photograph from iStock
Even if you don’t see a striped skunk waddle by, you can certainly smell it. When threatened, house cat–sized Mephitis mephitis, wearing that unmistakable coat, can spray a thiol compound from its anal glands as far as 20 feet, and with great accuracy. And the musk’s stink can carry up to a half-mile away.
This creature lives its best life with impunity—minus run-ins with predators such as owls, eagles, motor vehicles and the occasional starving coyote or bobcat. Insects make up much of the striped skunk’s diet, with invertebrates, small mammals, berries, nuts and grasses sometimes making a meal. Skunks forage by digging holes in the earth with their front claws, leaving behind tell-tale divots. (Those same powerful paws make them capable swimmers, though they rarely take a dip.) They’re usually active from dusk to dawn during warm months—in early summer you might see a mom trailed by a half-dozen kits. And yes, as of about two months old, they can also spray.
In winter, when temperatures dip, the animals retreat to dens and live off stored fat reserves. Abandoned woodchuck and fox dens are often skunk homes, though the animals favor residential areas, living in piles of rocks or wood and beneath houses and other outbuildings. While striped skunks are members of the diverse community of Adirondack wildlife—serving as both predator and prey within the ecosystem—homeowners, particularly those with dogs or cats, might not appreciate them as neighbors. There’s the smell, but skunks can also contract and transmit rabies. The Department of Environmental Conservation recommends keeping pets leashed, eliminating potential food sources, and patching screens and closing holes and crawl spaces.
Although skunk musk is not poisonous and does not transmit rabies, it can temporarily irritate eyes and lungs in humans and canines. According to the National Capital Poison Center (www.poison.org), “decontamination is key.” It states that tomato juice “has not been proven to work,” but is a myth “perpetuated by a phenomenon known as olfactory fatigue,” where the nose adapts to the presence of a particular odor. However, the following solution, if applied to skin or fur after exposure, can break down and neutralize the organic sulfur-containing thiols.
1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide
¼ cup baking soda
1 teaspoon dish detergent
Use immediately after mixing. Apply for 5 minutes, then rinse; repeat as needed. Do not apply to the eyes or mouth.