Pepé Le Pew, the French Striped Skunk was an “odor-able kitty” on a constant quest for love. He pursued not only skunks but an unfortunate black kitty with a white paint stripe down her back, using classic pick -up lines like “I am ze locksmith of love”, and “Is it possible to be too attractive”. In the cartoons, Pepé was very aggressive in his quest but in reality, Striped Skunks are rather timid and avoid interactions.
There is more to skunks than their unique appearance and smelly spray. Once you get to know skunks better, you may fall in love with them (at least Pepé hopes you do). Striped skunks are about 2 feet long including the tail and weigh 6-10 lbs. They have a short life span, living only 2-4 years in the wild. They are adaptable and thrive in different habitats as long as their needs for food, shelter and water are met. They generally pick a den within 1-2 miles of a water source. Natural dens can be made in tree cavities, hollowed logs, and brush piles. They may also choose to den under porches, decks, or outdoor buildings. This is where they get in trouble.
Skunks are omnivores, meaning that they eat both plant and animal matter. They love insects and grubs, but will eat small rodents, eggs, and fruits and berries. One way to tell if a grub is in your yard is to check your lawn for small cone-shaped holes. This is a sign that skunks have been digging for grubs. Getting rid of the grubs will encourage the skunks to move on.
Skunks are solitary and nocturnal. They are not true hibernators, but are less active in the colder months. During these times, they may give up the solitary life and gather in communal dens for warmth. A group of skunks is called a surfeit. This is the only time besides mating season when you will find adult skunks together. Skunks mate in the Spring and have litters of 1-7 kits late April through early June. The gestation period for skunks is 60-75 days. The young stay with mom another 6-8 weeks after that. So, if you have a pregnant skunk on your property, they will stay with you about 4 months all in. Disturbing the den of a pregnant skunk is not recommended until after the babies have left, and then she will leave on her own. If you have any concerns that there might be places on your property skunks could den, it would be best to clean up all brush and secure under buildings in the fall before they move in. Skunks can also walk into your garage. To get them out, just open the door at dusk and close it at night after they leave. Skunks have poor hearing and eyesight, and at times fall into window wells. They can usually leave on their own if you put a board in the well they can climb up and get out.
Skunks are known for spraying, and it really is their only defense. Its powerful smell is released through their anal glands, and is only released when under attack or defending their young. It is never the first thing they try. They will growl, spit, fluff to make themselves larger, and stamp their feet all prior to spraying. If these warnings are ignored, they will turn, lift their tail and spray. By 8 days old, skunks can spray. By one month they can spray enough to use it as an effective defense. A skunk’s spray has a range of 10 feet and it’s odor can be detected up to 2 miles. The spray is made of thiols which makes the spray so pungent. These components are highly flammable. Skunks prefer to intimidate and not spray because once a skunk sprays, there is a refractory period. It is then helpless for almost 10 days. If you come upon a skunk accidentally, stay still and be quiet. Because of their poor eyesight they rely on movement to find prey. If you just stay still and quiet they will usually just leave.
If you or your pet gets sprayed by a skunk, there is an effective solution to remove the smell:
1 Quart 3 percent hydrogen peroxide
¼ cup baking soda
1 tsp liquid dish soap
Wearing rubber gloves, wash with this solution. Do not get into eyes. Scrub deep and rinse well.
Aside from the smell of skunks, they can also be a public health concern. They are one of 4 species in our area to be considered primary carriers of the rabies virus, and are classified as a rabies vectored species. It is difficult to tell if an animal has rabies, and it can be hard to differentiate from Distemper. Because a skunk is out during the day, does not mean it is sick. It may be hungry and have young to feed. Some abnormal behaviors include: limb paralysis, circling, unprovoked aggression, staggering or uncharacteristic tameness. Never approach a skunk yourself, call your local animal control office or call Cape Wildlife Center at 508 362-0111. Skunks can also carry canine hepatitis, intestinal roundworm, and leptospirosis.
Aside from digging up your lawn for grubs, and making your pets smell bad, skunks provide us with free rodent removal from your home and yard and can eat poisonous snakes because they are unaffected by doses of venom. They are also immune to the sting of bees and wasps and will help to keep the wasp population low.
If you prefer to not have skunks on your property, please secure your house and yard in the fall prior to mating season. Please do not use poison to kill rats, because skunks also tend to eat these poisoned rodents and suffer a painful death. Do not leave food outside, always secure your trash, and do not leave bird seed around.
Skunks are a beautiful and unique animal with fascinating chemistry and behavior. So, especially in February and around Valentine’s Day, be like Pepé le Pew and “love ze odor-able pussycats” and keep them safe.
Caryn Ritchie is a Veterinary Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner at the Cape Wildlife Center and holds both a Massachusetts wildlife rehabilitator’s license and a federal permit to rehabilitate migratory birds.