What you didn’t know about Skunks



Skunks are arguably the most feared small mammal in the world (mice are the skunk’s main rival). Its just a natural human reaction to be wary of a skunk when encountered in the wild. Several Indians myths talk about skunk spray being deadly at one time, but after the skunk was defeated in battle, became merely obnoxious. We get our modern-day word for skunk from an Algonquian word that loosely translates into “urinating fox”. Yes, people have always been fascinated with novelties, and few animals in the world are as novel as skunks are. However, as with anything novel in nature, this comes with myths and misunderstandings. My hope here is not only to dispel a few of those, but also to expose the skunk for what it truly is: a fascinating creature in its own right.

On the surface, the answer to why they smell so bad is pretty easy. They give off a horrible smell when alarmed as a self-defense mechanism (humans can detect this scent up to a mile away). However, that doesn’t answer the more deep-rooted, chemically-based question of “Why does it smell so bad?” The answer to this is that skunk spray consists mostly of thiols, also called mercaptans. Thiols, by definition, are organic compounds containing sulphur. Sulphur compounds are also what causes rotten eggs to stink. Skunk spray is comprised of three different thiol compounds. One would naturally assume that the reason for this is because while all thiols smell different, they also all stink. Therefore, a combination of three different thiols would produce a chemical smell three times more obnoxious than only one.

Great! Now we know exactly why skunk spray smells so bad! Who really cares, though? Will this knowledge be of any practical use if I get sprayed by one? Actually, yes, it will. You see, in order to instantly remove the stench, you have to instantly break down the chemicals that are causing the stench. How would chemists know how to break down the stench if they didn’t know what chemicals to break down? The old tomato juice tale is little more than that: an old housewives’ tale. This is the first myth about skunks that I would like to dispel. This myth is based on the fact that skunk spray is slightly alkaline, while tomato juice is slightly acidic. Therefore, tomato juice may help a little, but it doesn’t break down the thiols. That means the thiols are still there after the tomato juice bath. A really long hot shower will do the trick for a human that was sprayed, but isn’t quite as practical for a pet (or the human’s clothing, for that matter). For this, we need to chemically break down the thiols. The following recipe was developed by some chemists: mix 1 quart of hydrogen peroxide with ¼ a cup of baking soda and two teaspoons of dishwashing liquid (don’t use the powder). Bathe your pet in this for about five minutes, constantly rubbing it into your pet’s fur. You may have to use a sponge to get your pet’s chin, cheeks, etc. Just make sure you don’t get it in your pet’s eyes. The smell should start to dissipate. If it doesn’t go away completely, rinse off your pet, mix a new batch, and do it again.

The second myth that I would like to dispel is the one that skunks make excellent pets. Actually, I guess it depends on your definition of “excellent pet”. If an aggressive animal that will literally tear up your house(skunks are natural burrowers) is your definition of a good pet, then go for it (be aware, though, that this is illegal here in Texas). Most people that get pet skunks don’t make it six months before they are looking for a new home for it. The ironic thing here is that being displaced from its home severely stresses the skunk out. If placed outside in a cage, they will either hide indefinitely because they don’t know what to do, or they will yearn for freedom so badly that they will eventually find a way out, and they’ll never be seen again. The latter reaction to the cage is a tragedy for the ones that were descented (it leaves them defenseless). Lets face reality here: If you love wild animals enough that you want to keep them, let then remain free. This is a greater way to show your love.

OK, enough of the myth-busting stuff. What is there to know about skunks? Aside from their one offensive characteristic, skunks are animals, just like any other animal. The only animal that regularly puts the skunk on their menu is the Great Horned Owl (owls can’t smell). Skunks mate in the spring, just like most animals. Males are polygynous, meaning they mate with more than one female. One interesting note about the mating period is that this is the only time that skunks spray each other. The males will spray each other over disputes about mating rites. Sixty-six days after mating, between 4 and 7 kits are born. If you’ve never seen a baby skunk, you’re missing out. They’re about the cuddliest-looking things I’ve ever seen! Just don’t get too close, because Momma Skunk is very protective of her babies, and will spray anything that she perceives as a threat to them. Daddy Skunk offers no help in raising the babies. After mating, he goes back to his territory. During the winter, skunks sometimes go through a relatively dormant period, although they don’t hibernate. The females will, however, sometimes den up together for warmth. Males don’t really do this.

The most interesting thing about skunks,in my humble opinion, is their diet. Skunks are omnivores, meaning they’ll eat just about anything from snakes to berries. A little-known fact about them is that they are excellent mousers. The Indians knew this, and reportedly kept skunks as pets to protect their food stores from rodents (the Indians also reportedly were the first to perfect removing the scent glands). Another fascinating fact about their diets is that they are the primary predator of bees. They scratch at the opening of the hive, and eat the bees as they come out to investigate. The odd thing about this is that they get stung. Scientists have shown by dissecting skunks that they get stung on the inside of their mouths, and in their esophagus. Apparently, the skunks just don’t care. If you really want to know how MUCH they don’t care, look at blogsites of beekeepers. Skunks are apparently as problematic for beekeepers as grasshoppers are for farmers (skunks, by the way, eat grasshoppers). Because of their diet, skunks should be the farmer’s best friend (except for the fact that most farmers have dogs, and we all know how dog-skunk encounters invariably end).

Historically, skunk oil was used for medicinal purposes. Skunk oil is an oil that is removed from the fatty tissue along the skunk’s back. Native Americans used it, and introduced it to the European explorers. It has moisturizing properties. Some Indians used it to cure poison ivy. It’s most common medicinal use, though, was to treat coughs. Like any liniment, it has a mildly warming reaction, which supposedly opens the airways, curing the cough.

All in all, the skunk’s report card from Cool Class is an A. Skunks generally run around not paying attention to anybody else, just minding their own business (I know some people that could learn a lot from a skunk). They’re better at pest control than any of our domesticated pets (apparently Fido could learn a thing or two from skunks as well). They have the potential for tremendous chemical warfare which they only use as a last resort (that does it: Skunk for President!!). If skunks were to fall off the face of the Earth tomorrow, yes, the world would survive. It would just be a little less interesting.

By Ann and Dan

About miles.phillips

Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist with Texas Agrilife Extension Service. Assisting and Consulting with Landowners, Tourism Businesses, and Communities on Utilization, Growth Marketing, Conservation and Training related to natural resource based tourism.
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