I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

Robert Lowell, Skunk Hour

One night when I went out to the dumpster, I rounded the corner and saw a large black tail perched atop a white striped body ripping open a plastic bag. It took me less than a second to back out and run over to another dumpster. The garbage raider missed my presence and did not take aim.

We have plenty of skunks about in the summer. Sometimes I smell the rotten, nutty scent on a summer night or when I am driving down a highway. Mephitis mephitis roams the neighborhoods and country roads looking for fresh trash or road kill. Though I do my best to make sure that the trash bag gets into the dumpster, neighbor kids who are too short to reach the lid or too scared to stay long in the dark sometimes drop their loads on the concrete pavement inside the enclosure. This is where the hazard comes.

I don’t see them much on the trail, but when I do, it is a delight:

I stopped to watch the skunk for several minutes as she shoved her nose through the grass, searching for delectables such as the convergently evolved bombadier beetle, grubs, and maybe a lizard. We made a pact: neither would get within twenty feet of the other. The skunk did not stamp her feet or raise her tail. Together we enjoyed the shade of the live oaks near the intersection of the Whiting Road and the Serrano Cow Trail until I pressed on.

Homeowners are more likely to run into a Mephitis mephistis than a hiker is my experience. They come to eat the leftover food that we throw out. Keeping them away can be a chore if one’s neighbors do not subscribe to the same high standard of cleanliness as ourselves. Still, there are tricks one can employ such as spreading mothball pellets or animal urine around one’s yard.

Homeowners have been known to feed favorite skunks cat food; this is not healthy for them as it causes a metabolic imbalance in these creatures whose gastrointestinal systems are engineered to process insects.

The best time to see skunks is at dusk or dawn when they come out of their holes to scrounge for their food. I have watched them for long periods of time by keeping a safe distance: they not only will spray you with vitriol; they have teeth and claws that can service them. The sign that a skunk is about to squirt you is that they turn their backs, raise their tails, stamp their feet, and shoot. The basis of their attack is a chemical known as thios which has a horrible smell. The combination of their anal glands and sphincter muscles allow them to spray you from a distance of ten feet or about three meters. Being doused by a skunk is an unholy experience which usually happens to dogs more than humans.

Tomato juice is the sovereign remedy for skunk vitriol and many dog-owning families keep a can of it around to use in the event of their pet’s stupidity with a skunk. Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage of Mythbusters tested many commercial skunk sprays against tomato juice. While the commercial sprays worked well enough, tomato juice was more cost effective. The best combination for removing the odor, however, was a home brew of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dish soap. The oxygen molecules in the mix bonded with the thiols, rendering them inert and scentless.

Heinemann and Savage also discovered that it was very hard to get skunks to spray on demand. Despite the power of their offense, skunks are reluctant to use it because they carry around only enough for five or six uses. The Mythbusters ended up purchasing synthetic skunk spray when their captives would not deliver.

I like skunks. Even though they can be a odiferous nuisance, eradicating them means that other, less desirable and more obnoxious mammals will move in to fill the empty niche. The hardest thing about living with them is other stupid people who are careless with their garbage. A healthy skunk population keeps insects and small rodents in check. Despite its devilish scientific name, Mephistis mephistis is one of the archangels of our chaparral.

Further Reading:

  • Share on Tumblr

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *