Living With Skunks

It was enough to strike terror in my heart. There were my little kids, playing in the neighbor’s yard. Innocent enough, I suppose, until one of them came running back to get me and show me what they were playing with. Four baby skunks!  Like in the movie, The Exorcist, my head spun a complete 360 degree circle. My eyes scanned the edges of the bushes like twin periscopes looking for a black and white torpedo streaking our way, ready to gas us and then gnaw our legs off while we choked.

There are few animals, the mere presence of which, humans really don’t tolerate very well. Usually it is because we fear them. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, spiders, and skunks all come to mind. Inoffensive creatures in their own right, but they do have the ability to make us miserable should we trespass against them.

The striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis, is one of four skunks native to the United States, including one other one that my field guide indicates also inhabits Idaho. However, I have never seen a spotted skunk, dead or alive, in eastern Idaho. The striped skunk, though, is common throughout the United States, southern Canada and northern Mexico.

If there ever was a mammal that did not need a description, it is likely the striped skunk. Who can’t close their eyes and easily visualize the following: a body roughly the size of a house cat closely followed by a bushy tail about 7-10 inches long. Color, no—black and white. The body is black and a white stripe begins on the forehead and runs to the tail. About the front shoulders, the stripe splits into two parallel lines. The pattern is highly variable, though.

It isn’t their looks that make skunks scary. Skunks stink. More, they can readily defend themselves by transferring that potent stink to any creature foolish enough to aggravate them. The transfer occurs when the skunk aims head and rear at the transgressor, raises its tail, arches its back, and fires two streams of musk from glands just inside the anus. They are reported to be accurate to 10 feet but I am confident that a near miss would still send me gagging. And don’t be fooled, if they miss, there is still enough juice for five to six more tries.

True omnivores, skunks feed on just about anything, including insects, vegetation, eggs, small birds and mammals and carrion. Occasionally they cause a problem in chicken coops but most often their eating habits are beneficial to man.

Skunks are mainly nocturnal and here their black coat serves them well. The contrasting white stripe (anti-camouflage) also serves a purpose as it lets would be predators know with what they will be tangling. Predators including foxes and coyotes may occasionally eat a skunk but great horned owls that can swoop in on silent wings are by far the most effective predators.

Skunks are habitat generalists and can be found just about anywhere, but are generally found within several miles of water. Since they are mostly nocturnal, you are most likely see them after dark, preferably in your headlights and preferably before they go thunk under your tires.

I don’t recommend getting up close and personal with a skunk like my kids did. Not only do they smell terrible, (I can always tell when one has passed through my yard) they can make you smell terrible. Worse, they can bite you and skunks are one of the leading hosts for rabies. Admire and fear them from a distance. (Excerpted from the book, The Best of Nature by Terry R. Thomas).

If you mention urban wildlife conflict to a wildlife biologist, the first thing that will likely come to mind is a skunk. Although raccoons, squirrels, mice, rats, coyotes, deer and even moose frequent urban communities, it is the skunk that reigns as the species most likely to cause alarm and concern.

Living with skunks pretty much means keeping skunks and people separate. There isn’t likely to be a detente scenario because both species pretty much have a “Don’t Tread on Me” type attitude and can back it up. So, the most important thing you can do is skunk proof your property as much as possible by removing subsidies.

 In business, subsidies are a form of financial support, or underwriting, to promote an economic policy. In the wildlife world, biologists refer to subsidies as anything that gives an animal an advantage that allows it to live or even thrive where it normally wouldn’t be able to survive or do something it might not normally be successful at. For instance, a house cat well fed at home, survival doesn’t hang in the balance when it hunts. It can hunt for fun, hone its skills and take meals from a bowl. This makes them very effective as predators, responsible for millions of bird and other wildlife deaths each year. They are referred to as subsidized predators.

For a skunk, subsidies would include dog or cat food of course, but also include any secure den site that humans might inadvertently create. Remove these subsidies and you have gone a long way toward an armistice with skunks.

Skunk Proofing

 Skunks seek out dark holes for den sites and reducing den sites on a property will slim down the chances of a skunk taking a liking to your place. Get started by:

·         Covering all possible entry points into crawl spaces with boards or chicken wire.

·         Removing rock and brush piles, old culverts and other pipe and anything else that might create an attractive den site.

·         Keeping outbuilding and garage doors tightly closed and check foundations for potential access points.  It doesn’t take much of a hole or crack to allow access to a skunk.

·         Bringing pet food into the house at night.

 So, that is all great, you say, but I have a skunk under my house now. What can I do to get it out without getting sprayed and without having to move?

Skunks are like other animals, they need to eat. That makes them vulnerable to trapping in one fashion or another. The simplest and most humane trap is a live trap such as a Sherman or Tomahawk trap. One with solid (as opposed to mesh) walls is superior but a mesh trap will do so long as the trapped skunk cannot raise its tail to spray.

The wire trap above works well, but the solid-walled trap is better for skunks. 

That seems like simple enough advice, but these traps are expensive and if you only need one once, it may not be worth the investment. However, at least in Idaho, Fish and Game offices have traps you can borrow. You will have to put up a cash deposit, but it is 100% refundable with return of the trap.

Trapping a skunk usually isn’t that difficult. Tuna fish makes a fine bait and once the trap is baited and set where the skunk is likely to travel, just sit back and wait.

Ok, now you have an angry skunk securely trapped in a live trap. Now what? If it is a mesh trap, approach from the skunk’s head (if the trap is big enough for the skunk to turn around in, you might have a problem) and throw a tarp or other cover over the trap. Now you can pick the trap up.  Be careful not to allow fingers or other body parts to get within range of the skunk’s teeth—i.e. anything that pokes through the mesh AT ALL is going to feel the full wrath of that agitated skunk.

So, the skunk is trapped, covered and you have the trap in your hands. Now what?  Well, there is the little itsy bitsy problem of getting the skunk out of the trap. While this can be done with little risk, a bit of preparation can help.  A wire fastened to the trap door will give you a little distance from the skunk when you release it. Also, if you open the door over water and let the skunk slide into the water, by the time it gets out and shakes off, you can be safely back in your car.

There is another alternative. Frankly, there is no shortage of skunks. If you don’t have a convenient place to release the skunk alive, a humane way to euthanize it is to drop the trapped skunk, trap and all, into a trash can full of water and walk away for five minutes.

 If you are not opposed to killing the skunk, there is a drown set that works well. All you need is that big trash can, this time half full of water, a narrow (3-4 inch) 5-6 foot long board and some bait such as tuna or cat food. Place the board so that it goes up at an angle onto the trash can and so that the high end of the board hangs over the water in the can. Place a bait trail up the board and put more bait at the very end of the board.  When the skunk comes up the board eating the bait, it will eventually reach the top and will not be able to turn around. In so trying, it will fall into the water and eventually drown.  A little sad, but effective. It might also work as a live trap if you leave out the water, but I won’t guarantee it. Incidentally, this same technique works with mice, only you would substitute an open toilet for the trash can. You don’t even need the bait in most instances.

The board trick also works well to get skunks out of a window well or other deep place they might get stuck in. You probably won’t even need to bait it. Just use a long board so you can get as shallow an angle as possible.

If a momma skunk manages to have a litter of kits under your house, you have a bigger problem. The first thing is to catch the momma so she doesn’t come charging in when you mess with her kids. If the babies are old enough, you can try to entice them out with some bait. If they are too young for that, you may have to go and get them. Once you have the family back together (don’t try to put the babies in mom’s cage, keep them separate) take them to your pre-determined release site and let them all go at the same time. Mom should be pretty busy with the kids so your escape should be painless.

 

What to do if you are sprayed by a skunk:

 

If you do get sprayed by a skunk, be prepared for some discomfort.  The smell is nauseating and can cause nasal passages to swell and eyes to water. A direct hit into the eyes can cause a temporary blinding sensation but it is not permanent.

 

The following recipe (developed by a chemist) is effective in removing skunk odor from humans and pets:

 

In an OPEN container, combine 1 quart fresh hydrogen peroxide, 0.25 cup of baking soda, and 1 or 2 teaspoons of liquid dish soap or laundry detergent. Apply liberally. Repeat if necessary. DON’T try to store any extra as the hydrogen peroxide and baking soda make a potent mix (hence the OPEN container).

 

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