HAYS, KS -- Fort Hays State University graduate Dr. Jerry Dragoo has dedicated his life to making the world a better place for an animal which he thinks has gotten a bad rap -- the common skunk.
His efforts toward that end recently got a little boost from Smithsonian magazine, an official publication of the Smithsonian Institution, when he was featured in the "People File" for his research into the habits and history of skunks.
Dragoo is currently an assistant professor of biology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and is considered a world expert on the biology of skunks. He has received national and international recognition on National Public Radio, the American Broadcasting Corporation Web page, People Weekly, Outside magazine, Discover magazine, Current Science, Nature Canada and the Brazilian television program "Scientia."
"Steve Kemper, the reporter with Smithsonian magazine, was interested in skunks and had read or heard about me through one of the above resources," Dragoo said. "He was interested in doing a full-blown story on skunk research."
However, Dragoo was not engaged in any active, funded research at that time, so Kemper elected to do a people profile instead of a feature story. He visited Dragoo and his wife Gwen for four days in September, observing the skunk rehabilitation and relocation work they do as a community service in Albuquerque.
Dragoo said the December 2001 article stimulated public interest in his Web site, the Dragoo Institute for the Betterment of Skunks and Skunk Reputations (www.dragoo.org).
"I have received many e-mails from people who loved the story and skunks, as well as people who are having problems with skunks in their yard. I try to answer all of those, but it takes a lot of time!"
The Smithsonian article also generated some interest in more unusual quarters. One odd request was from the "Wine Fairy" of "The Wine & Dine Radio Show," who contacted Dragoo about appearing on the show to discuss his inability to smell. The program is slated to air in March.
The other odd request was from Lufthansa magazine, "the inflight magazine of Germany's biggest aviation company." Lufthansa requested a copy of a photo which appeared with the Smithsonian story, showing Dragoo going nose-to-nose with his charge Stinky Pete.
"I have no idea why they need that photo or what they plan to do with it!" Dragoo said.
Despite all the attention, Dragoo's focus has not shifted from his goal to secure funding for research on rabies in skunks of the Southwest.
"One thing I have learned from all of this is that 'fameandfortune' is not one word," Dragoo said. "I received word last week that our rabies proposal probably will not be funded. So, as of the end of the month, unless I can be put on someone else's funded project, I will be unemployed. I just wish I could get grant proposal reviewers as interested in skunks as is the rest of the world!"
Dragoo earned his master's degree in biology at FHSU in 1988. He was interested in studying skunks for his thesis project at that time, but was convinced by his major professor, Dr. Jerry Choate, to do research on swift foxes instead. Choate has no regrets about encouraging the switch, even in light of Dragoo's later contributions to the field of skunk studies.
"It was the right thing to do," Choate said. "His project would take some grant support, and I knew I could probably get some money from the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Department for research on foxes, but they didn't have money available for studying skunks."
Choate also argued that foxes werere easier to work on, and that Dragoo would encounter less opposition from other biology faculty in Albertson Hall.
"He smelled up the building once" while skinning a skunk, Choate recalled, "and Dr. Fleharty (then chair of the Biology Department) said any more work on skunks would have to be done at the city park."
That anecdote appeared in the Smithsonian article, garnering national exposure for FHSU's biology program. However, Choate said he didn't expect to see any dramatic increases in biology majors, because the FHSU program already has a reputation for attracting good master's students and grooming them for doctoral work.
"The Biology Department has such a phenomenal reputation nationwide as a source of Ph.D. students that it's hard to see how an article like this could improve upon it," he said.