The Sweetness of Skunks
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The Sweetness of Skunks
by Constance Young
From (Spring 2004) issue of AboutTown guide
Okay, so, like me, your dog has been "skunked." Or perhaps you have had to deal with a dying or sick skunk on your property (which means calling the animal control officer or police because skunks can carry rabies). Still, I insist that skunks are sweet. By learning a little about their personality and anatomy you can avoid skunk-related problems. You might also learn to enjoy and appreciate these appealing creatures.
Anyone who has come close and personal to a skunk will tell you that skunks are generally docile and sweet. Laura Simon, Urban Wildlife Director of the Fund for Animals says, "Skunks are one of the most misunderstood creatures. They are perceived as being harmful when they are really benign and gentle." She adds that skunks rarely spray people and that by taking some precautions a person can avoid being sprayed during human/skunk encounters. Simon has rescued skunks from all kinds of situations (more about that later) and she says that she is rarely sprayed. Hyde Park wildlife rehabilitator Val Nassetta claims, "Any human who gets sprayed by a skunk deserves it. Skunks don't just spray when they see a human—they usually stomp on the ground with their paws and make warning sounds two or three times before spraying. " Nassetta has a special license to deal with "rabies vector animals"—that is, wild animals that can carry rabies, such as skunks, raccoons and bats.
More sweet news about skunks: According to Erica Mills of Aspen Skunk Rabies Research, Inc., skunks are "nature's sanitation engineers." They are an important part of our ecosystem and have a hearty appetite for grubs, insects, mice and baby rats. They also rid the environment of cockroaches, gophers, moles, "road kill," and even poisonous animals such as rattlesnakes and black widow spiders. If you have an insect or rodent problem, a skunk in residence might be just the ticket.
First, Know the Facts
"Know your adversary" is an accepted maxim. If we apply this aphorism to skunks, it is important to understand that skunks are exceedingly nearsighted. Because of their terrible eyesight, skunks often confuse quick and loud movements with those of a predator. Therefore if you move slowly and talk softly during skunk encounters you will usually avoid being sprayed. Should you and a skunk come face to face, the skunk will usually warn you before spraying. Skunks run directly toward a threat, stop (sometimes within inches), then stomp and hiss or squeal. They can make sounds like a squealing pig, grunt, whine, screech and even chirp like a bird. Skunks can only run at a rate of about ten miles an hour, which explains why so many are killed by cars. Drivers expect them to move away, just as other wild animals do—but instead a skunk will stand still, getting ready to spray.
Another skunk myth is that skunks only come out at night, and therefore skunks seen during the day must have rabies. Not true. Wild skunks will usually come out in the evening and early morning hours, resting at night and sleeping during the day. However, in the winter and early spring, when they have young, they may be hungry and will forage for food at almost any time of day. Skunks do not hibernate in winter. The time to worry is if you see an adult skunk who appears to be paralyzed or who exhibits odd behavior, such as circling, screeching, self-mutilation, unprovoked aggression, or uncharacteristic tameness. Call your local animal control officer or police department for assistance.
If Your Dog Is Sprayed
Skunks do not usually spray cats, possibly because cats' movements are slow, not bold. In addition, Nassetta claims that dogs will run and grab the skunk from behind, which cats do not do. Should your dog get skunked, common home remedies such as tomato juice usually do not work, claims The Fund for Animals. (Wildlife Fact Sheet #6). The Fund recommends its Magical Skunk Deodorizer to use on dogs, as well as on your clothes and skin. (See below.) To remove skunk smell from your house, the Fund for Animals recommends Odors Away, which can be purchased at most hardware stores.
Other remedies that were suggested to me by friends and acquaintances who have been "skunked" include burning vanilla and citrus candles and incense to get rid of skunk smells in the house, or washing dogs with a solution of vinegar and dish liquid.
Other Common Problems
Most other problems you might encounter also stem from skunks' poor eyesight, as well as their short front limbs that are not suitable for climbing but are good for digging. Wildlife rehabilitators such as Simon and Nassetta claim that skunks trapped in window wells or garages are frequent problems. Skunks also often get their heads stuck in Yoplait yogurt containers, which are designed with a particularly narrow opening. Nassetta recently rescued a skunk whose head was stuck in a broken mayonnaise jar. The animal had to be taken to a vet to have it dislodged. Simon rescued a skunk whose head was stuck in the drain opening of a dumpster. To release the skunk she covered the animal with olive oil and had to enlist the entire fire rescue squad, who together used their "jaws of life" equipment. Here is what the Fund for Animals recommends if you are faced with certain common skunk problems:
Skunks caught in the window well. Skunks are poor climbers. If the window well is less than two feet in depth, angle a piece of wood to serve as a plank. (Remember, do everything in slow motion.) For traction, tack a towel or chicken wire to the board. If the window well is deep, place smelly cheese or canned cat food in the far corner of an animal carrier (or plastic rectangular garbage can tipped on its side) and slowly lower it into the window well. The food should entice the skunk to walk inside; then raise the can or box to the ground, elevator style, keeping your hands on the outside of the container. If you continue to move slowly the skunk will not spray and will amble out.
Getting skunks out of the garage. A skunk might get into your garage or shed if the door is left open. To evict the animal, leave the garage door open before dusk and sprinkle an eight-inch band of flour under it so you can watch for a track of exiting footprints. Close the door when you know the skunk is gone.
To stop skunks from digging in the lawn. Skunks might dig for grubs after heavy rain or over-watering because grubs come close to the surface of the soil when it is wet. Use the skunk deterrent (in the sidebar on the preceding page) to keep skunks from digging.
To evict skunks from under a shed or deck. Skunks sometimes raise their young in cavities such as those under decks. Since skunks are nomadic by nature, they will usually leave when the young are old enough. The simplest solution is to wait for the skunks to leave on their own, then seal off their entry hole with hardware cloth. The Fund for Animals does not recommend trapping because starving young are likely to be left behind. Spraying a repellent around the area, or poking some ammonia-sprinkled rags underneath (careful not to poke the skunks), might encourage them to leave.
If you need to pick up a skunk, cover the animal with a towel or blanket. "Slow and easy; nothing quick or fast," says Nassetta.
If after reading these suggestions you still don't know what to do, or for answers to other skunk problems, call Fund for Animals' Urban Wildlife Hotline at 203-389-4411 or go to www.fundforanimals.org or call Val Nassetta in Hyde Park at 845-229-5626 or Elise Able of Foxwood firstname.lastname@example.org
The Fund for Animals can help with other skunk problems, such as how to remove a skunk which got into your house through a cat door; how to get a skunk out of your pool; and how to rescue or help injured or orphaned skunks.
Skunks as Pets
This is a moot question in New York State because it is illegal in New York to house skunks—even those bred outside of the wild. There are some people in other states who keep skunks as pets, but Nassetta claims that although they are sweet, skunks make bad pets. "They are nocturnal, so you have to keep waking them up when feeding time comes around. They also become overweight when kept as pets. They don't get enough exercise," she adds, "And over the long-term, cat food is not good for them. Their preferred diet is insects and grubs." To see some pretty pictures of the pets you cannot have, go to www.SkunkHaven.net .
Magical Skunk Deodorizer
Mix the following ingredients:
• 1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide
• 1/4 cup baking soda
• 1 teaspoon liquid dish or laundry soap
Dip a wash rag in the solution and rub down the dog. Then rinse. Warning: the hydrogen peroxide may give a dark-furred animal rust-colored highlights, which will go away.
Some Skunk Deterrents
(from the Fund for Animals "Wildlife Fact Sheet, #6)
Castor Oil Formula: Mix together 1cup castor oil and 1 cup liquid soap. Then add the mixture to 1 gallon of water in a spray can. Spray around area where skunks may have their den.
Hot Pepper Repellent: Ingredients: 1 chopped yellow onion; 1 chopped Jalapeno pepper; 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper. Boil ingredients for 20 minutes in 2 quarts of water. Let cool, then strain mixture through cheesecloth. Apply with spray bottle around the skunk hole (denning area). Do not spray into the hole or the skunk may reciprocate. Reapply after 3-5 days.
Cayenne pepper: Sprinkle around denning area.
Finally—this is a necessary final step: After completing one of the above steps, create an L-shaped barrier by covering the entry hole with hardware cloth and sinking it 4 to 6 inches into the ground. Then bend it at a 90-degree angle, away from the deck for 8-12 inches to create a false bottom so the skunk cannot dig under the barrier. Check the next day for signs of digging from the inside to ensure that no skunk was sealed inside. The Fund for Animals recommends that you not use mothballs as a deterrent because they are toxic and do not work.
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