09/22/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
WORLD-RFXOGNIZED SKUNK specialist Jerry Dragoo would be the first to tell you his job stinks—but he'd be the last to know. Lacking a sense of smell all his life, the Georgia-born Dragoo, 36, has made his name studying the fetid four-leggers' genes, skulls and living conditions without ever once getting a whiff of their aromatic emissions. "They're pretty cool animals," insists the University of New Mexico postdoctoral fellow.
Most of us would rather Mace 'em than embrace 'em, but that may be changing. Studies suggest the skunk's pest-heavy diet—they like grubs, beetles and baby rats—is a boon for their human neighbors. And in last May's Journal of Mammalogy, Dragoo and fellow biologist Rodney Honeycutt made the case that skunks, long lumped in the same scientific family as weasels and minks, deserve a family name (Mephitidae) of their own. And that, in the black-and-white world of skunk studies, is news of the highest odor.
For Dragoo, skunks have always been more than a professional interest. "They're small animals, and they're ferocious," says Dragoo, noting that he too "was puny growing up." An Air Force brat raised on bases around the country, Dragoo now shares a double-wide mobile home outside Albuquerque with his wife, Gwen, 28, a fellow biologist from New Braunfels, Texas, and six of the striped critters, who flourish on fruit, cheese and dog food. "You cannot bring new shoes into this home and put them on the floor. They'll destroy them," warns Gwen, who helps Jerry rescue skunks-in-need reported to them by a wildlife conservation group.
Otherwise, skunks—which spray when frightened and then usually after giving fair warning by stomping their front feet—make perfect pets, she says. Unlike Jerry, who doesn't know why he can't smell (and doesn't really care), Gwen has a nose that works fine. Her cure-all for rank household mishaps? A toothbrush and diluted bleach. "Skunks are not easy to potty-train," she admits. Nevertheless, she adds, "they've stolen our hearts."