Off North Road

A scent in the air

By Russell Hoxsie - August 24, 2006

Part II

In the course of my googling for skunks, I meet up with Jane Bone's web publication, "Skunk Stuff - The Skunk Lady™, 9th Edition." It is rich with information and instructions about and for skunks as pets, from "New Arrival," to "Handling and Playing with Baby Skunks," and everything after and in between. She describes the four- to eight-week-old babies as "VERY SCARED." She says that most skunks found in pet stores are rejects from a fur farm and newly de-scented but not neutered or spayed. They require all the usual shots and de-worming that a kitten or puppy requires. She describes methods for washing, potty training, discipline, neutering, and so on and so on. She suggests keeping the youngster next to you inside your shirt while you work about the house to bond with the new arrival and diminish anxiety; on Potty Training she suggests letting the baby pick his own corner of a room. Avoid rough play, she cautions, else the animal will become aggressive, ill-tempered, and may bite; on neutering: it is ESSENTIAL; Reproductive "Heat" is an especially trying time when your docile pet turns irritable, almost savage, and screams, bleeds, and bites. You thought your female dog was a problem! On Spanking or Hitting: A BIG NO-NO! "Discipline with tone and volume of voice, never use a stick, fly swatter, or roll of paper because skunks never forgive nor do they ever forget."); On Sunshine: a skunk prefers afternoon sun to morning sun - sit with him outside and be sure he does not get too much); On Homing Instinct: they do not possess one - you will never find him if he runs away; he cannot find his way home).

I must admit to some skepticism reading Ms. Bone's article so I decide to talk directly with her. Instead I find a poignant notice on the web site, "The Skunk Lady"™. Rest in Peace, Friend." and in her place SkunkLady2. I risk using Bone's lifetime experience as a cautionary tale for anyone even tempted to look for this new experience in pets. However, my instinct to hear directly from the source proves a remarkable surprise. I phone Jane Bone's long-time friend and successor, Shelor Brumbeloe in Augusta Georgia, who must have shared most of her friend's unique attraction to skunks. She agrees to talk with me for nearly an hour. The hospitable and warm rich tones of her Southern voice encourage me to ask questions and more questions. I find myself smiling and laughing and interrupting a complicated story as I would a friend of longstanding. When I raise the subject of rabies, she says, "Now don't you get going crazy on me with that subject. Let me tell you something." (That's almost how she said it.) And we are off.

Shelor tells me that Jane had studied and raised skunks for 30 years. When her brother was murdered, his last words were, "Take care of my skunks." His two pets grew to millions around the world. "I took most of [her knowledge] with me when she died in 2005," she says.

"How did you learn so much?" I ask her. She replies easily with a list: "books, veterinarians, laboratories, World Rabies Council, Center for Disease Control (CDC) and lots more." The two women had grown up in the same town, "must have seen each other at the Masons and Shriners; we met in 1988 around the subject of skunks and I bought my first skunk [that year]." She admits it was an awful mistake and she screamed to her friend for help. Inexperience with these animals is the most common mistake new owners make and usually ends in disaster.

But, and this is a great big but, Shelor goes on about that first skunk without a pause, "This has been the most fantastic companion I ever had short of my husband, supremely intelligent, smarter than some adult humans I know; superiorly hard-headed, pound for pound the strongest animal in the world. I've seen my kit pull a full-sized blanket off my bed, drag it into the corridor, down the stairs and cram it into his carrier. They can be very hard to handle 'seven days to Sunday.' They're not so good around small children. That precious eight-ounce bundle of fur balls doesn't look like a puppy or a kitten to them so it must be a toy and they pick it up," [and that starts the trouble.]

Owners must be very cautious about bites and scratches. In Georgia, that means reporting to authorities and having the animal 'slaughtered' immediately and tested for rabies, no questions asked. Shelor is trying with friends to petition the state to change the law to allow some waiting time before sacrificing an immunized pet and removing the brain for rabies testing when there is no evidence the pet is sick (an infected skunk will become sick and die within eight days of acquiring the virus). All skunk pets are required to have rabies immunizations as kits and should be free of disease. However, Georgia does not recognize an effective rabies "shot" for skunks.

I return to the bane of my existence in skunks, their scent. "Does it ever leave them?" I ask Shelor. "Oh! I can put my face right down into their fur and smell nothing but their heat." She purports them to be as clean as or cleaner than cats, and trainable to a box. (She prefers newspapers in the box to litter because of the absent litter scatter through the house.) "They are magnificent problem-solvers. Mine can crawl under the cupboard, twist around to get into the lowest drawer, climb up in back to the next drawer above and so on until she can crawl onto the counter surface where the cookies are stored. They cannot jump (their rear ends are too heavy) but they can build bridges to almost anywhere and pile one thing on another to get up high."

When they are small, only three and to four inches tall, they should be kept penned up (as in a bath room) so they won't get lost in the big house. As adults, some skunks act protectively of their owners and home although Mrs. Brumbeloe never lets hers outside. "Their feet never touch the earth." I cannot help being reminded of a patient of mine years ago who lived in Chilmark and showed me photos she had taken on a patio outside her kitchen door of two raccoons and two skunks eating fraternally from pie tins as she watched by the doorway. She told me, "I invite them into the house occasionally and pat their heads as they pass me by!" And another friend attended a dinner party one night and before leaving for home went to the powder room. As she sat in front of the mirror she noticed the cloth curtain around the vanity table moved as if something was there. A tiny skunk emerged and loitered about. My friend left quickly. I suspect she forgot to powder her nose. "Why didn't you tell me you had a skunk in the house?" she angrily addressed her hostess. "I thought everyone knew about it," she replied. I guess most people would be aware when a friend keeps a pet skunk.

"How many skunks as pets have you ever had at one time?" I ask Shelor. "Eighteen," she replies with hardly a change of inflection. I know now I have been speaking with an experienced skunk pet-owner and I am grateful for a unique conversation but still not ready for a kit of my own.

References: skunksaspets.com/skunkstuff.htm; Skunk Stuff by Jane Bone; Project Wildlife, site by Mind Grind; SkunkLady2@aol.com.

To read Part I, click here.