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NAU researchers work to solve skunk mystery

PHOENIX -- Some students at Northern Arizona University are working on a project that really stinks: trapping skunks, outfitting them with radio collars and setting them free.

NAU Biology Professor Tad Theimer said they're trying to find out how many skunks are in the Flagstaff area, but they're also trying to solve a mystery.

One day, a rabid bat bit a skunk. Normally, it would have died, but something else happened.

"But what seemed to happen in this incident 10 years ago, is that the bat variant rabies didn't kill all of the skunks that it got into," he said. "It was actually able to be maintained within the skunks."

It's called a host shift, where the virus moves from one species to another one where it can actually maintain itself indefinitely through time.

Theimer said they've trapped, tagged, collared and released about 40 skunks so far.

"These radio collars not only send us a signal so that we can follow the animal, they also send out a signal so that anytime two collared animals come within a preset distance of each other -- in our case about one to two meters -- they will record each others identification and the day and time when they came that close together," said Theimer.

The researchers have to re-trap the skunks in order to get all of the information. The workers have had their rabies shots.

Theimer said he gets sprayed by about one out of every ten skunks. He likens the experience to being hit with pepper spray. He said that he gets so used to the smell that he doesn't even notice it, until he walks by someone else who lets him know that there's a problem.

Theimer and his team hope their research will one day lead to a better way to control rabies and keep people and their pets safe.

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About the Author


Years with the company: I started on January 2, 2006.

Education: I was born in San Antonio, Texas, but we moved to Phoenix when I was one-year-old in 1957. I grew up here and graduated from Alhambra High School and attended Phoenix College.

Family: I am married to my wife Rene', who is a librarian in the Washington school district. During free time, I may be found playing basketball in the driveway with my son, Devin. He's also keeping me busy with school, Little League, and playing in chess tournaments around the Valley.

Favorite food: Lots of favorite food, but our favorite restaurant is Fajitas.

Favorite spot in Arizona: The Little America Hotel in Flagstaff.

Favorite news memory: We have to go back to October 15, 1979. I was a country music air personality at KROP Radio in Brawley, California, when we had a 6.7 earthquake. Thankfully, there were no deaths and only minor injuries, but the entire community was pretty freaked out and listening to the station on their transistor radios. I would not want to go through an earthquake again, but it sure was a great night to work in radio and see how it can make a difference in people's lives.

First job: Working as a stringer for 'The Arizona Republic' at high school football games. My first real job was flipping burgers at the old Sandy's Hamburgers at 51st Avenue and Indian School Road. My first radio job was as announcer at KALJ radio in Yuma in 1977.

First concert: Doug Oldham gospel concert in the 1970s at the old East High School in Phoenix.

Favorite sports team: Phoenix Roadrunners minor league hockey. My dad took me to a game when I was in grade school, and I was hooked. I wanted to be a radio hockey play-by-play man. I used to take my cassette recorder and sit up in the rafters of the Coliseum and do play-by-play. It was great later in life to also take my son to Roadrunners games. Too bad the team just folded, I'll miss them. (Going to the Coyotes is fun, but they're not "my" team.)

Outside interests: My family and I are active in our church - Northern Hills Community Church in Phoenix. We enjoy going to movies, sporting events, and like to vacation at the Beach Cottages in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego. And I love to play catch, basketball, football with my son.

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