Be careful when identifying skunks or you might get sprayed.
Be careful when dealing with spotted and striped skunks. They will spray you.
You’ve been snookered before. You’ve been taken, cheated, bamboozled, hoodwinked, swindled, defrauded and double-crossed — perhaps without even knowing it. But if you’ve ever been skunked, you remember!
Imagine the surprise of the first native North American — or even the unlucky Pilgrim — who saw a pretty, furry, black-and-white skunk toddling through the woods and thought it might make a good pet for the youngsters. Imagine being captivated by the too-cute demeanor and charming little waddle of the kitten-sized creature. Imagine suddenly, irrevocably and violently understanding that a cat is one thing, but a polecat is quite an-odor.
The Algonquians called the little guys seganku. The colonists called them squnck, which morphed into what we call them today. To science, however, the skunk is known as Mephitis mephitis — and since one “mephitis” means “noxious smell,” well, scientists really want us to know that skunks, whether spotted or striped, hognosed or hooded, have one big claim to fame: They definitely stink.
Otherwise sweet creatures found only in North America, skunks don’t have a lot of enemies other than the great horned owl (whoooo, go figure, finds them delicious). Skunks are known to be gentle, relatively quiet and curious, with a great big sense of self-confidence. Their hearing leaves a lot to be desired, their vision isn’t the greatest, and, strangely enough, their sense of smell isn’t so good. They can’t (in the case of the striped skunk) or don’t like to (in the case of the spotted skunk) climb, they can’t run very fast (up to 6 mph for short bursts), and they don’t much care for a leisurely swim.
All indications are, you see, that the skunk is a bashful, nice guy who loves the night life and doesn’t want any problems. He’s so nice, in fact, that, if approached, he’ll warn you that he’s really armed and dangerous. He’ll tell you clearly that he’s locked and loaded, and although he really doesn’t want to, he’s not afraid to use his weapon.
As soon as he turns around, hunches his back, raises his tail and takes aim, though … RUN!
Truth is, actually, that you probably can’t outrun the skunk’s weapon, a nasty, too-foul-for-words oil that he sprays from two glands, both about the size of small grapes, and each located on either side of the anus. Each spritz — and he’s capable of sending several of them in one session — starts with just a few drops of the oil that, once atomized, sticks like glue to fur, clothes, hair, furniture, rubber and, well, you get the picture.
The skunk can aim the sprays with uncanny accuracy; he can hit you with it at a distance of up to 12 feet, and even if you’re not directly hit, you won’t be able to escape the vile cloud that forms. Then, if you’re foolish enough to wait around to see what’s next, the skunk can do it again after a “reloading” period of about 30 minutes.
Not that you’d care after being doused, but skunk spray is, technically speaking, a musk made mostly of butyl mercaptan, a highly smelly sulfur compound that also is used in industrial applications. Up close, a burning dose of skunk spray will blind you, make you vomit, make you unconscious if you swallow a lot of it, and make you socially unacceptable for a good long while … and yet, if you could see it, you’d be impressed: The phosphorescent spray glows in the dark.
As for their personal lives, Daddy Skunk is a cad, and leaves his brood to fend for themselves around the time they’re born. Mama Skunk, however, is a dutiful mother who cuddles with her offspring, the number of which is usually four to six per litter. The little stinkers are born blind, deaf and almost hairless, but you can still see the black-and-white markings on their pink little bodies. Baby skunks, by the way, can’t spray for the first three weeks or so of their lives — although you might not want to test that.
But before you call “foul,” you need to know that skunks are not all bad.
Medically deodorized skunks reportedly are wonderful pets, since they’re inquisitive, intelligent and can learn their own names — although skunks can get rabies, and there is no government-sanctioned vaccine for them.
Skunks are great for the garden, since they eat grubs and mice, as well as pesty bugs like grasshoppers, potato beetles and cutworms. They also feed on toads, grasses and weeds. Skunk fur is used — sparingly, since the smell lingers — as a fashion accessory. Native Americans used skunk fat as a lubricant and as rubbing oil. And if you’re desperate for food, are so inclined and are feeling particularly brave, skunk meat is said to be tender and sweet.
So no matter what you call him — Flower, Pepe Le Pew, Fifi La Fume, or Get Out of Here You Varmint — now you know about skunks … because not knowing would just plain stink.
Terri Schlichenmeyer, book reviewer and trivia collector, lives in Wisconsin with her two dogs and more than 11,000 books.
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