The scene is a fruit stand in Paris, a wet sidewalk reflects the hard mineral blue of the morning sky. Streets are all but deserted. As the camera pans in closer, Penelope the cat comes into view; around the corner scampers a shiny black skunk. The proprietor is clearly agitated:
Cat/Penelope: Le mew? Le purrrrrrr.
Proprietor: A-a-ahhh. Le pussy ferocious! Remove zot skunk! Zot cat-pole from ze premises!! Avec !!
Cat/Penelope: (Smells skunk) Sniff, sniff, sniff-sniff, sniff-sniff.
Pepé: Quel est ? *notices cat* Ahh… le belle femme skunk fatale… *clicks tongue twice*
This sequence introduces the amorous Pepe Le Pew, a French striped skunk made famous by Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies. As spring unfolds, the hearts and minds of all skunks turn to thoughts of love. Still, just as in cartoons, nobody can ruin a party like a skunk.
As animals go, it’s hard to find a gentler creature than a skunk (family Mephitidae, AKA Polecat). Non-aggressive and easygoing, skunks do resemble furry little bundles of naiveté. Like Mr. Magoo, they don’t see very well and stubby little legs cause them to shuffle awkwardly when they walk. That said, According to the Texas Department of Health, skunks are the primary carriers of rabies in Texas and account for 73 percent of the reported cases. Be especially wary of “friendly” skunks, since one of the characteristics of rabies in wildlife is a loss of fear of humans.
One of the species’ most resolute supporters is Laura Jackson, a wildlife relocation specialist in Bastrop County. Laura says (with sincerity), “Skunks are precious, gentle creatures. You can handle them without getting bitten—very passive.” According to Laura, you just throw a cover over the trap so they can’t see you when you walk up on them, then hand feed them through the trap. “I’ve rarely been sprayed,” she says (As an aside: Don’t know about you guys—I would never “handle” them and “rarely” is too often for me!).
It is, of course, the spray that gives this cute quadruped a fearsome reputation. The smell is so vile and repugnant it has the power to reorder anyone’s priorities. The odor-bearing fluid, or musk, is amber in color, oily, and only slightly volatile. Which means it goes away “on its own”—VERY slowly. Young skunks are able to spray by the time they are seven weeks old. It’s not just the awful smell. The golden-yellow sulphide fluid also burns and stings when it touches skin. A direct hit in the face causes painful and severe inflammation of the eyes, nose, and mouth. Choking, coughing and some degree of nausea usually follow . . . a day guaranteed to live in your memory for a long, long time.
Skunk scent comes from anal glands located inside the rectum at the base of the tail. Other animals also have anal scent glands, but nothing like the degree of
specialization found in skunks. Those of you who’ve ever milked a cow and squirted a barnyard cat from a distance understand how a skunk sprays.
Each of the two scent glands has a nipple associated with it and skunks can hit the bullseye dead center six feet away with highly coordinated muscle control. Total range is more like ten feet, but, as with hand grenades, close is usually good enough. When opposing their attacker, skunks always go for the face; however, the south end of a northbound skunk is no better. When being chased by a predator they can’t see, skunks can emit a sort of James Bond-like atomized cloud the pursuer must run through.
Most wild predators let skunks be. By far, the most successful skunk predator is the nocturnal and silent great horned owl. Under the cover of darkness and striking from above it’s all over before the skunk even knows what happened. Most other animals looking for a quick meal may pounce on a docile nearsighted skunk—but they usually only do it once. Skunks have been known to turn out mountain lions and bears, the largest predators in North America.
These days, it’s somewhat difficult to find a human who has been sprayed by a skunk, but it’s not hard to find a dog that has. Most dogs are hard-wired to attack skunks—they’re also slow to learn from experience. Have you ever owned dog that came home after a hard day’s night totally skunked out? As a youngster on the farm, our family owned a fearless black dog that came home one morning smelling so funky we all reacted immediately. Everyone expected to find a live skunk in the yard. It was just Snooks, wretched, disheveled and reeking of skunk musk.
How do you get rid of the putrid smell? Snooks was not allowed near the house for some weeks. Common remedies are mostly Voo-Doo hocus pocus or absurdly impractical. Take for example the highly touted hydrogen peroxide/baking soda/dishwashing liquid balm: it cannot be made in advance or kept in a bottle for fear of an explosion and you need to wear rubber gloves when applying it. The famed “tomato juice” bath has had some success (in conjunction with vinegar) in temporarily covering up the stench but does nothing to neutralize the musk molecules in the long term. In the end, the afflicted party needs to be quarantined, then apply whatever folk remedy floats your boat and wait—for however long it takes.
There are five species of skunk in Texas. If you meet a skunk here, it will most likely be the striped skunk—the most prolific variety in North America, or, it might be the somewhat less populous spotted skunk whose range covers most of the U.S. and Mexico. The spotted skunk is a master mouser, although most would prefer mice to a skunk in the barn. As the names imply, one has white stripes, the other has white spots. The Big Bend area is home to the relatively rare hooded skunk (considered a Mexican species), while the hog-nosed skunk (two varieties in Texas) hangs out in the mountains of the Trans-Pecos, the Edwards Plateau or the Big Thicket area of east Texas. The hog-nosed skunk is known for his hog-like habit of rooting around in the ground for food.
These species are quite different. Hog-nosed skunks have powerfully built upper bodies and are capable diggers with well-developed front claws. Spotted skunks are the
most agile of the bunch and are able to climb up and down trees like a cat. This variety also is known to do a hand-stand before spraying his adversary with an overhead swish of the tail. The hooded skunk looks much like the more common striped skunk but with longer fur and a ruff of hair (the hood) on the upper neck. The striped skunk spends his time on the ground and is more clumsy than the other varieties found in Texas
Skunks are nocturnal critters and will eat almost anything. Their usual diet includes fruit, insects, worms, eggs, small mammals—even fish. They reportedly attack beehives and love to eat bees and wasps. One source I found said they are immune to venomous snakes and have been known to eat rattlesnakes (although I couldn’t corroborate that). Regardless, these are some strong dietary preferences.
A baby skunk is known as a kit and a group of skunks is called a surfeit. Mommy skunk usually produces anywhere from two to ten young each year. Kits are born blind; eyes open around three weeks. Youngsters are weaned from mother’s milk at two months and sent away to fend for themselves at that tender age. By the time they reach ten to twelve months, skunks are ready to raise their own families. Time waits for no one, as life expectancy in the ‘hood is only five to six years.
Skunks are basically squatters: tree hollows, hollowed out logs, brush piles, abandoned animal burrows and, for that unfortunate few, underneath front porches. If no other good choices present themselves, skunks will dig their own burrows underground. They rarely range more than two miles from their water source. For the most part, skunks are solitary, living and foraging alone. They tend to be inactive during winter, when many gather in communal dens for warmth. They do not hibernate.
Of course, the big fear is surprising a skunk in the wild and getting sprayed. The good news is, spraying is the last defense for most skunks. They may gnash their teeth, growl, spit, fluff their fur, stamp the ground or shake their tail, all in an effort to save their precious musk. You see, a fully loaded skunk is only good for five or six shots and it takes a day or so to completely reload. There is no “shooting blanks.” A skunk without spray is every hungry bobcat’s dream. A fully loaded surfeit of skunks is everyone’s worst nightmare!