Wildflowers and fruit trees may be perfuming the spring breezes now, but fragrant skunks sometimes add their particular brand of aroma.
These arrogant, furry, black and white mammals wander boldly through backyards, rifle through garbage and strut fearlessly across roads and highways, where they frequently end up as smelly pancakes. A skunk’s scientific name, Mephitis mephitis, comes from Latin and means “poisonous or stinky vapor” or more liberally translated, a stinky stinker.
Striped skunks are our most frequently encountered variety. Plentiful throughout the United States, they roam largely unmolested. However, Great Horned Owls hunt them and foxes, hawks, coyotes and dogs occasionally eat them. In my opinion, they must be REALLY hungry to do that!
Skunks eat mostly insects, but spiders, snakes, small mammals, birds and their eggs, millipedes and vegetation also add to their diet. They also supplement their wild meals with choice selections from garbage cans.
Given the opportunity, calm skunks will usually stalk egotistically away from an encounter with any animal, including humans, but surprised ones are another matter. They purr, growl, click their teeth, stomp their front feet and do a handstand on their front legs. A stomping, growling, tooth-clicking skunk is a thing to behold, but only from a distance.
If this performances fails, the agitated skunk will turn their rear end toward the attacker, raise their tail and become a little fuzzy four-footed pepper spray, squirting a smelly, irritating chemical mixture twelve feet or more from specialized anal glands. Plus, they’re good for 7 or 8 repeated shots.
Not only does skunk spray smell terrible, it also burns like crazy, and in the eyes may cause temporary blindness.
Supposedly, a skunk can't spray if you pick it up by its tail, but experts say that's not necessarily true! I wonder how you get good at picking skunks up? The practice sessions must be murder.
Dog are less than intelligent around skunks and often get sprayed as payment for their curiosity. What do you do with a skunky dog? Or, what if you get sprayed? Leaving the county for a prolonged vacation is recommended, but most folks you encounter along the way probably won’t be too hospitable!
Bathing in tomato juice can be an effective deodorizing method and it also makes smelly dogs and cats a pretty pink. You can follow the tomato juice soak by rubbing a vanilla moistened cloth on a sprayed pet so they end up looking and smelling a little like a hairy pink sugar cookie! Or you can mix a quart of hydrogen peroxide with ¼-cup baking soda and 1 teaspoon of liquid soap for a shampoo. There are also commercial deodorizing products available at pet stores.
Skunks, like many other mammals, can carry rabies and one that appears disoriented or approaches you fearlessly ought to be suspect. If you are bitten by a skunk immediately wash the wound with soap and water and seek medical attention. It is vital to remember that a bite victim must not wait to see if they get sick before seeking medical aid, because by then it is too late and death is virtually guaranteed.
If the offending stinker can’t be found and tested, a series of five anti-rabies injections are administered to the victim. The shots are not particularly painful, but after insurance coverage can cost from $1000 to $2000.
So observe this little field and forest stinker at a distance – as though you really need to be told. And avoid running over them. The collision will surely kill them, but they’ll end up getting the last laugh when they thoroughly anoint your car.
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.