Archive for Sunday, March 30, 2003

Skunk tales: Making scents of the furry, sometimes foul critters

March 30, 2003

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Apologies to songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, but there was a dead skunk in the middle of the road as I was driving through Central Texas last month. Also a dead skunk on the shoulder of the road, a dead skunk in the ditch, etc.

In fact, there were so many dead skunks that I began an informal and totally unscientific 70 mph census of the stinky critters that had met their demise along a 100-mile stretch of southbound U.S. 281. I counted 38 dead skunks on that measured stretch of asphalt.

I'm sure the count was conservative, as there were times I didn't have a good view of the ditches beside the oncoming lane. I did not count UFOs (unidentifiable furry objects), even those that were suspiciously black and white. I only counted fresh skunk carcasses; most of them looked no more than a day or two old.

Rounding off to the nearest whole number, my survey turned up one dead skunk per three highway miles. You're liable to see dead skunks along the highway any time of the year. Skunks are scavengers that often feed on other road kill and themselves become victims. This is not the first year I've noticed an elevated number of skunks along roadsides in February, however.

When I mentioned my survey to David Winkler, a Texas A&M Extension Service biologist in Bosque County, he said there were an unusual number of dead skunks alongside the road in February because Valentine's Day is the peak of the striped skunk breeding season.

Winkler's observation brought to mind two things. The first is an old country song about looking for love in all the wrong places. The second is Pepe LePew, the romantic cartoon skunk with a French accent who was forever trying to romance a chagrined black and white housecat.

If there are that many dead skunks, how many live skunks must there be? For that answer, I called Dr. Scott Henke, a scientist with the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville. Henke has the dubious honor of being the institute's skunk authority and has just begun a suburban study of striped skunks in the Houston suburbs.

It's a smelly job, but somebody has to do it. Skunks transmit rabies, and the disease is a serious suburban problem. Henke plans to trap and equip as many skunks as possible with electronic collars. He will then track their movements.

Some of the skunks will probably contract rabies during the tracking study, and Henke hopes to see how the disease affects their movements.

"We don't know how many skunks are out there, but one study identified as many as 36 skunks per section (40 acres) of land," said Henke. "The population is obviously higher in areas with good habitat and plenty of food. Skunks don't mind living in close proximity to people, and they thrive in the suburbs."

People, on the other hand, do mind living in close proximity to skunks, which are notorious as one of the few mammals able to defend themselves with chemical warfare. The skunk's scent glands are overpowering, the viscous spray capable of traveling 20 feet. The spray is far more irritating when delivered on target than when you get a whiff while traveling at high speed past a road-killed skunk.

The chemical defense is apparently effective against everything but speeding cars. Skunks have been around for at least 58 million years. Their worst animal enemies, aside from humans, are great horned owls (which have no sense of smell) and coyotes, which will eat anything.

Unless you stumble too near a skunk in the dark, or unknowingly hem one up in your garage or outside storage building, the odds are slim that a person will take a direct hit. Dogs are another issue.

If your pet tangles with a skunk, you can bathe the dog with tomato juice or with a mixture of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dishwashing soap. Either will remove most of the odor. Otherwise, the acrid stench will take awhile to wear off.

"Pet owners should make certain their animals are vaccinated for rabies," Henke said. "There's very little chance that a person will come in contact with a rabid skunk, but dogs often fight with skunks. As long as they're vaccinated, they'll be OK."

Henke hopes his research will open the door for a rabies vaccination program for skunks such as the one that's been successful for South Texas coyotes. Oral vaccines in bait are dropped from the air. Coyotes eat the bait and are vaccinated against rabies.

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