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The faintest whiff of eau de skunk had just pricked my nostrils when Rick Wilberschied, moving with the deliberation of an explosives expert sweating over a ticking time bomb, waved me over to him, a finger to his lips.
The setting was the back porch of a lovely home on the lovely White Deer Run golf course one lovely sunny June afternoon in Vernon Hills. Wilberschied, whose job is to trap rogue critters stirring up mischief in the urban veldt, had been summoned to investigate a family of skunks that had taken up residence under a concrete stoop at the back of the home. A few days earlier, Wilberschied had scouted the location and set two traps. The bait had been a tried-and-true blend of 11 herbs and spices that Wilberschied—a.k.a. the Critter Hunter, a.k.a. Dog the Bounty Hunter of the nuisance wildlife business—had hit upon during hours spent plying the fast-food byways of suburbia: the three-piece wing meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Until that moment, I had been more than happy to loll in the warm sun, alternating my attention between Wilberschied girding for battle—pulling on leather gloves, grabbing a roll of duct tape, tearing a couple of plastic trash bags from the box—and a lively foursome of elderly women in visors and white skirts cackling over a missed putt a couple of hundred feet away. Suddenly, however, the winds shifted, and Wilberschied, straightening like a pointer, headed for the traps.
Wilberschied, 42, cut an incongruous figure in this suburban milieu of twittering birds and retired duffers. He wore jeans, thick-soled Skechers work boots, a do-rag with a wildlife camouflage print, and the kind of orange-tinted sports shades favored by macho cops and baseball outfielders. His long strawberry-blond hair spilled onto his shoulders and was only slightly lighter in color than the faintly reddish hue of his goatee. At six feet two inches tall and 238 pounds, he looked like Hulk Hogan minus the perma-tan, a reality show waiting to happen. He also looked like he knew what he was doing, a fact for which, at that moment, I was deeply thankful.
“Check this out,” he said, tilting one of the traps on its end. “You see that?” I leaned over and looked. Staring back at me was a small black haunch. A butt, to be more precise. A puckered butt. An angry butt. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was a sight to give one pause.
Only slightly less dismaying was the faint leer Wilberschied wore as he whispered, in the hushed voice of a TV golf announcer, “You know what that’s called?” I shook my head as a sharp and bittersweet aroma, the precursor to a hot blast of skunk essence, I later learned, began to leak like radioactive material. “That,” Wilberschied said, “is a little thing we refer to as ‘cocked, locked, and ready to rock.’ ”
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Rick Wilberschied should know. As a man who makes his living from restaurants, churches, water parks, college campuses, hotels, offices, and human habitats of the two-garage variety, ridding them of critters that go bump in the night—and day—one of his most memorable moments, in a career full of them, was the time a skunk blasted him full in the face. “We had a bunch of traps set out on this golf course,” he explained to me one day. “And we caught this skunk right on the driving range. He was a little firecracker. I got about 20 yards from him when he started posturing, stamping his feet. That’s a bad sign. It means he’s about to blow. So I’m like, OK, we got one with a bad attitude.
“So I filled a syringe pole with a cc and a half of this juice to calm him down, stood the cage up on its end, and went to push the needle in. As I did, he spun ass up in the air. I broke my needle off in the ground, and the next thing I know, I just see yellow liquid come flying up out of the cage like something out of a sports drink commercial where you see sweat flying in slow motion. When I saw it, something in my mind goes, You are so screwed. And then this cloud hit me, right in the face. I had my sunglasses up on my head. No do-rag. Caught it right square in the eyes.”
“My God,” I said. “What was that like?”
“Imagine somebody putting habanero sauce on their fingertips and jabbing them in your eyes. Let’s just say . . . it’s a drag.”
I remembered all of this as I stared down at the angry skunk butt that day, on the lovely stoop in the lovely environs of Vernon Hills. It came to me, in fact, just about the time I realized that the skunk in the cage was stamping his feet.
Photograph: Ryan Robinson
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9 months ago