If it smells bad, leave it alone

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By Sylvia Brockner

Of all the different animals one can encounter in our woods, there is one that most people tend to avoid like the plague. Skunks are not popular with anyone, even though they are generally quite friendly and have no intention of doing us any harm. Their terrible odor has earned them the respect of all other animals, including man.

The scientific name for the striped skunk is Mephitis mephitis. The Latin word “mephitis” means “a noxious or pestilential exhalation that comes from the ground.” The early scientist who gave it this name not only gave warning once about this most odorous critter but used the same word for both the generic and the specific name, thus giving a double warning.

No one who has ever been sprayed by a skunk wants it to happen again. Therefore, they have very few enemies. Their spray glands are at the base of their tail and since the skunk doesn’t like the smell either, it lifts its tail before it sprays so as not to get the foul smelling oily liquid on its own fur.

Sometimes it even stands on its front feet in order to aim the spray better. If a skunk turns its back to you and starts to raise its tail, it is time to leave in a hurry.

Skunks that live in cold climates take several long winter naps but are not a true hibernator, for they wake up during warm spells and then go back to sleep when it turns cold again. Therefore, we usually smell the first scent of skunk during a warm January thaw such as we have just experienced. Usually it is on a warm, damp night when a south wind is blowing that the first odor of skunk comes wafting to our nose. Usually it is far enough away that it is just a pleasant reminder that spring is coming.

Skunks range from the lower half of Canada across all of the United States into the northern part of Mexico. They mate in early spring and, after a 63-day gestation period, give birth to five or six young. Blind at birth, they stay in the den for some time before they begin to follow mom on her night excursions for food. The young are cute and look much like a bushy-tailed kitten, but they have well-developed scent glands, so beware. They follow their mother and come running when she has located food. By the end of summer, they have learned all they can from their mother and are on their own.

Skunks are omnivorous, eating many things from sweet corn and other vegetables to young ground-nesting birds and eggs, small mammals and many kinds of insects. They root with their nose to dig up insects, and they also dig with their forefeet, leaving little pits in the soil. They are quite friendly little animals and were once kept as pets. This is now illegal, partly because they sometimes have rabies but mostly because they are wild animals that should be allowed to live their natural life. They are also never totally tame and, if frightened by someone strange, may forget their manners and spray. Skunks  taken as pets used to be de-scented, but it is never a good idea to do this kind of thing, for if it escapes, it has no defense and is almost always killed. I have always wondered, who, in their right mind would ever take on that job.

I have known two people who had pet skunks. One was a friend who lived in California. She had a pet skunk named Shalamar, who managed to get out one night when guests left a door open during a party. Her favorite food was avocados, and she apparently went off looking for an orchard. When her disappearance was noticed, all the guests set out to find her. One man, thinking he had found her head-first in a garbage can, yelled out, “I’ve found her” and grabbed her, only to discover it was not Shalamar but a fully scented wild skunk that let loose with both barrels. That broke up the party more efficiently than a visit from the police, and the whole neighborhood smelled for a week.

The second “pet” skunk was never de-scented but was a totally wild skunk that chose to live in an old woodchuck burrow beneath the outhouse at a friend’s summer cabin. She never bothered anyone who used the necessity room above, but that was because everyone knew she lived there and treated her with respect, and no one went out at night without a flashlight.