Tuesday, July 15, 2014

That Polecat Stinks To High Heaven

My home is located in the valley formed by the South Dry Run creek (pronounced crick, rhyming with 'pick'). Our three to four mile long valley, originating with a number of springs in the vicinity of Smith Corner, and culminating where it empties into the valley cut by the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River, is one of the many hollows that cut into the Appalachian mountain range in this south-central part of Pennsylvania. On the other side of the hill that forms the south wall of my hollow lies Singer Hollow, and on the other side of the hill that forms the south wall of Singer Hollow lies PawPaw Hollow. Benton Hollow and an unnamed hollow lie farther to the south. And then, about three miles south of my home, "as the crow flies," stretches the Polecat Hollow.

And, in case you haven't guessed it yet, the polecat is the subject of this blog post. Many people, even many of those who have lived in this corner of the world all their lives, believe they know what a polecat is. Polecats, they believe, are those stinking varmints covered in black fur with blotches of white on their heads and stripes of white down their backs or sides and sometimes on the tips of their tails. What most of those people, who believe they know what a polecat is, don't know, is that those black and white animals are skunks; they're not now, nor ever were polecats.

The polecat ferret, or rather Mustela putorius, a member of the Mustelidae family (which includes otters, badgers and weasels), was common in Europe. Skunks, which were somewhat unique in the animal world for their jet black and pristine white fur, were native to North America. The skunk was originally believed to belong to the Mustelidae family, but more recently was moved to the Mephitidae family (which consists of mammals having a stench). Although the polecat ferret was similar to the skunk in many ways, it differed in that it bore cocoa brown fur over its back and lighter colored fur on its belly. The polecat ferret, having a strong musk odor, could easily be mistaken for a skunk at first smell.

When our ancestors came from the Old World, they found the black and white animals that sprayed an horrendous smell when startled, but they also found similar stink-spraying animals covered in fur that was a dark cocoa brown color with tan stripes or spots. They apparently weren't true skunks but they smelled alot like skunks. The immigrants from the European regions of Germany and Switzerland remembered the 'polecat ferret' of their homeland. When those immigrants encountered the foul-smelling brown and tan varmints, they associated them with the polecat ferret they knew back home. They probably assumed that the two animals, black/white and brown/tan were two different things, and so they called the black/white ones 'skunks' and they called the brown/tan ones 'polecats.' What the early European settlers in North America did not know was that the skunk did not necessarily have to be covered in black and white fur: the animal can bear cocoa brown and tan fur, just like the European polecat ferret. And so, the names of skunk and polecat became intermixed here in the wilderness of America. Eventually, as such things sometimes go, the names got so intermixed that the Euro-American settlers tended to call them all 'polecats'. It has come around to the point that today a large percentage of Americans call the black and white animal: polecats, and don't even know that a brown and tan variety exists (unless they encounter one in the forest).

The name polecat is believed to have been derived from a combination of the French word poule, meaning 'chicken' and puant, meaning 'stinking'. On the other hand, the name skunk is believed to have been derived from an Amerindian word seka-kwa, meaning 'urinating fox.' An English translation of that word, squunck is claimed to have been used as early as the 1630s in New England. 

Polecats (or rather, skunks) are generally avoided if at all possible. The threat of startling one, and being sprayed as a result, contributes to their being avoided by human beings. But in the past not all of them were avoided; sometimes baby ones would be treated as pets. In more recent years, laws have been enacted protecting these mammals, but in the past the scent glands would be removed from baby polecats. The animal, without its noxious odor, acted like an affectionate cat (that is if such a thing could actually exist ~ please don't hate me, cat-lovers). My mother told me stories about how her brothers would 'unscent' a baby skunk and it would become a very playful and fun pet. The current laws prohibit removal of the scent glands, and so you can't legally own polecats as pets. Unfortunately for them, polecats / skunks have very poor eyesight. They can only see about ten feet away, and that is a contributing factor in why most people only see one when it is lying dead on a road (having been hit by the car it couldn't see and from which it could not get away). The title expresses the concept that the polecat's odor was very strong ~ strong enough to reach as high as Heaven ~ which is indeed a very long distance away.


  1. Just had a chance to read, thanks for such a informative article. By the way after reading your article on the early Pennsylvania Turnpike notes of the 1800's I was able to purchase one locally. You have been a valuable source of local history that I have not seen before.

    Thank you & With Respect,

    Mark Callahan
    Mechanicsburg, PA

  2. Sharing what I have come to know through study and experience gives me the same happiness as the adage that is often said at Christmas: It is better to give than to receive.