Dr. Jack Scanlon - June 2010

 

Mephitis Madness
(Close encounters of the stinky kind)
by
John M. Scanlon, M.D.

 

My first encounter with the American striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) took place one chilly spring evening, years ago in suburban Boston. As I was driving alone late one night, a skunk suddenly appeared in my headlights. It disappeared from view before I could react. I never felt a thump. For just an instant, I thought I had missed hitting the creature. Wrong! The fatally struck skunk managed one terminal scent volley into the heating system’s air intake. A stench of gut-wrenching foulness filled the car and watered my eyes. It took three trips to a car wash and six of those dangling aromatic pine trees to make the 1961 Chevrolet BelAire tolerable. I put my clothes in a plastic bag and trashed them.
Fast forward many years. Skunks had managed to find suitable living quarters in the crawl space under our farm off the Little Choptank River. From time to time I would see one roaming the yard, usually very early in the morning.
Our dogs mostly avoided their general housing area. Good canine intuition, I guess. Skunks, dogs and people lived in harmony, or at least detente.
One evening, however, a skunk’s pungent signature aroma filled the driveway air. Clearly some wild creature had displeased Mr. Mephitis to a point of irate anal gland discharge. Since we would have guests arriving the next day, I decided to do some critter control.
A large Havahart trap was baited with sardines and placed in a suitable location. My plan was to capture, then relocate the skunk. It would be turned loose far, far away. I had not worked out the specific details of this plan, however.
Early the next morning the trap had been sprung. Beady eyes, appearing quite intelligent, fixed on me as I approached the trap. It was obvious that the large cage allowed its very grumpy inhabitant ample room to do its thing. Having dealt with only one skunk before in my life (see above), and unsatisfactorily at that, it became necessary to rethink the relocation plan.
Ruthlessly, I decided to drown the creature. Using another similar trap as template, I calculated that the inverted wire cage would fit exactly inside a 35-gallon trash can. A suitable barrel was placed close (and carefully) beside the cage and filled to the top with water using the garden hose.
The skunk seemed wary but not particularly threatened while materials for its demise were assembled. The new plan required me to nimbly pick up, then deposit the container into the water-filled receptacle before the polecat could let loose a stench bomb.
My basic error was not appreciating that this type of trap readily opens when tipped vertically. Immediately upon submersion, the enraged skunk came bubbling to the surface. Then it performed a rapid 360° gavotte around the top of the trash can.
The vividly striped animal’s body was bent into a “C” shape. This enabled the skunk to spew foul vapors in a steady stream over all compass points at considerable distance from the can. This skunk was very nimble as it jumped from the rim of the trashcan and scooted under the crawl space in stench-filled freedom.
Air freshener, Airwick, aromatic candles and several large cans of tomato juice did little to change the sickening atmosphere around our garage. Indeed, when our guests arrived a few hours later, their first comment was, “What’s that terrible smell?”
I have subsequently learned (by bitter experience) that an effective odor removal solution can be made using 3% hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and liquid soap (1 quart, ½ cup, 1 teaspoon respectively). The TV show Mythbusters compared this mixture against both vinegar and tomato juice. The H2O2 concoction worked best to neutralize skunk stink.
Obviously, this mixture can bleach clothing, dog fur or human hair, so be careful!
By the way, do not try to store the cleansing potion. It will explode if placed in a closed container and subject to summer heat (more bitter experience).
Skunks are neat little animals. They are very adaptable and handily live in urban or suburban locations. The five American species are widespread in distribution. Some type of skunk can be found in each of the 48 contiguous states. No one is very far away from one Mepitidae or another.
Skunks are omnivores. They will eat fruits, vegetables, insects, even small animals like mice or voles. Skunks are relatively slow predators. They ambush, rather than stalk their prey. They readily eat eggs of ground-nesting birds, which can be a problem if you like to have baby quail, turkeys, ducks, geese or whippoorwills around. They will also eat carrion or household garbage, so they associate humans with food.
Skunks breed in the fall but have delayed uterine implantation. Birth occurs in May or early June. They have litters ranging from four to ten kits. The young stay in the nest for about six weeks and then hunt with Mom over the next few months.
Some people keep “fixed” skunks as pets. If this is your desire, I suggest getting them a rabies shot every few years. Check with your vet about other issues such as distemper.
Skunks have two very unpleasant attributes. One, of course, is the vaunted, very effective self-defense mechanism, their nasty spray. The skunk’s vivid black and white coat pattern argues that they want to advertise their presence to predators rather than be hidden. Cocky devils must believe that all living things have the black and white fright!
Not much eats skunks on a regular basis except large owls and very hungry foxes or coyotes.
Skunks have two scent glands at the base of their tails, each with an external, voluntarily controlled nipple wielded with outstanding accuracy. These glands have surrounding muscle tissue so the skunk can precisely direct its stink-loaded liquor at distances exceeding 12 feet. Volatile chemicals in this spray (low molecular weight thiols) can be detected in concentrations as low as 4-6 parts per billion.
The striped skunk curls its body to spray so the tail and head point in the same direction. It hits what it sees. This is exactly the position I remember seeing when my angry trashcan buddy let fly.
If you observe a skunk in this posture, try to promptly put at least 12 to 15 feet of distance between you and that striped warrior! A direct hit to the eyes can temporarily blind. A direct body shot may render your clothing unfit to ever wear again.
The second, more serious problem is that they can carry rabies. Indeed, skunks are second only to raccoons in rabies infection frequency. They are a well-recognized public health threat to transmit this fatal viral disease. Skunks are generally nocturnal mammals. If you come across one in the daytime, it could well be rabid. Call local animal control if you see one wandering about, especially if it is acting peculiarly (twirling, waltzing, snapping, uncoordinated movements).
Any skunk that doesn’t seem afraid of humans or dogs, or is acting aggressively, should be considered rabid. Again, call animal control or Natural Resources personnel right away. And, if you need to rid your home or property of the dreaded striped sprayer, call a professional exterminator before it drives you to Mephitis madness!