Two years ago Lincoln Jandreau opened his door at his Wallagras home to let his two dogs out one last time before going to bed and got a somewhat smelly surprise.
When the two small Bichon Frise dogs came running back inside minutes later, it was evident one had just encountered local wildlife.
“As I opened the door, Koko came running in all perfumed up by [a skunk] and jumped on my wife, Betty, in her recliner,” Jandreau recalled. “We didn’t get to bed until the wee hours.”
Instead, Jandreau and his wife spent hours bathing and re-bathing themselves and a hapless Koko in an attempt to rid themselves and their house of the strong odor of skunk spray.
Jandreau’s is a common story, and it seems most people who live in Maine have a skunk story to share, from pets getting sprayed with the noxious musk to discovering families of the small carnivores living under sheds or outbuildings.
Important to Maine
Despite their odor, skunks are an important part of the Maine ecosystem, according to Shevenell Webb, furbearer and small-mammal biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“I’m a fan of skunks,” Webb said. “Of course, I’ve never been sprayed by one.”
Webb’s love of skunks comes from the animal’s important role in the ecosystem along with what she describes as its easy-going nature — as long as it’s not threatened.
“Though they are small, they are important in the food chain,” Webb said. “They are mostly carnivores, so they have long claws for digging up grubs and other bugs in the ground. They are good at catching and eating small mammals.”
Maine has only one variety of skunk — the striped skunk [Mephitis mephitis] — and it’s a crucial predator in the landscape, Webb said.
Skunks have a wide and varied diet, according to Webb, that includes insects like grasshoppers, ants and wasps, grubs and worms, fruit, nuts and smaller mammals like mice, moles, voles and rats.
“They are very opportunistic and, like a lot of carnivores, will eat what they can catch,” Webb said. “They also will eat ‘people’ things, like bird seed and garbage.”
It’s the availability of such people things that attracted a skunk to Shea Rolnick’s Winterport farm.
If skunks have a No. 1 fan in the state, it’s quite likely Rolnick, who is more than happy to share the space at her Knotty Goat Soapery with the small critter.
“She started coming around when I was putting out food for a feral cat,” Rolnick said. “Now we see her regularly. And as long as we her alone, she leaves us alone.”
Rolnick has observed the skunk wandering around the fields with her goats. While the goats seem a bit confused about the presence of the small guest, they do not appear to be disturbed by the skunk, she said.
Rolnick, who has a background as a zookeeper and in animal rescue, said she has had plenty of first-hand experience raising and tending skunks.
“Because of that, I can ‘read’ skunk behavior,” she said. “Basically, they don’t really like to spray, and their No. 1 choice is to just run away if threatened.”
Rolnick said the skunk, which has been coming around since this past spring, is a lovely addition to her farm that is doing its part in keeping down the rodent and bug populations.
“She is really very polite and eats whatever is left over after the feral cat eats,” she said. “She is small, has more white than black with long hair and is really very elegant looking.”
Rolnick did say calling the skunk a “she” is based on a best guess, as she is not prepared to actually pick the animal up for a closer inspection to determine gender.
Happy to live and let live
Given their druthers, skunks are happy to be left alone and not have to spray anyone or anything, Webb said.
“They can start spraying when they are quite young,” Webb said. “But when they are young they can’t really control it and are not as confident, so they will spray more quickly.”
Unlike its cousin the smaller eastern spotted skunk [Spilogale putorius] which is not found in Maine, the striped skunk will not always stomp its front feet as a warning before spraying.
“They may stomp their feet a bit,” Webb said. “They will raise their tail as a warning and do a little dance. If you give them their space they will just go on their way without spraying.”
It’s the sulphuric acid within the skunk’s spray — or musk — that gives it the particularly noxious smell which best resembles a cross between burning garlic and heated transmission fluid.
It also can cause skin or eye burns, if the skunk scores a direct hit, Webb said.
Despite that formidable defense, skunks are preyed upon by larger carnivores like coyotes, fox and owls.
But their biggest threats come from humans, Webb said.
“They are also roadkill,” she said. “The primary reason for skunk mortality is getting hit by vehicles.”
This time of year can be a busy time for the skunks, Webb said, as they are eating as much as possible to get ready for the coming winter.
Den sweet den
“A lot of people think skunks hibernate, but they don’t,” Webb said. “They will go into their dens for long periods of time over the winter and enter a ‘topor’ state, where they lower their body temperature and are very inactive.”
On warmer days the skunks may come out of their dens in search of food, which is usually carrion — the flesh of dead animals — in the winter.
A skunk’s interests turn to romance during the colder weeks of the winter in February when they will come out of their dens to mate, Webb said, and the babies are born in the den in April.
“Skunks use the same dens throughout the years and during the times they are not raising young, they will have communal dens with small family groups,” Webb said. “That make sense in the winter for keeping warm.”
Dens are often old groundhog or fox holes and a skunk may have several it uses within its home range.
“Sometimes they spend just a few days at each den,” Webb said. “They will forage in that area for a time and then move on to the next den and forage around it.”
Of course, why settle for a den when there is a cozy garage and willing landlord available?
“We had a squatter skunk several years ago living in our garage,” Rolnick said. “All we had to do was make sure we opened the door to the garage slowly and give her a chance to go to one of the spots she liked to hide,” Rolnick said. “We just left her alone and she came and went as she pleased [and] never bothered anything.”
For those who would rather not provide living space for skunks, Webb said there are things that can be done to discourage them from sticking around once they have set up housekeeping.
Placing a light or playing a radio in areas they are nesting will often drive them out, she said, and plugging up any holes or other entry points can keep them from moving in.
As for Jandreau, while he wishes skunks no ill will, he learned a hard lesson two years ago when his dog and wife were “skunked.”
“I still let the dogs out at night,” he said. “Needless to say, I go out first at night with a flashlight.”
According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife “Living with wildlife” website, if a person or pet gets sprayed, time is the only 100 percent effective treatment for eliminating the odor entirely.
A home remedy of 1 quart of hydrogen peroxide mixed with one-quarter cup baking soda and 1 teaspoon of liquid soap can get rid of much of the smell.
— Mix the solution in a large, open container because a closed container can explode. The mixture will bubble because of the chemical interaction between the baking soda and the hydrogen peroxide.
— Use the entire mixture while it is still bubbling. Wearing rubber gloves, apply the solution, work it into lather, and leave it on for 30 minutes. After washing with any remedy solution, follow with a long hot shower.
— Depending on the severity of the spray, you may have to repeat the process two or three times.
— When washing a dog, wash the body first and then the head to keep the dog from shaking off the mixture. Never use bleach or ammonia, at any dilution, on pets.
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