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Santa Clarita CA
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October 19
1945 - Acton Hotel, est. 1890, burns down; arson is suspected [story]

Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Dec 5, 2013

evelynevandersande_mug You smell them more often than you see them.

My daughter lived in San Pedro, and a long, narrow canyon crossed the neighborhood. It was full of vegetation, bamboo and green leaves, and a few skunks were living in this perfect hiding place.

They would appear at night when we were taking the dog for a walk. They were large animals, their coats shining under the street lights, and we would freeze when we spotted one. Sometimes we saw a mom with little ones in tow, or a large and imposing male that you would admire and fear from a respectful distance.

We were sleeping in the garage that was transformed into a guest room, so we were in close contact with the outdoors. I remember one morning we woke up with tears in our eyes from the overpowering smell at the door; a skunk must have been spraying to save itself from a tight situation.

skunk120513The canyon ran parallel to her backyard, and creatures of the night could be heard rattling in the dark. Her dog, of course, had to investigate and paid the price by being sprayed one night. It took a month of many regular shampoos of several brands to make the smell bearable. Our daughter is a veterinarian, so she has access to the best research on the topic, but the reality is that skunk spray is that potent.

When you think about skunks, you think about the smell, and certainly they use that as their main weapon. They have two glands on each side of the anus that can spray, with good accuracy, a strong and offensive stream as far as 10 feet. The spray is irritating and can even cause temporary blindness, so it is highly effective. The smell is so strong that it can be detected up to a mile away.

However, skunks use the weapon only as a last resort. Their first warning is their color. Strong black and white is called an aposematic coloration. This is a warning coloration that means danger to other predators, so they keep away.

The striped skunk is about the size of an adult cat, mostly black with two large, white bands on the back and white on top of the head.

If color isn’t enough, they will show you clearly that the situation is unacceptable to them with other warning signs. First there will be a lot of hissing, foot stamping, and the tail will go up as a clear threat. If those messages are not clear enough, they will spray, and that will be the end of it. Even bears will run away.

Most predators leave the skunk alone, except dogs, whose attack fails after they are sprayed.

The only predator they really have is the great horned owl, which does not have a sense of smell and can kill a skunk with its powerful talons.

Skunks are careful not to spray too often. It takes 10 days to produce a supply of the spray, and they carry just enough of the liquid to make five sprays. So it is used only as an emergency weapon.

Skunks have a good sense of smell and hearing, but their vision is poor.  They cannot see farther than 10 feet. That is why they are often killed by cars while crossing the road. Their life span in the wild can be seven years, and 10 years in captivity.

skunk2The word “squunch” first appeared in New England in 1630. It came from an Algonquin word meaning “a urinating fox.” Another Latin name from this period can be translated as “Stinking spotted weasel.” Not very flattering, but fairly accurate.

Skunks are crepuscular, which means they look for food at dawn and dusk. They are omnivorous, eating many plants, fruits and small animals including larvae, earthworms, small rodents and lizards.

In the city, they will raid your garbage can and animal food left outdoors. Like raccoons, they will dig in your lawn to find grubs and worms.

Strangely enough, they are one of the few predators of honeybees, because their thick coat protects them from the stings, and they teach their pups how to approach the beehives.

Skunks mate in the spring. They are lolygynous.  That means the male can fertilize many females, but the female needs only one male to do the job and will fight any male trying to mount her after that.

The female has four to seven kits.  They are blind and deaf when they are born, but by Day 8, the young already have the musky smell. Their eyes open after three weeks and they are weaned after two months, but they stay for about one year with their mom, who protects and raises them. The male is not involved with the mother or the kits.

Skunks den in burrows but do not like digging, so they often use burrows made by ground squirrels, foxes or coyotes. They enlarge and change the den. They can also den in brush piles, hollow logs or under decks, porches or buildings.

They do not really hibernate in the winter but can enter a dormant phase in cold weather. A few females may share a den during that time, but males always stay alone in their own den.

skunk4In the United States, pet skunks are allowed in some states, but not California. They are allowed in Germany, Netherlands, Italy and the UK but remain a rare pet because of the complexity of their care and the restrictive laws.

In the 1950s, their pelts were sold to the fur industry and were called “marten fur.” Their coats were sold under the nebulous name of “American sable” or “Alaskan sable.” When the courts ruled that the name “skunk” should be used, the skunk fur market collapsed.

We had a skunk at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center named Ferguson. It was brought to us by a family with young children who moved from Texas where such a pet is allowed. Ferguson was born in a pet shop, was never de-scented, but was still young. The children used to play with it without fear, and it had never sprayed.

The docents were a bit more intimidated, and we knew the little guy was growing up and would start spraying when mature. Finding a veterinarian in Palmdale who would agree to de-scent the skunk was not so easy.

Finally, one vet did us a favor. The surgery was done at lunch time when the office was deserted and the scented glands were carried away from the premises … which was done in a plastic bag in the purse of one of the ladies who brought Ferguson to the vet. Another one of those interesting events at Placerita.

Skunks are feared animals with good reason. Their smell is more than a nuisance, but they are also carriers of rabies. Remember, you will smell one before you see one, so bring your dog indoors when you do catch that scent in the air.

We all can cohabite pleasantly enough with some precautions. Give them a chance.



Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.



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1 Comment

  1. Melanie Boothby says:

    De-skunking recipe. Always worked on my forever-sprayed Jack Russell. 1 quart hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup baking soda and 1 to 2 teaspoons of liquid soap. Mix and put it on immediately and protect the eyes. It always works with one wash.

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