From a continuing series on revolting creatures.
A mother skunk trailed by six little striped kits is a sight at least as charming as ducklings following their mother. Skunks themselves are not revolting. It's the pungent, oily, yellow-green liquid that streams out of nozzles on either side of a skunk's anus that is revolting. Lovable though the creatures are, there will never be a children's book called Make Way for Skunks.
It is the skunk's confidence in that potent defensive weapon that makes its personality appealing. The critters, the size of a small cat but with a wider rump and a bit of a waddle, are the opposite of aggressive. Most of the time they're curious, playful, fearless, and calm (though in late winter, mating season, the males go haywire). A devil-may-care attitude does not serve them well on the highway. The poor creatures stick their tails straight up as a warning to a car. It doesn't work; most of us know the smell of skunk musk from road kill.
Fatal encounters with cars aside, skunks enjoy living near human beings. They're comfortable making a den under a porch or in a garage. (Some musk can leak into their feces, making them less than perfect neighbors.) Omnivorous, they treat our garbage bags like piñatas. They eat vegetables, berries, nuts, mushrooms, lizards, snakes, baby turtles and turtle eggs, birds, moles, worms—practically anything. That "anything" includes bees munched off the side of a hive and jalapeño peppers. To the benefit of the farmer and gardener, they eat mouse and rat nestlings, snails, cockroaches, and beetle grubs. On the negative side, they sometimes eat chicks and eggs.
As skunks cozy up to us, the reassuring news is that they are extremely reluctant to go nuclear. The typical skunk reacts only to truly threatening behavior. Are some skunks more trigger-happy than others? It seems logical that there's a cost to spraying—that it takes some time to recharge, when the animal would be vulnerable—but it turns out the scent glands refill quickly.
Before firing, a skunk will perform a complex warning dance, first backing away from a predator, tail raised as a warning flag, then stomping its front feet. The spotted skunk, smaller than the more common striped skunk, does a handstand that is, disregarding the possibility of subsequent spray, one of the cutest sights on earth. Should the aggressor fail to get the hint, the skunk, striped or spotted, turns its body into an ominous curve, both nose and rear end pointed at the threat.
The animal pops out the nipples leading from its grape-size anal glands, then rotates them like an anti-aircraft gun, at the same time adjusting the spray like a hose nozzle. When face to face with an aggressor, the skunk aims a jet at the attacker's eyes. When the predator is at a distance, the skunk sprays a mist up to 15 feet.
The system is a highly evolved version of the glands for scent marking possessed by all carnivores. Think unneutered cats. Europe has no wild skunks; South America's zorillo and Asia's stink badger have the same capability.
Most who have been skunked say the smell is indescribably horrible, and many find it literally nauseating. But some who have worked at describing it say it's not the worst smell in the world, not as repellent as the scent of decomposition or defecation. It's dark, acrid, and earthy, akin in a disgusting way to coffee, chocolate, cannabis, or burning leaves.
A skunk's recognizable black-and-white markings have a role in defense. Predators learn and remember what the source of this unpleasant experience looks like. Most domestic dogs do not learn, so dog owners are the most likely among us to have had an intense skunk experience, especially if they allow their dogs off leash at night. Some dog owners may not be learning, either. The most successful predator on skunks is the great horned owl, which, like most birds (except vultures), has a poor sense of smell.
The skunk's short life—only three or four years in the wild before succumbing to disease, an owl, a very determined coyote, or a car—has its highlights. Both sexes gorge in the fall before retreating to a den, not to hibernate, exactly, but to enter into a lethargic stage and crowd together for warmth. (The collective noun for a group of skunks is a huddle.) Sometimes there's just one male in a huddle, definitely a highlight for him. In late winter, many males go from den to den, practicing polygamy with gusto. Some females use the ultimate weapon to reject the visitor, perhaps anticipating that the encounter may not be as pleasant for them as for him. The female skunk is what's known as an induced ovulator, which means that ovulation doesn't take place without mating. (This is true of cats, ferrets, rabbits, and, no kidding, Bactrian camels. Primates, including us, are spontaneous ovulators.) For skunks, the sex must be rough to induce ovulation. The male skunk bites the female on the back of her neck, often drawing blood.
So the female emerges into the spring sunlight pregnant and wounded. She's also thin, as skunks lose about half their body weight over the winter. The newborn kits open their eyes at four weeks and are sexually mature at about nine months. Their anal glands are operative within a week after birth.
There are people who very happily choose to invite skunks, de-scented and neutered, into their homes, despite the challenges. (A common question on pet skunk Web sites: How do I get her to use the litter box?) "They are more intelligent than most people you'll meet, stronger than any dog, and more hard-headed than any teenager," says Shelor Brumbeloe, who owned a skunk who lived 20 years and runs SkunksAsPets.com. They are undeniably endearing, quite content to accept an unthreatening human being as a huddle-mate. Breeders have waiting lists and charge $300 per animal.
Pet skunks are outlawed in 33 states for fear of rabies. Wild skunks are more worrisome. In Ontario, Canada, they impregnate skunk baits with an oral rabies vaccine—an approach that will soon be tested in the United States.
Toronto's parks are awash with skunks; they've become as common as squirrels. New York's Central Park, not yet. Skunks are just beginning to infiltrate the northern border of Manhattan, probably by way of a railroad bridge from the Bronx. The animals will probably be messy and potentially smelly, but, on the bright side, they could help control rats and cockroaches. To get along with them you must be very, very calm and avoid making any loud noises or aggressive actions. Will New Yorkers learn to make way for skunks?
Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.
Photograph of a skunk by Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images.