Defense Against Skunks

Photo by Tomfriedel

Photo by Tomfriedel

How to protect oneself against skunks — what to do about them when they invade property or camp — is a fairly common concern. I know quite a bit about skunks, having spent most of my life in places where I’ve actively dealt with them. I’ve grown to like the little bug-eaters and admire their tenacity and sense of fair play. Skunks usually aren’t aggressive and nearly always go through a lengthy and very tolerant pattern of warning behaviour. If skunks were people they’d be the sort who’d tell you three times in a row to back off, and then they’d spray you with mace.

The only really troublesome skunks are rabid skunks and dead skunks. Rabid skunks are easy to spot, because they are the only ones who come out in the daytime and wander around with bits of foam dripping from their mouths. Well, now and then you might find a skunk tottering around in the back yard with a can stuck on its head, but more about the art of skunk rescue in a moment.

Rabid skunks truly are dangerous, both to people and to pets. Get close and they’ll charge you. Skunks aren’t very fast, though, and sick skunks close to death are even slower, so if you’re able to sprint for a hundred feet you’re safe enough. Don’t get close and they won’t even see you. By that stage of the disease, the part where they wander around in a rage, they can’t see much anyhow. The proper thing to do about a rabid skunk, if you live in a place with animal control officers, is to call Animal Control and let them deal with it. Keep your kids and pets away from it and try to keep it in view until the authorities get there.

In the country, probably the most humane thing to do is shoot it. There’s no recovery from advanced rabies and the animal will only continue to suffer and threaten others. If you choose this unpleasant solution, try to shoot the skunk far away from the house, because that smell will last for months.

In most parts of our country skunks are very common animals, often living in close contact with humans without being noticed. It’s not unusual to have a family of skunks living under your house. A little after sundown they’ll wander out for a night of foraging, and just as the sky lightens up around dawn they’ll round up the kits and herd everybody back into the crawl space for a good day’s rest. Used to have a skunk family under the house in the Ozarks that entered via the access port in the foundation below the bathroom window. Two adults, five kits, one of the adults pure white. I could stand at the window and watch them come and go if I adapted to their schedule. The biggest, probably the male, would raise his tail as a warning to me and keep an eye on me until the family was safely on its way. Then he’d join them.

Hosting a family of skunks underneath a house could be a real disaster. If you hire a plumber and no one knows they’re there, that poor fellow may not come back to your house again. If one of the skunks dies under there, either you have to go in after the carcass or leave the house for a few years. Tolerating the smell of a dead skunk is not possible. Don’t forcibly evict the critters, because that won’t work. The first thing to understand about skunks is that skunks actually do own this planet. The rest of the animals on it, including humans, are only here as accessories. Work with the skunk’s schedule. Use tactics instead of confrontation.

Plan ahead. If you know skunks are under your house, fine. If you suspect it, don’t seal the foundation ports in the daytime. That will trap the skunks under the house and they’ll be angry. Angry skunks leak a little. Locate all the places an animal with a skull the size of an apricot could get in, and about two hours after dark go around and securely seal those openings. The skunks will be pissed when they find themselves locked out, but they’ll go somewhere else.

Dead skunks may as well be tagged as rabid. That’s not always true, but unless the skunk is dead of accidental causes like being hit by a car it’s not likely to have died of old age. In some wild animal populations, like skunks and foxes, rabies is endemic. So don’t handle the dead skunk directly — not that anyone would, but treat the carcass as though it’s a real biological hazard. In the city if you wake up with a dead skunk on your steps, animal control might have advice or even want to deal with the problem directly. Wave and cheer and offer treats if they do, because this is a chore nobody wants to do themselves.

The best tool for removing a dead skunk, based on my personal experience, is a sharpened pitchfork. First, because it has a long reach, and if you’re working in a crawl space for example, you want to be as far from the dead skunk as you can be. Most of the time you can work the tines under the skunk, lift and carry, or simply drag the skunk off holding onto nothing more than the end of the handle. Long handles help. You can also hold the skunk off to the side of you, on the pitchfork, and keep your olfactory sensors upwind. If the wind changes, expect some dry heaving, or maybe even real heaving, depending on how ripe the skunk is. Skunks that have been around awhile, say in the crawlspace of an elderly neighbor’s house, fermenting until somebody couldn’t ignore the problem and called for help, may be a little soft. Tines come in handy for skewering parts. Several trips could be required.

Ripe skunks also tend to drip, not just fluids but pieces, so don’t carry them over ground or paths that anyone needs to use again within the next few months. Bury the carcass far away from any place you actually need for other things.

If the animal’s last dramatic moment happened on your front steps, just removing the body won’t be enough. The stench remains. Tomato juice is the usual remedy for skunk funk. Pour it all over the area, let it set, work it in with an old broom you can throw away later, pour some more juice on and let it set awhile longer, and then hose it all away. Don’t expect a total cure. After the tomato juice, use disinfectant on the area. You may be forced to leave shoes outside the house for awhile. Commercial odor removers promise miraculous results, but the key is an acid in the tomato juice that does something my chemistry teacher tried unsuccessfully to explain to me in high school. Summer’s Eve feminine wash also has a good reputation for this problem, and a bottle of vinegar might be the cheapest approach.

Foraging skunks usually aren’t a problem, but if you happen to be taking out the garbage at the same time they’re looking for the garbage, there could be a conflict of interest. I’ve experienced this. If a skunk comes in your direction, go the other way quickly. I usually run, because that’s my way of communicating to the skunk my sincere lack of hostility towards it. Skunks may follow for a short distance, but they have a tight schedule and go quickly back to it. Humans play only minor roles in their busy lives.

Garbage cans with secure lids prevent skunks from putting your bin on their route. Other things of interest like pet food dishes full of uneaten food become irresistible skunk magnets. If you like this sort of interaction with wildlife put the food dishes away from the house and watch from the window.

Should you find yourself backed into a corner by a skunk, all is not lost. Freeze. Don’t make squealing noises, don’t yell, don’t make any threatening gestures or sudden moves. Skunks go through an escalating series of gestures before the final spray. Stamping of the front feet, chittering, raising the tail (raising the tail isn’t good because the animal is getting the tail out of the line of fire of its anal glands) and last of all an interesting kind of handstand which I’ve never seen and think might even be a legend. I have seen everything up to the handstand. In my experiences, at the last instant the skunk decided I was just big and stupid and went away. I hear the handstand is a bad thing. Turn your eyes away, because skunks aim for the eyes.

The more common way for something to get sprayed is by going after a skunk, in which case all these steps are set aside and the skunk just fires. If you’re creeping up behind it to sniff it’s tail, like dogs are apt to do, you probably won’t try that again. Your memories of skunks will always include a really bad smell and lots of tomato juice.

Skunks are common visitors to park campgrounds, so keep campsites clean of trash and put food someplace safe, away from camp. If you see skunks shuffling past your tent at night, just lie still. If they don’t smell food in your tent they won’t come in. Don’t bother them, and they won’t bother you.

The only real trouble I ever had with skunks involved chickens. Skunks are weasels, and even though they are slow and fat compared to the streamlined cartoon animal weasels, they fit easily through small spaces and kill poultry. Chicken houses have to be built tight enough to keep them out, and skunks will check the door every night to see if you remembered to lock it up. If you didn’t, you’ll lose chickens.

Something I’d advise against, if you have a skunk relocation issue to solve, is trapping. Not even cage traps. Even with cage traps you have the problem of what to do now if you do catch one. It’s much better to deal with skunks by removing things of interest to them, like den access and food. Pest control experts may be used to dealing with trapped skunks, but I’m not and you probably aren’t, either.

Skunks caught in a Havahart live trap immediately make you think what a bad idea that was.  Skunks don’t see very well, or so the story goes, and they won’t spray if they don’t see you. This is one of those folk legends you hear a lot but don’t like to test in actual practice. If you screen your approach with a large sheet, by holding it wide in front of you so the skunk can’t see what’s behind it, the skunk won’t fire at you. Then you can let the skunk go by releasing the latch. I would not recommend picking up the trap and loading it in your car with the skunk in it, even if you have the cage trap wrapped in a sheet. Skunks may not travel well, and unless you’re in the business of pest control you don’t have a vehicle dedicated to that. Just let the skunk go and run away before it does. I know someone who explained to the skunk beforehand, in detail, in English, what was about to happen and why it was a good thing. Perhaps that helped — at any rate, they didn’t get sprayed when they let the skunk go. Traps designed for skunk transport include barriers so the skunk can’t see who’s coming. That makes good sense. Fortunately for good samaritans in the animal rescue biz, skunks aren’t trigger happy.

Skunks caught in tin cans may be so wrapped up in their problems that they forget to fire. I’m not really sure, but they don’t seem too bent on destroying the world around them, just totally absorbed in the can thing. The best thing to do is keep your garbage locked away where they can’t get into it. The only way to release the can is to push the lid up out of the way, or cut the can off with metal shears. After watching several videos of skunk rescues it does seem that it works. Usually a grip on the can gives them enough leverage to pull out. The animals look like they’d rather be off to home and don’t want to go through all that stamping and threatening business.

The smell of a skunk doesn’t entirely fade away after a bath in tomato juice. The clothes you’re wearing when you get doused will have to be burned, and if you’ve been in tight places with a dead one, even months later in certain types of weather and close circumstances, people near you may sniff the air suspiciously and ask if you smell something.

And yes — yes, you do.

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