(This column was first published in the September 8, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)
An excellent article about skunks by Jeff Hull in the current Audubon Magazine turned my thoughts to these much-maligned little mammals.
I know of few people who want them around. They dig up our lawns, scratch around under our porches, and smell up our neighborhoods. Far more unpleasant, they spray our dogs and, of course, our "best friends" immediately return home to share their perfume with us.
Yes, they are a problem and I think an increasing one in our suburbs and cities. As coyotes take over the countryside, many small mammals like skunks, foxes, raccoons, muskrats and woodchucks seem to be retreating into urban areas. Apparently we humans, much of the time closed up in our own dens, are a lesser evil to those wily predators. (I note here that the automatic garage door has made us even more isolated from the outdoor world.)
Something should be said in defense of skunks, however. Those holes they dig in our turf are usually for grubs and those of us who care for our lawns should take those holes as a signal to defend ourselves against Japanese, June or chafer beetles.
It is also very difficult to make the case that skunks are belligerent animals. They are, in fact, remarkably docile and they use their spray only in extremis, when they are seriously threatened. Even then, they are more apt to face their enemy, stomp their tiny feet, chatter their teeth, arch their tail and bristle their fur.
Admittedly, when they are so provoked that they twist around and spray, you had better not be close. They can force jets of butyl mercaptan from their two anal glands as far as 16 feet. That chemical is not only strong smelling, it can also cause nausea and even temporary blindness, but that defense is rarely used against humans except in a final, usually incomplete release when they are run over on the highway.
When years ago I worked at a summer camp on Keuka Lake, we were almost surrounded by skunks. I'm sure they were especially attracted to the litter of our city campers. Knowing how tame they were, one evening we set out after one with a flashlight and a big cardboard box. We simply dropped the box over the skunk and worked the flaps around to enclose it. Even when we (carefully, of course) turned the box over, the skunk didn't spray. We carefully covered the box with party wrapping paper and placed it at the camp head table the next noon.
Fortunately for the camp director to whom our accompanying card was addressed, he detected scratching sounds when he began to open his present and the box was carefully opened outside. The affronted skunk simply marched off, its posture indicating how deeply offended it felt.
At that same Camp Cory the nature counselor displayed his own pet skunk, which was a special favorite of the younger children. Some of them were allowed to feed it -- it ate virtually anything -- and occasionally to cuddle it in their arms. At the end of the season, that counselor told me he had been a bit nervous that summer. He admitted that he had misinformed the camp director when he told him that the skunk had been de-scented.
Because of skunks' widely-recognized defense, few predators will attack them unless they are starving. A major exception, however, is the great horned owl. Anyone who has climbed to horned owl nests will tell you that they smell terrible. The owls have less problem than we do with that awful stink.-- Gerry Rising