March 01, 2010
Not getting sprayed in the first place is your best plan. But life is not simple: plans fail. By the time you read this, striped skunks have emerged from their wintering dens. At this very moment one may be pitter-pattering under your cabin deck on a bold recon mission that can quickly lead to chemical warfare.
A skunk's belly-to-the-ground snowy landscape drag mark is hard to miss. When snow is fluffy, skunks leave a trail of passage about four inches wide creating peculiar meandering markings giving the impression of a monstrously large python slithering hither, thither and yon. Although their late winter trails do not appear purposeful, the wandering path of a skunk does not mean it is rabid, lost or confused. They've got a plan. Think short romance. And another. And then another.
Hormonally charged males wander from den to den with high hopes of seducing a "Dang, she really wants me" lady in waiting. And then it's time for a meal of frozen grubs in a decayed log. Or perhaps pepperoni pizza scraps you dropped by the warming fire. And then back on sex patrol, wandering, weaving and waddling through woodland; bushy tail swaying slightly side by side with few worries except for great horned owls: they eat'em. And your vehicle tires: they squish'em.
Skunks have been topside for several weeks. As a matter of fact they are usually on the move and make by Valentine's Day in pursuit of passion and a relationship that is part courting "Hey you, it's me darling!" and part underground cavorting. But all is not sweet in the life of a skunk. When another creature is encountered or a female is less than receptive amour can be replaced with penetrating pungent odor. Call it the scent of love gone wrong. Or perhaps it's just their equivalent of cheap cologne.
Here are the real facts on skunk naps, skunk emergence, their weaponry and first aid: "Honey, I need six gallons of tomato juice now-meet me in the garage, and cancel the dinner reservations."
Skunks are not true hibernators. Unlike groundhog hibernators, skunks just become lethargic and hole up during extremely cold weather. Evidence indicates there is den sharing with groundhogs unaware of their striped companions. Skunk body temperate drops from a norm of 98.6 to about 87.8: at least that's what the science folks tell. I have no idea if the temperature probe is slipped under the tongue, placed under one of their four legs (I don't think they are called arm pits) or is gently rectally inserted.
Although skunks maintain limited activity year round and are primarily nocturnal they don't truly emerge from their lengthy stays in dens until the end of February or early March. I was surprised to find a skunk on my trail camera the last week of January. I followed that night stalker's tracks for almost ¼ mile, around downed logs, through dogwood thickets, and across a meadow until it led me to treacherously thin ice and waddled out on my marsh towards a beaver lodge. I hope he knew that snow-capped beaver shelter was not housing a possible love connection.
When a skunk feels threatened it (usually) pitter-patters its front paws in rapid fashion as it raises its tail and chatters its teeth and spins about, business end facing you. That is the first and last warning. Upon contact your skin is irritated, your eyes will burn and you will wish you were dead. If you were hit after receiving a skunk's warning you will wonder why you were a fool. And the only time I've been sprayed is when I was worse than being a fool: I was STUPID enough to get really close to a skunk in a live trap to take a close up photo.
The putrid weapon - butyl mercaptan- is expelled with amazing force through tiny twin jet nipple-like nozzles located on either side of the anus at the base of the tail. On firing it disperses into a fine spray. This oily, yellowish musk is accurate to about to ten feet but the smell is detectable over 1,000 feet away.
There is a wealth of information around the campfire and online on what to do if you get sprayed by a skunk. Some tips are useful, others laughable.
So here is a lie and some stinky truth.
• Tomato Juice: Skip the run to the grocery store. But if you are already skunked and sitting down all stinky with a jug of tomato juice I have a recipe: Pour about eight ounces of tomato juice in a tall glass, add Vodka, celery salt, Tabasco and a dash of lemon juice. Drink it. Repeat it over and over until you no longer can smell the stench.
The sad truth is the only reason tomato juice seems to work (at first) is because of something called Olfactory Overload. Your nose gets tired of the skunk smell and the sensors start to shut the stink out and the brain begins to think, "What skunk smell?"
If you jump into the tub to soak in tomato juice the juice is the primary smell you detect. Tomato juice does not remove skunk smell: it masks it; for awhile. I can guarantee you this. Walk into my emergency room for a follow up after soaking in tomato juice and we will smell the skunk odor and the juice. The grimacing triage nurse won't have to ask, "What brings you here today sir?"
We will know. We won't laugh. Well-not until after you leave.
• Over The Counter: There are some commercial winners out there that chemically alter skunk musk and a phone call to your veterinarian may bring faster suggestions than a phone call to your physician. A personal favorite of mine is Skunk Off, a popular product to spray on pets, car tires, clothes and humans. Follow instructions. And never spray it in your eyes. Some claim that Summer's Eve Douche is an effective neutralizing agent.
• Winner Of A Home Remedy:
Making the rounds for years among animal control officers and those in the know is a remedy that has been attributed to many, but originated with chemist Paul Krebaum. Mix 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide with ¼ cup of baking soda and one tsp of liquid hand soap. Wash thoroughly. Rinse with lukewarm water. Caution: Mix in a plastic bucket pan and use at once, never storing the brew; it can be volatile and increase in pressure and rupture. And next time stay away from skunks during the season of musky love in the woods.
Jonathan Schechter is naturalist/paramedic in Brandon Township and an active member of the Wilderness Medical Society certified in Advanced Wilderness Life Support. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org