A despicable, contemptible or offensive person is rarely called a skunk anymore.

The animal's stinking spray was the basis for such an epithet, but now we appreciate it as a clever defense with no lasting harm. We have even adopted the skunk's disabling chemical strategy for Mace-type sprays.

Women could still be justified in calling unfaithful mating partners skunks.

Male striped skunks are solitary, mate with multiple females as much as they're able, and only hang out with females for the few days in spring needed to mate.

Male skunks also contribute nothing to the care of the five or six blind, deaf and helpless skunk kittens born a little more than two months later. The kittens gain their senses after about three weeks.

Female skunks, however, are terrific moms, nursing the babies for six weeks in underground dens and watching after them for the first year of their lives - about a third of their average life in the wild.

Males pay for their randy wanderings in the March and April mating season. The four roadkill skunks I counted on a recent morning drive to Vineland were probably males searching for mating partners.

Human values and judgments aside, the mating system works well. Striped skunks are common throughout the U.S. and Canada.

I only see live skunks while camping, probably because they're nocturnal and less common in the near-shore area where I live.

We should not see skunks during the day. If you do, the skunk is likely to have rabies - stay away and report it to the county health authorities.

Skunks have found a more fitting human reference in Skunk Works, the informal but since trademarked name for defense contractor Lockheed Martin's advanced research facility. The notion of employees freed from an organization to come up with breakthroughs builds on the skunk's amazing capabilities.

An adult skunk has just a tablespoon of musk in its anal glands, but that's enough for five or six threat-stopping sprays of 10 to 15 feet. The musk is powerful enough to cause temporary blindness and nausea.

After those effects pass, the distinctive smell is famously persistent due to an oily base (best removed from skin with carbolic soap). The fragrance industry uses this base (with the skunk odor removed) to make high-end perfumes cling to the skin.

The combination of the potent defense and warning colors of black and white frees skunks from much concern about predators.

But one of the fiercest predators of the night, the great horned owl, isn't deterred by the musk and takes a lot of skunks. Red-tailed hawks hunting at dusk and dawn get some, too.

Skunks are very much like people in one way: We both enjoy all kinds of food. Skunks eat lots of insects (including bees, ants, beetles and grubs), small mammals, eggs, spiders, amphibians, snails, crustaceans, fruits, nuts and grains.

Maybe, seeing someone who enjoys lots of different foods, we should say they eat like a skunk.

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