied bringing over any skunks of his own, contrary to popular legend, but he was certainly a friend to them. “They are not aggressive predators,” he reports in his daughter’s highly entertaining book, “Craig Kingsbury Talkin’,” “so they will not kill a cow or horse and drag it up a tree and eat it. If your pony is missing, a skunk didn’t take it.”

“They kill and eat insects, Japanese beetles, potato bugs, wireworms, white grubs,” Kingsbury continues. “Generally, they won’t hurt your vegetables. Sometimes they might squash your potato plants, but it’s only because they got a little ambitious going after beetles … They are not destructive to property, and won’t try to move into your house. They might want to live under your porch, however. They will dig their own holes under there. They can dig like little bulldozers. They kill and eat mice and baby rats.”

“Now a skunk, or any wild animal, when they’re little fellows, they’re cute, and they’re little pets,” recalled Kingsbury in a 1994 interview with Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. “But when they reach maturity, then they become rugged individualists, and then they become ornery, and they’re no longer pets. So what happened was, people get baby ’coons, little skunks. But skunks, ’coons, baby bears, any of those little animals, after they reach maturity, then they want to be left alone. They’re no longer pets.”

And so, by the early 1960s, both skunks and raccoons had re-established wild breeding populations on the Island.

Vineyarders have contributed to the extinction of several species — not only the heath hen, but also the Vineyard’s “penguin” (Pinguinus impennis, the great auk), the Eskimo curlew (a shorebird once commonly known as the “dough-bird”) and the ​​Labrador duck (famously shot in 1849 by U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster in Edgartown, from a moving carriage).

And Vineyarders have extirpated many more. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) was native to the Island from more than 4,000 years ago until about 1825, when it was completely exterminated by Island sheepmen. The gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) was here from about 1,500 years ago until the 17th century, when it, too, was eliminated by Vineyard ranchers. The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is believed by many — based on a 1602 description by explorer John Brereton and a jawbone found in a Wampanoag kitchen midden — to have been once present as well. (“It was certainly exterminated very shortly after the first Europeans settled on the Island in 1642,” wrote Keith.) And the bobcat (Felis rufus) — whose remains have been unearthed in Wampanoag middens, and described in 1602 by Brereton as “wilde cats” and “luzemes” (lynxes) — was also exterminated by the earliest English settlers of the Island.

As poet James Todman Goodwin wrote for the Salt Lake City Tribune in 1897,

I’ve smelt Chicago’s river,
  And a factory filled with glue.
And roquefort cheese and garlick strong
  And a wood pussy or two.
But they were as lilac blossoms,
  Or violets heavy with dew,
Or a fragrant honeysuckle,
  In comparison to you.