Monday, 28 February 2011

Tales from Argentina – The Skunk

(Google image)
Anyone who has ever smelt skunk will never forget it, and anything that the creature’s defensive secretion has touched renders it forever useless. 
My mother describes vividly in her memoirs how as a child she was given a child's rebenque, a small riding whip which was made of creamy coloured rawhide and highly ornamented with woven twirls and knots of the same hide. 

(Google image)
It was her pride and joy, and she was longing to be old enough to ride a horse by herself and hang it from her wrist to make her look as though she meant business.  Her older brothers borrowed it one day when they was going riding with a group of people on the estancia where they lived.

When they returned she was aghast to learn that the purpose of the ride was to hunt skunks, and one of which had managed to have the last laugh by spraying the beautiful rebenque and her brothers' riding clothes.  It wasn’t merely a case of never being able to use the clothes or the rebenque again, or of throwing them away – the only way to eliminate the smell was to burn everything that been sprayed.  Mum was heartbroken, and hurt that her brothers neither acknowledged that they had helped themselves, or apologised for the result.  Thus she never forgot the incident.

Skunks are small mammals who hold their own in the wild thanks to their devastating ability to squirt a very disagreeably smelly liquid from their anal glands, sometimes achieving a distance of two metres.  If the glands are removed and they no longer have this defensive mechanism, they make interesting pets. 

One of my mother’s 3 brothers – her favourite - was John, a farmer in Argentina and Brazil throughout his life, and it was always thought he would have been in his element as a ranger in a wildlife preserve somewhere like South Africa; he had a genuine interest in animals of all types, and would approach them fearlessly when necessary.  He was my favourite too - a charismatic person, John-Wayne-cool when he strode along swinging his hips, handsome and wonderful in his sweat-stained cowboy hat and highly polished leather boots.  He had a highly developed sense of ethics and wherever he worked inspired a strong loyalty in the farm workforce.    

1937, Estancia 'Los Molles': 
My mother and her family - L to R: Mum aged 14 holding her camera
(she was a keen photographer), eldest brother Richard,
her parents - my grandparents - in the middle,
youngest brother Fred next to his mother, John at the back,
& sister Vera front right. Mum's little dog Judy at Vera's feet. 

In the 70s - John examining a new horse.

Being a larger than life person he was always well known wherever he lived.  He was walking beside a railway track one day as it was a short cut to where he wanted to go, and presently he heard a train coming.  He was careful to keep well out of its way, and after a bit realised that the train was slowing down with a squeal of breaks and was not going to pass him.  He looked round and saw the engine driver sticking his head out of the cabin of the locomotive, waving him down.  "Don Juan!" he shouted "Where did you get that wonderful cowboy hat?"  Laughing, John called back "I have a brother who lives in Texas, he brought it for me."  "Well" rejoined the engine driver "next time he comes to visit, will you ask him to bring me one too?"  John waved his assent, the engine driver picked up speed, blew the whistle a few times and disappeared into the distance.

1986, John and his wife

He was a fabulous raconteur and it must have been good for his ego to see my sister and me watching him goggle-eyed, hanging on his every word.  We visited him at least once a year in the summer holidays on the way to other relatives’ farms, where we would stay for a few days, and ‘going to Uncle John’s’ was a keenly anticipated stopover.

We also drove to Brazil one year to see him, and I saw him tackle large snakes which were curled up on the road – he would collect them and hand them in to the Instituto Butantan, the local biomedical research centre in the province of São Paulo, where they made the antivenom serum. 

What you did was get a forked stick and pinned down the snake’s head without harming it, then picked it up by the tail while somebody held a bag open.  Sounds simple, but I would even refuse to get out of the car.

He once told us that he was driving along a track and saw two large snakes on the road asleep.  He stopped, picked them both up by the tail with the intention of handing them over to the Instituto Butantan, but realising he had not brought a bag with him, put them in his large toolbox instead, which he kept on the floor of the passenger seat.  Later on he picked up a farm employee on his way home, and as they were proceeding along the man suddenly became aware that something was rising out of the toolbox.  Frozen with horror he watched the snake climbing up the door beside him when he finally reacted.  With a shriek he flung himself at Uncle John "Salve-me Sr João!" - Save me!  By the time Uncle John remembered about the snakes, the man was actually sitting on his lap, attempting to exit the vehicle through the driver's window.  The situation was eventually controlled, and no one was hurt.

Once as a young man in Argentina he had returned home for the weekend from the farm where he worked with a snake in his bag which he wanted to show his brothers.  Unfortunately at some point the snake escaped from the bag, which caused consternation and panic in the house.  His Italian grandmother, the Nonna, and his mother refused to come downstairs until the creature was caught, and all meals had to be handed to them on trays at the foot of the stairs - thus far they were prepared to venture, but no further.  The brothers teased the womenfolk about this incident for many years afterwards.
He had various unusual pets (at different times) – a racoon, a puma from cub whose inability to be toilet trained eventually meant he had to be kept outside, and in the end returned to the wild.  And then there was Stinko the skunk.

By the time I met Stinko he had had his glands removed and was an impish, cute little fellow who scuttled about everywhere snuffling to himself.  He loved company, though his foibles took some getting used to.  When Auntie Vera - Mum and John’s sister - came visiting from the United States where she lived, she would get up late and waft about the house in her long floaty nightie and négligée for a while before breakfast, and this proved to be too strong a temptation for Stinko, who would frolic in and out of these powder blue nylon ‘curtains’, and then with his powerful claws clutch hold of the hem and swing himself backwards and forwards while Aunt Vera yelped “Jeepers!” in shocked and indignant tones.

'Glam' Auntie Vera, taken in the late 60s. 
She didn't take kindly to skunks using her negligée
for a trapeze act...

When Mum and I went to stay, I woke up to the sound of Stinko chewing my shoes as he pushed them along the floor, and henceforward I had to learn to put my shoes on the foot of my bed so they were out of reach.  He had no scruples about chewing the shoes when my feet were in them either…

In February 1973 we had a family wedding in Buenos Aires, when our home was used for the evening reception, and the family duly travelled down from their farms.  Uncle John arrived with Stinko in tow, as he couldn’t leave him behind on his own.  During the days he stayed with us Stinko was allocated a small storage room next to the garage, with whatever we could manage to make him comfortable.  Mum’s eldest brother Richard had flown south from Guatemala with his family to be there, and his 11 year old son Robin took an instant liking to Stinko.  It was mutual, and the little skunk was kept busy with Robin’s games. 

Uncle Richard's family:  Robin, his mother and sister. 
This would have been taken a year or so before the Stinko incident.

On the night of the wedding, the reception was in full swing and young Robin found himself alone among adults.  There was no one his age, so he sought out his playmate.  Stinko had clearly been wondering what all the noise and music was about, and no doubt there were interesting food smells.  So when Robin let himself into the little storage room, it wasn’t long before they both emerged and trotted towards the dining room where the food had been laid out on a large table. 

“Come on Stinko!” he cried – “Let’s see what’s for dinner”. 

The bride told us later that she first heard of it when one of her friends ran screaming into the room where she was talking to relatives to tell her that there was a skunk next to the wedding cake.  On the table.

The guests had not been told of Stinko’s existence, so they didn’t know that the skunk was a pet with no stink glands.  They were in their best glamorous evening attire, and they knew full well what skunks were capable of.  It was a disaster in a crowded room. 

John meanwhile was talking to someone in the garden when he heard the most extraordinary shrieking come from the dining-room, and a wave of hysterical women came surging through the doors holding their long skirts up high.  The ones who got out first had seen Stinko get into his defensive (albeit fruitless) pose…

…and clearly thought they had escaped the horrifying social catastrophe of a skunk spraying everybody’s best glad rags which would inevitably need to be burned; he had the unenviable job of pacifying them, catching the by now panicked Stinko and returning him to the store room, while Robin looked on, unrepentant, laughing with delight.

It took the family all the next day to see the funny side.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's digital & non-digital archives


London, as seen from the London Eye


Farm in Norfolk

Garden, Anne Hathaway's Cottage


Exmoor, near Robber's Bridge (non-digital)

Exmoor, view from Selworthy Church (non-digital)

Exmoor, winter (non-digital)



Tina said...

my daughters have some sort of genetic condition where they cannot smell skunk..weird eh?

I have one that visits our back patio occasionally. So far no one has come away sprayed.


Andrew said...

I still love your photo's

Theresa said...

I love these stories, beautifully told and illustrated by your photos! Thanks for sharing!

THE DASH! said...

As usual such a beautiful array of photos. You are so good at capturing the essence of a shot.
Thanks for your sweet comment on my blog. Yes.. yay the kitchen is finished. If you go to the post before the one you just read its all there in living colour lol xxx

Reddirt Woman said...

I love this story of Stinko and you've done such a wonderful job of weaving your pictures in throughout the tale. I feel like a part of your family and would recognize your Uncle John and the belle of the family you Auntie Vera if I had ever met them just from your descriptions. And I totally would have been rolling in the floor with Robin at the sight of the ladies screaming and running out holding their skirts high! You made my evening with this story. Thank you.


Lonicera said...

Tina - are you serious? What unbelievable good fortune! Can they smell other things? They are sweet creatures, and friendly, though from the number of Stinko's mock positionings (if I can call it that), they seem to go quickly from friendly to nervous...
Thanks Andrew, Theresa and Carla!
And to you too Helen - Auntie Vera was also one of those people who would visit you at home and couldn't resist straightening your pictures and telling you how you should have hung them higher or lower... used to wind my mother up something rotten!

Vagabonde said...

I went back and read all the posts you published since 17 January and I am pleased I did. I enjoyed the story of La Maldonado and the dressmaker. You found some wonderful vintage images and photographs to accompany your tales – it gave them a genuine flavor. I also admired all your pretty pictures. Thanks for visiting my blog while I was away.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Vagabonde... it's exactly what I try to achieve - sort of a good story at bedtime and some nice pictures to look at (and send you to sleep, I know, I know!)

Matvi. said...

When my first mother-in-law (may she rest in peace) came to Patagonia for the first time, we went camping to the Paine National Park. One night, as we were having something to eat by the parrilla, she went to the toilette with a lantern (there was no electric light bye the time), and came back telling she had seen ¡a porcupine!, and she said it lifted its tail at her while she tried to shoo it away with the the light beam. Seems the animal was not frightened enough, for there were ni signs of an attack in the air. If it had, would someone had blamed me for burning my mother-in-law?

jeffqu said...

Hi Lonica,

I couldn't find an email address for you on your blog, so I hope that it's okay to be contacting you in this way.

I run a web site called Bariatric Surgery Source (, and we love your blog. It comes across as very informative, well-written, honest and full of personality. We would like to invite you to share some of your experiences with our visitors.

As a thank you for your time (and so our visitors know where to learn more from you), we would link to your blog from the right margin all 150+ of our pages and from our directory page.

If you're open to it, please shoot me an email at so I can share more about what we had in mind.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Best Regards,

Bariatric Surgery Source

P.S. My wife and I spent a year and a half in Argentina - 5 months in San Martin de los Andes, 4 months in Bariloche, 7 months in BsAs and the rest of the time traveling around. We absolutely loved it, and I'm jealous that you still get to be there!!

Vagabonde said...

I looked to see if you had an email but did not see one. I received an email from blog2print. They have a 15% discount on their blog books until Wednesday, 3/9. You may have received one. I’ll print another 6 months of my blog – I print 6 months at a time with some of the comments. If you need the offer email me at

Lonicera said...

Matvi, I love your story! It really made me laugh. (I'm quite glad I'm nobody's mother-in-law!)

Lonicera said...

(I've replied to the other two messages direct by e-mail)

Pame Recetas said...

¡QUé bandido este Matías! Te contaré que yo he tenido también encuentros con estos animalitos sin que me lanzaran su feo olor, una vez uno quiso subirse a la camioneta, pero no lo dejamos, just in case!!

Tus fotos están maravillosas todas!

Unknown said...

It was a joy to read your story, and I had one of the protagonists by my side: Robin! thanks for sharing that memorable moment. It describes very well Robin's personality!

Robin have told me once and again the stories of stinko and Uncle John, but never told me this far the best!

Lonicera said...

Claudia - I'm so pleased you found my blog! And thank you for the very nice comment. As you can see I've neglected it for a few months, but will be updating it shortly. There are other Schiele stories - let me know if you want to know which they are. Would so like to meet you some day and see the adult Robin, whom I last saw at that wedding!

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