The RoVing Naturalist
By Dennis Prichard
Once when tent camping, my wife bopped a skunk on the nose through the screen of the tent door. It was dark, and she was half-asleep. When she realized what she had hit, both her and the skunk high-tailed it in opposite directions. She almost put a new door on the back of the tent!
Skunks are typically not aggressive. They don’t need to be. Everything in nature knows to avoid a skunk, right? Well, not everything. Great horned owls are the skunk’s main predator because they cannot smell anything. Owls do get sprayed when grabbing this hearty meal, and it can cause temporary blindness, but the owl eats the skunk anyway.
Their spray is a defense, but only a last resort. If given the opportunity, the skunk will growl first, stamp its feet, and even do a handstand to show its stripes and let the foe know it’s too close. But when all else fails the scent gland goes into action, spraying up to 10 feet away, aimed very accurately at the victim’s eyes. Amazingly, one person out of 1000 cannot smell skunk spray. I wish I were one of those because the scent is one of the most powerful found in nature, and one of the most tenacious to remedy.
Skunk spray is a thiol in chemical jargon, and it is flammable! When mixed with water, it really gets stinky. That’s why you shouldn’t wash Fido if he is sprayed; it only makes the substance spread. Instead, a mixture of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide liberally applied over and over will HELP rid the odor. Tomato juice, a common folk remedy, just makes our pet smell like tomatoes and skunk.
Skunks are found all over North America from southern Canada through the U.S. and into Mexico. Four species reside here, the striped variety being the most commonly seen. Their success does not lie in their odoriferous defense, although that helps, but in their adaptability to all sorts of different habitats. They roam forests and deserts, mountains and lowlands, and eat a wide variety of both plant and animal food. Poor eyesight is countered with great senses of hearing and, oddly, smell. They are good at rodent control, but a nuisance at beehives as they love eating the bees. They will also eat snakes, even poisonous ones, as they are immune to the venom.
Because they are usually solitary and nocturnal (active at night), they lumber around campgrounds looking for food. To avoid the creatures, pick up all food scraps and any garbage left around your site. If you are “planted” in one spot for awhile, check any openings around your rig as the skunk has powerful front claws to dig under most barriers.
If you see one, watch it carefully. A faltering gait, stumbling, or excessive fluids from nose and mouth indicates a sick animal. Skunks can carry rabies without showing much sign, and can even transmit it to the unborn babies through the placenta. Thus newborns can be infected at birth. It is best to give all skunks a wide berth, and definitely not a bop on the nose!