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Wildlife Wonders

Today is Striped Skunk Day!

Vick’s VapoRub commonly rubbed on your chest if you had a cold and your body heat would release the soothing, medicated methanol vapors.  Back in 1920, Henry “Hank” Blumer, a farmer from Wisconsin, made skunk grease that would be rubbed on a person’s chest if they suffered from respiratory problems. People also drank skunk oil to induce vomiting.  Although difficult to trace the origin of this remedy, it was believed to have been passed down from Native Americans. Vick’s VapoRub – yes…skunk grease I don’t think so!  (Side note:  Obviously Mr. Blumer was unaware of VapoRub according to “When the Spanish flu hit the U.S. from 1918 to 1919, Vick’s VapoRub sales skyrocketed from $900,000 to $2.9 million in just one year.  Sales increased so dramatically that the Vick’s plant operated day and night to keep up with the orders.”  Sound familiar?)

Just about everyone can recognize a skunk, if not by appearance in the wild perhaps by watching Looney Tunes – Pepe Le Pew, or definitely by their smell.   Skunks are given a bad rap because of their smell, but skunks don’t spray the intruder right away, they give them plenty of warning and time to back off.  They will face their opponent, arch their back, flash their black and white tail, stomp their front feet and even sometimes do a handstand.  Only when all else fails, will they bend their hindquarters around, while still facing the would-be attacker, and spray.  Watch out! 

All carnivores have anal scent glands, but not all stink.  The skunk’s Latin name, Mephitis mephitis means “bad odor”. The skunk’s scent glands are located inside the rectum at the base of the tail. Each of the two scent glands has a nipple so the skunks can aim the spray with highly coordinated muscle control.  The spray is emitted at a stream directed at the face.  It is accurate at more than six feet, but its range is much farther. The skunk spray contains chemicals called thiols, sulfur containing compounds that give the liquid its awful stench. According to the Chemical Educator, skunk spray has been likened to tear gas because it can cause temporary blindness, coughing, and gagging.

To neutralize the odor combine 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup baking soda, and 1 teaspoon liquid dishwashing soap.  This can be used on dogs, cats and humans.  It should be applied immediately after the spraying occurs while wearing gloves and be careful to avoid getting the solution into the eyes.  The solution should not be mixed ahead of time or stored since it could explode if left in a bottle.  Rub the mixture all over and scrub.  Be sure to wash thoroughly after use!

The striped skunk is found from central Canada southward throughout the United States to northern Mexico.  Its fur is typically black with a white “V” down the back and a white vertical bar between the eyes. Sharp teeth and long claws help them defend themselves and are used to dig in soil or pull apart logs to find food. They can excavate their own dens, but often use the dens of woodchucks. They are also found under buildings or rocky outcrops.

Skunks were long classified as a subfamily of the Mustelidae, weasel family, but recent genetic data suggests they should be placed in their own family, Mephitidae. The oldest fossil identified as a skunk was found in Germany and dates back 11-12 million years ago. It is believed the family originated 30-40 million years ago. The skunk family is composed of 11 species.  

Except during breeding season skunks generally remain solitary.  After mating in late February/early March, the male is driven off.   An average of six blind and helpless kits are born between late April and early June.  At three weeks they open their eyes and at seven weeks they follow the mother out to begin foraging for food.  They are capable of spraying at this time.  By the fall they usually disperse, although sometimes females will remain with the mother throughout the winter.  There are great regional variations in size, weighing 6-14 pounds and measuring 21-26 inches.

In the 1930s, skunks were valued for their fur.  Native people also used to eat skunk after removing the scent gland and at one time the musk was used in the foundation of perfume for its “staying power”.  Although considered beneficial, since they eat many insects and rodents that many regard as pests and the fact that they are generally easy-going and will not intentionally bother people, many people consider them a nuisance.  

To prevent conflicts remember to keep your trash secure, don’t leave pet food outdoors, secure outbuildings and window wells so they don’t den there, but be sure before doing this that they are not trapped inside.  Striped skunks are not good climbers so a rough board, at no more than a 45-degree angle, should be placed to help them get out.  Skunks are a primary carrier of the rabies virus.  They are usually nocturnal, but they can be seen out during the day foraging for food, especially in the spring.  If they are exhibiting abnormal behavior – limb paralysis, circling, unprovoked aggression, disorientation or even uncharacteristic tameness contact your local animal control office, a wildlife rehabilitator, DEEP or police department for assistance.  

“Skunk, although you sometimes stink,

You’re sweeter than most people think,

Because you eat each buggy pest

That thinks my garden tastes the best.

You chomp each beetle on the vine.

So be, dear skunk, my valentine.”

Vulture Verses, Love Poems for the Unloved by Diane Lang


Wildlife Fact Sheet – Eastern Striped Skunk

Wisconsin Historical Society:  Skunk Grease Medicine

The Humane Society: What to do about skunks

What to do about skunks

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