Off North Road

A scent in the air

By Russell Hoxsie - August 10, 2006

Part I

As everyone knows since Columbus arrived in America and saw a skunk for the first time, this member of the weasel family is recognized by its black with white markings and characteristic stink. The chemical responsible is a sulfur compound and on the Vineyard from late spring through summer their scent is in the air. Litters, ranging from one to ten, average six, are usually born in April and May and when finished weaning are deserted by their mothers, according to local sage Walter Wlodycka. The young then are set loose upon us searching for food and their own future dens. They feed on mice and other rodents, insects, even black widow spiders and many insects and beetles harmful to man. They dig for slugs and worms to the horror of the greens keepers at your local golf club and make a mess of countless other lawns in the neighborhood. When household garbage is left within grasp they find their dessert and will return and return for more. Their worst enemies are the automobile and great horned owls. On the upside they are responsible for cleaning up carrion from our highways and neighborhoods and add to the nice balance of nature if we as humans would let them alone. Alas, their aroma.

One of my family's bits of lore from our grandmother was the story of my dad's adventurous walk to grammar school one spring morning when he chanced to see a young skunk scampering on ahead. Actually waddling is a better term for skunks' walks because of their short legs. Not content to let well enough alone (skunks rarely attack unless cornered or defending their young), Dad proceeded to poke a stick into the stone wall opening where the varmint hid. When the little fellow turned around, upped his rear into the air, made a U-turn with his body and sprayed his tormentor thoroughly from 15 feet quite accurately, Dad probably knew he was done for. Running home he was stopped in his tracks at the back door by Grandma. He cried to be let in but only after he removed every stitch of clothing and she had administered a head-to-toe scrubbing with brush and laundry soap and emptied his clothes into the nearby incinerator barrel. "I told you to leave those creatures alone," she must have said in frustration, knowing the odor would pervade the house for days despite her ablutions upon him.

Skunks like well-hidden and warm enclosures for their dens, burrowed in the ground with their long forefeet and sharp nails, often next to a foundation wall or into a crawl space, wood or brush pile. They can enter a swinging cat-door and find comfort in a closet or on an empty bed inside the house. In this case the owner best retire outside leaving doors open and wait for the critter to leave. A friend found his cellar invaded through a hatchway he had forgotten to close the night before. Ingeniously he layered fresh flour on the entrance stairs and waited until he was certain he found foot prints leading out of the cellar before he closed the door again. For a long time I believed the folk-lore that a wild skunk could spray you only once and that would be that. One day I walked Tasha, our large gangly black compound setter-Newfoundland hound, along a wonderfully shaded and well kept road into Mink Meadows Golf Course at West Chop. Ahead I saw a skunk out for his morning stroll but not in time to keep Tasha from dashing ahead and, nose to nose with skunk, take a good spray. Tasha retreated a bit, rubbed her nose in the dirt and attacked again. Again the skunk stamped his front feet on the ground, shuffled a bit, fluffed his fur and up-ended for another squirt. Tasha repeated her dance and so did the skunk, five or six more times. We washed the dog with tomato juice, vanilla, soap and water and vinegar and other things I've forgotten; we waited a couple of weeks before all remnant of smell disappeared. So much for the one-spray theory.

Our neighbor across the street in Vineyard Haven returned after a winter away to find his closed-up home reeking with skunk. Being an architect, he noted new cracks in the living room plaster over and around the fireplace and chimney area. Searching along the foundation he found a burrow smelling strongly of the same odor. By the time workmen had finished opening up the foundation to view, they found it had been undermined by an extensive skunk burrow and den. Twenty skunks were removed before the foundation could be repaired and the living room wall stopped from slipping into the crawl space below.

Skunks, as offensive as they may be to our noses, are not aggressive except when protecting their young or when they are surprised and cornered. I began to learn about their gentle side while watching a skunk day after day visit our garage in mid-Vineyard Haven. She would waddle up the driveway and take an entire tour through the interior of the garage. When our house-cat noticed, she accompanied the skunk on its rounds. Once in a while they would go nose to nose in a rather exploratory or even social fashion, then go their own ways without a sound or bit of ruffled fur. It is said that skunks have for so long traveled in neighborhoods with house-cats that they have accepted them as non-threatening fellow travelers. Tasha and other dogs like her, however, become so excitedly aggressive with skunks that the fat is in the fire, so to speak, from the word GO. There is another troubling exception to their gentle nature as described. Females are "induced ovulators." During the heat, they become very aggressive - almost savage - biting, chewing, bleeding and screaming before they can breed. When kept as pets they become dangerous to handle at these times and VERY MESSY. Males in the vicinity also become even more aggressive and irritable than the female.

This ends Part I of the article. Part II will explore the obtaining and keeping of skunks as pets. See The Times on August 24,. Fair Warning!
References: California Center for Wildlife and the Fund for Animals.
www.projectwildlife.org/living-skunks.htm.
"Wildlife Project," site by MIND GRIND; Skunk Stuff , Jane Bones-The Skunk Lady™,
9th Edition; www.project wildlife.org/living-skunks.htm