AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Upon encountering a skunk, no Chicagoan in her right mind would race with glee toward the animal, yet that's precisely how a group of Dutch children reacted when they spotted the infamous "stinkdier" with the telltale white stripe.
Granted the critter in question was on view safely behind protective glass in an enclosure at Amsterdam's Artis Zoo — so no one was in danger of getting doused in noxious spray — but that fact frankly only made the scene more, not less, bizarre to this vacationing reporter.
What on earth were skunks and their enclosure companions, a pack of equally hum drum raccoons, doing on exhibit alongside lions and camels and gorillas, bona fide animal kingdom royalty? Shouldn't they be off Dumpster diving somewhere instead?
Turns out, even common-to-the-point-of-being-a-nuisance animals can be considered exotic in the right setting where their banal reputations do not precede them.
Skunks and raccoons may be roadkill in their native Americas — they have a rating of "least concern" from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which basically means they are not remotely endangered — but to Europeans, they are as wondrous a sight as our arguably more spectacular bison and moose.
"We take them for granted here," said Dave Bernier, general curator at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
An equivalent, Bernier said, would be Lincoln Park Zoo's red kangaroos, which Chicagoans go gaga over but to an Australian visitor might as well be a squirrel.
"They are very common in Australia. Here, we have nothing like kangaroos. They're very compelling for us, but not in Australia," Bernier said.
Yet just because an animal's ubiquitous doesn't mean it's not interesting, he added.
The skunk's malodorous defense mechanism has rendered the creature near predator-proof and raccoons have an impressive ability to adapt to almost any environment — they originated in the tropics, for heaven's sake.
"There's definitely a story there," Bernier said of the mask-faced mammals. "They probably could use a little positive PR."
We recommend starting with a name change. C'mon, how cute is "stinkdier"?