February 19, 2016

This morning a Quora contributor asked “Is a skunk good for anything?”  I felt compelled to respond:

A healthy skunk is a fine garden companion in that it has a great appetite for grubs, insects, small rodents, and little desire to destroy vegetables.

Skunks have beautiful pelts. In the 1930’s “Alaskan Sable” was one of the most fashionable coats. Truth in manufacturing legislation put an end to that fad: nobody wanted to be known to wear a “skunk” coat.

At the height of the depression my grandfather dug out a skunk den and harvested the hides to buy warm winter clothes for his family. In Cananda agricultural products were almost worthless during the dirty 1930’s, but fur prices remained high.

Skunks have many PR problems, though. Most notably, most tend to spray when rattled by dogs, loud noises, passing tractors, or inquisitive seniors peeking into their dens. During a local infestation of Japanese beetles many home owners discovered their lawns methodically torn up by these nocturnal foragers.

Rabies is the scourge which wipes out skunk populations as the virus is an aerosol, spreading by air to the eye membranes of all members of a hibernating colony, be they bats, racoons, or skunks.

Skunks have even less road sense than raccoons, so on moist summer nights when the frogs are migrating, passing cars take a fearsome toll.

Some years ago we had a large skunk on the property. He lived in a pile of rails along a fence row, peaceably interacted with the wolves and raccoons, and somehow avoided encounters with our dog. Trouble was I needed to mow around the little trees planted in the field next to his rail pile, and he was a little incontinent when a tractor went by. Just a little. So every three weeks the poor skunk would have a fume-filled morning.

Then one day a bus load of tree huggers dismounted in our yard for a tour of the woodlot. After several hours confined to the coach, they had scattered like cats when released. I used a bullhorn to round them up, instructing them to proceed west until they smelled the skunk, then to turn south and follow the path to the woodlot. One elderly but very alert gentleman in dress shirt, shorts and bare feet made a beeline for the pile of cedar rails and peered in, looking for its occupant. This was too much for the poor skunk. Fragrant, but unchastened, the gentleman rejoined the group.

That summer during a pitched battle with local raccoons over several rows of sweet corn in the garden, I captured the skunk a couple of times in live traps. Most of the time a tarp over the metal frame would keep him calm enough that I could release him, but for some reason one day I delayed the release and felt compelled to give him a drink of water against the sunny day. This didn’t go so well and we both stumbled back to our respective dens in embarrassment. After that he avoided the garden.


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