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Dove Key Ranch Wildlife Rehabilitation
Animal of the Week

Striped Skunk
(Mephitis mephitis)

by Bonnie Wroblewski

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)

This gorgeous stinker was discovered by the side of the road, muddy and drenched in a culvert shortly after an evening thunderstorm. Most likely, she had been washed out of a natal den by the torrential downpour. Her finders deposited her in the bed of their pick-up truck and rumbled home with her amidst bottles, brush, and other refuse. The next morning, the call came in to me to pick up the little orphan and I sped off to retrieve the nearly three-week-old skunk. Upon arrival, I discovered the frightened little one had managed to wiggle her way into the winching mechanism in back of the truck. After slow and careful maneuvering of a disconnected garden hose, the black and white tyke made her exit and was quickly scooped up to safety. Despite all her arduous adventures so early in life, this little girl grew into a healthy, spunky skunk. She was released just in time to spend her first Thanksgiving out in the wild, thankful in her own way, I’m sure, for gaining a second chance at life free-roaming the Texas landscape, vanquishing all the delicious rodents and insects in her path.

Orphaned skunk
Cozy and safe in a bed of fleece blankets, the orphaned skunk snoozes while sucking her toes, like a human baby sucking its thumb.
Photo courtesy Dove Key Ranch Wildlife Rehabilitation

Why love skunks?

From the moment that I held my first baby skunk, I was hooked! This glinting-eyed, chubby, fuzzy cherub instantly stole my heart. And, as the little guy grew and developed his own unique personality, I fell even deeper in love with him and his black and white kin. Similar to humans, dolphins, corvids, and other animals with high levels of memory and problem-solving capabilities, skunks are distinct individuals that display their own blend of behavioural traits: some are hyper and domineering, others are affectionate clowns, still others are serious detectives of their surroundings. The only two things that all skunks seem to have in common are their curiosity and obstinance. I think if skunks had opposable thumbs and better vision, they would be giving us a run for our money! Temperaments aren’t the only variable between individual skunks: each mephitid has its own unique black and white patterning. Even within a single litter, shiny coats can vary from almost all white to almost all black and every speckling and striping in between. (photo)

If their aesthetic appeal fails to override their “smell factor” in your estimation, let me assure you: they don’t want to spray any more than you want to smell them spray! Skunk spray is an oily yellowish to dark orange liquid chock full of thiols (hence the garlic-y aroma), which is projected from nipples attached to a pair of anal glands in the business end of the fuzzy stinker. Although the noxious secretion seems like the ideal weapon against all violations to mephitid peace, skunk anal glands can only store a limited amount of the powerful juice. Once empty, their anal sacs may take days to refill, leaving the striped marauder without its most notable and powerful defense. For this reason, skunks are loath to use their valuable spray unless they feel they are in imminent danger. If you leave them alone, they’ll more than happily leave you alone. However, if you are bold enough to encroach on their space, you’ll get more than fair notice before the odiferous cocktail starts to fly because, in their reluctance to waste their precious resource, mephitids have become the masters of bluff. If his foreboding black and white patterning have failed to ward you off, the skunk will raise his tail, a proud flag of warning; stomp his front feet, like the most defiant tantruming toddler the human race has to offer; and drag his squat self backwards, ending the display with a flourish of his rear from which you may be unlucky enough to see crimson nipples sited straight for you. As long as the stocky fellow is convinced you’re paying him heed, he’ll fervently continue this unintentionally comic performance, pulling himself in reverse with each reiteration until he judges his distance from you is adequate for a quick spin and dash for safety.

Even in the errant cases when skunk spray may infiltrate your world, these striped wonders more than make up for any foul aromas with their unmatched gift for “pest” control. Voles, mice, rats, and other rodents are their favorites, while wasps, spiders, cockroaches, scorpions, grubs, slugs, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and crop-destroying vermin are not far behind on the dietary hit list. They may even contribute to de-stinkifying your yard by ridding your property of another mephitid delicacy: stinkbugs. Skunks are one of the few mammals to munch these repulsive insects, patiently rolling the foul-smelling beetle across the ground until all the distasteful glandular secretions have been wiped clean and the protein packet is cleared for consumption. Strong forelegs, paws widened by partial webbing between the digits, and tough claws also aid these stout predators in tenaciously unearthing gophers and moles. And to cap off the mephitid menu of “pests,” add snakes, including rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins. Few native mammals can safely catch, let alone relish, poisonous snakes as much as skunks do.

Fully grown and well-practiced in foraging for insects, rodents, and other natural foods, the female skunk is returned to the wild and immediately starts exploring her new home.
Photo courtesy Dove Key Ranch Wildlife Rehabilitation

So, if you fear snakes; appreciate intelligent, charismatic beings from the non-human animal realm; are amused by bombastic threat displays from pudgy, cranky little mammals; find a graceful beauty in the shiny-coated black and white wild spirits that slip through the crepuscular hours; want the mice out of your barn or furry excavators out of your cattle field for free; and/or wonder at the evolution of a creature that shoots noxious fluids from its anus as a defense mechanism, then you, too, should LOVE skunks! And maybe you will agree with my assertion that nothing can compare to the sight of a wild skunk, foraging in the early morning dew: the seemingly improbable, yet perfect combination of a striking, sleek and efficient predator and a comical, waddling, play-loving goof.

© Bonnie Wroblewski
December 2, 2010
More Dove Key Ranch Wildlife Rehabilitation - "Animal of the Month" Series

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