On the (Very Smelly) Trail of the Skunk Takeover
Pet-friendly American suburbs make ideal habitats for skunks, and populations of the bushy-tailed moochers have exploded in recent years. Time to investigate an outbreak that's bringing the wrong kind of funk to summer nights.
I bought a striped skunk skull online from a man named Terry. It arrived yesterday from Duluth, Minnesota, in a nondescript cardboard box that weighed almost nothing. I opened the box and removed the skull from a cocoon of bubble wrap.
I hold it in my hand now. It’s much smaller than I expected. It fits comfortably on the screen of my smartphone. I sit at my desk, turning the skull over to inspect its ridged surfaces, tracing my finger along the delicate zygomatic arches. I count its white teeth.
Meanwhile, at the end of my overgrown backyard, beneath a small garden shed, skunks are sleeping among the roots, hidden in the cool earth, waiting for the night to come.
In my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a pleasantly average city of 190,000 residents that sits two and a half hours northeast of Chicago, nothing too exciting ever seems to happen. But in the hot summer months, a thick, immovable cloud of skunk odor envelops the entire city. Skunks are everywhere. I have seen them ambling up my driveway at night toward my trash cans—like sturdy black cats, marked with two broad white stripes that run the length of their oil-black sides. My neighbors Cindy and Monty Burch own a dog—Robinson, an affable brown Labrador—that was sprayed by skunks nine times in the summer of 2012 and five times the summer before that. Dog owners across the city have experienced the same problem. Only the trees are safe—striped skunks are reluctant climbers.
Last October, when Wayne Weeks set traps in his Grand Rapids yard to catch the squirrels that nest in his roof, he accidentally caught a skunk instead. His four-year-old son thought it was a kitten and asked to play with it. Jaya Neal Rapp’s two dogs were sprayed by a skunk that visited her yard to eat the fruit that fell from a neighbor’s overhanging mulberry tree. I even heard a story about a local woman on her way home from a hair salon who tried to shovel a dead skunk from the road outside her house and was sprayed in the face by its still-active reflexes.
Thirteen years ago, when my neighbor Cindy moved to Eastown, a Grand Rapids suburb on the east side of the city, there were no skunks, she says—or at least she never saw any. Suddenly, four years ago, skunks were everywhere.
Many of my neighbors have begun talking about a plan to organize against the skunks. They want the animals eradicated, and they want the city to do it for them. On the well-kept sidewalks of East Grand Rapids, when residents meet, they talk about the rotten lingering stink of skunks—a smell that clings to everything and settles in the low-lying parts of town like dirty water.
The skunk explosion isn’t just happening in Grand Rapids. Across the United States, skunks are infiltrating urban areas in astounding numbers. We are colliding with them, and they are colliding with us. “We’re spreading out more,” says Jerry Dragoo, a biologist at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, who has spent his career researching skunks. “I get a lot of calls from rural areas, but I get them from the middle of towns as well. Concrete. Pavement. We have encroached on a lot of their habitat, but they’re very adaptable. They do well in human habitats. We provide them with food, water, and shelter. They’ll eat just about anything. If you feed your dog or cat outside, they’ll take advantage of that. They move in under sheds and things.”
The striped skunk, by far the most common but not the only skunk in North America, has one of the largest ranges of any skunk species—an enormous region extending southward from British Columbia and Hudson Bay in the north through the United States to northern Mexico. It is present in every state except Hawaii and Alaska. No habitat beneath elevations of around 13,000 feet is considered unlivable.
Existing near humans suits skunks, says Luanne Johnson, a conservation biologist who studies them on Martha’s Vineyard. “If you build it, they will come,” she says. “People love a vegetation border around their house, with a mini forest separating them from their neighbors. That’s ideal for skunks. They sleep in those areas or under decks and come out at night and cruise the yard and eat birdseed and dog poop.”
In 2009, The New York Times reported on a growing presence of skunks in Manhattan. A migration has begun, with the animals crossing the Harlem River from the Bronx and arriving at the northern tip of Manhattan—a place where skunk numbers previously had been low. Their populations exploded. They now are sighted regularly on the Jersey shore.
In August 2013, on the West Coast, employees reported seeing skunks in Dodger Stadium, in the concretized sprawl of downtown Los Angeles. “When I’m here at midnight, I see whole families come in, mamas and papas, the whole bunch,” a Dodgers employee told the Los Angeles Times.
Parts of Illinois are inundated with record numbers of skunks. Statewide, 11,500 problem skunks were reported in 2011—a 33 percent increase over 2010, a year that saw a 46 percent increase over the year before it. An animal-control specialist in Palatine, a northwestern suburb of Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune that he sometimes traps 15 skunks a day.
Stanley Gehrt already knows this. A wildlife specialist at Ohio State, Gehrt says skunks are ascendant, at least in the states he studies. “The Great Lakes states,” he says. “Wisconsin, obviously. Indiana at the border of Illinois. Ohio. Most of the upper Midwestern states, and Michigan, too.”
If a circle is drawn around this region, Grand Rapids sits at its epicenter—like the bull’s-eye of a dartboard.
I’m a molecular biologist, so the moment I realize I have skunks living in my yard, I become obsessed with them. Within a few weeks, I have the skunk skull on my desk, a stack of articles on skunks, and a copy of The Biology of the Striped Skunk, by B. J. Verts—the definitive textbook on the animal, published in 1967. (In fact, it’s the only textbook on the striped skunk.) I’m waiting for a bottle of skunk essence to arrive in the mail. In my spare time, I read archived news stories on skunks. Among my favorite headlines: “GAS MAN SPRAYED BY RABID SKUNK” (2012), “POLICE: ARGUMENT ESCALATED AFTER MAN SPRAYED BY SKUNK” (2008), and “OFFICER INVESTIGATED IN BURNING OF SKUNK” (1995).
Most important, I have become nocturnal. Each night, I stand on the deck that looks out on my backyard. I lean expectantly over the wet grass, like a whaler on the prow of a boat. And I watch for skunks.
The skunk is a superlative animal. On arriving in the New World and meeting them for the first time, early naturalists referred collectively to members of the skunk family as the stinkards. With the exception of two distantly related species of stink badgers, found only in Asia, the skunk is native to the Americas. They are classified as a distinct family—a group of 11 carnivorous mammals known as the Mephitidae—with each species occupying its own distinct range and, in some cases, sharing territory.
“There are five species north of Mexico,” explains Dragoo, who calls himself a mephitologist. “You have the striped skunk, which is Mephitis mephitis, and then you have the hooded skunk, which is primarily Central American, but it does get into Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and that’s Mephitis macroura. Then there are two spotted skunks—the eastern form and the western form—and those are Spilogale putorius and Spilogale gracilis. And then we also have the white-backed hog-nosed skunk, which is Conepatus leuconotus.”
Location is everything, Dragoo says. The skunks beneath my shed can only be striped skunks; no other species ventures this far north. The ranges of eastern and western spotted skunks go farther south and are circumscribed, slightly overlapping east of the Continental Divide. But the striped skunk is found almost all over the U.S., feeding voraciously on everything from beetles, squirrels, and frogs to bird eggs, berries, grains, human-generated garbage, and animal feces. A small animal—males average six pounds, females four pounds or so—skunks achieve population densities that can range from 0.1 to 38 individuals per square kilometer.
Skunk numbers are at their highest in late summer, when recently born juveniles begin to explore their habitat. They have almost no predators—a potential meal that makes a predator reek for a month has diminishing returns. Coyotes, foxes, and great horned owls will eat a skunk, but only to avoid death by starvation. Even so, in the wild, skunks don’t live long: a four-year-old is a wise old anomaly.
Across the country, 2013 could have been named Year of the Rabid Skunk. In mid-July, an article in the Vermont Standard carried the headline “ELDERLY MAN RECOVERING FROM RABID SKUNK ATTACK.” Walking along a quiet road, an 84-year-old man noticed a skunk following close behind; when he lost his footing, the skunk attacked, biting him repeatedly on the ankles. One week later, a five-month-old child was bitten on the face by a rabid skunk at a Little Falls, Minnesota, day-care facility. “He got bit a number of times,” the county sheriff told the news media. “It was an unusually large skunk, almost the size of, probably, a cocker spaniel.” The following week, a woman visiting a Six Flags amusement park in Massachusetts was bitten by a rabid skunk.
Reports continued to come in from across the country: rabid skunks turned up in Boulder, Colorado, for the first time in 50 years; a 15-year high in the number of rabid skunks in Missouri; skunk rabies on the rise in North Carolina; rabid skunks in Arizona. In August, the Ohio Department of Health began a vaccination program, setting baits laced with rabies vaccine across a 4,334-square-mile region of the eastern part of the state. Similar efforts were under way in parts of Texas. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was testing a rabies vaccine in several states.
“We do see about a five-year cycle in the number of rabid skunks reported nationally,” says Jesse Blanton, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rabies branch. “The last peak was around 2009, 2010, so we may be just beginning to see cases fluctuating upward.”
Rabies in skunks means only one thing: lots of skunks. “Skunk populations rise until the point where some disease comes in, rabies or distemper or perhaps something else,” says Philip Myers, a biologist at the University of Michigan.
“When the populations are really dense, the disease is transmitted quickly from animal to animal, and the population is knocked back,” Myers adds. “When it’s knocked back far enough, transmission stops, the disease disappears for a while, and the population builds back up. That cycle just repeats.”
The skunk's Latin names are revealing. The striped skunk’s name of Mephitis mephitis is derived from Mefitis, the Roman goddess of noxious vapors. The putorius in the spotted skunk’s Spilogale putorius is from the Latin putere—to stink or be rotten.
One rainy night, I watch a 30-second, slow-motion YouTube clip of a skunk spraying in extreme close-up. Once seen, the footage—taken from a 2009 Nature program called Is That Skunk?—can never be unseen.
The skunk’s anus, looming on the screen as large as a planet, flexes with a single muscular contraction—rolling outward, slowly everting. The scent glands emerge from it, one on either side. Dark and rounded, they resemble kidney beans. Each gland releases a high-powered geyser of yellow liquid, the color of egg yolk.
It aerosolizes into a fine mist.
“I’m a chemical ecologist,” says William Wood, a professor emeritus at Humboldt State University, in Northern California. “I’m interested in how chemicals carry messages in nature.”
Wood has spent more time studying the chemical composition of skunk spray than anyone alive. “It’s a fairly unique odor,” he says. “I don’t know any way to describe it other than a rotten-egg odor or a thiol odor.”
On the desk in front of me as I talk to Wood sits a small glass screw-top jar. Inside the jar is the wax-sealed bottle of skunk scent I’d ordered from Buck Stop Scents and Lures, of Stanton, Michigan, a hunting-supply company. A day before, I removed the bottle from the jar and shook it, watching the viscous liquid swirl around. I open the bottle. The moment I break the wax seal, the pungently aggressive odor of rotten eggs fills the room. With my nose over the bottle, I gag. For the next hour, my stomach lurches and rumbles. It’s the familiar smell that wafts into my room late at night after a dog has tangled with a skunk in a nearby backyard.
A skunk can spray more than ten feet, aiming it precisely in twin, threadlike streams.
“It can be emetic,” Luanne Johnson says. “It can cause temporary blindness. It’s disorienting, and it totally disables your sense of smell. A predator can no longer function as a predator for a period of time if it gets a good hit.”
I ask Wood what it is about these thiol-rich chemical compounds that make such a distinctive smell. “They fit into an odor receptor in our nose,” he says. “It’s the sulfur that does it.”
The most efficient way to remove skunk odor from clothing, says Wood, is to wash it in a mixture of one cup of bleach per gallon of water. For pets, wash them in a quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, a quarter-cup of baking soda, and a teaspoon of liquid soap.
Wood believes humans are sensitive to the compounds in skunk spray for an important reason: they act as an environmental messenger.
“Hydrogen sulfide is found in areas that don’t have oxygen,” he says, “and I think, evolutionarily, as oxygen breathers, this is a signal that there is no oxygen in the air there, or in the mud, or wherever it is.”
My stomach lurches again.
I attend a skunk-related meeting at the Eastown Community Association building. Five or six of us sit around a wooden table, describing recent skunk encounters, while Lindsey Ruffin, executive director of the association, scribbles notes. When a retired local attorney suggests paying a $50 bounty for every skunk tail collected, I keep my head down. A few weeks later, we set up an e-mail address for residents to report skunk sightings. The messages arrive slowly at first, then in a flood: skunks in yards every night, skunks spraying dogs, skunks sitting proudly atop trash cans.
In winter, snow and ice blankets everything in Grand Rapids. But the skunks remain active. “They’re not true hibernators,” says Luanne Johnson. “They go into a torpor, and they’ll reduce their metabolism for a period of time when it’s really cold out.”
If temperatures climb above 20 degrees, they emerge to find food. In still-frozen backyards they’ll target birdseed, slices of leftover pizza, and compost bins overflowing with vegetables.
“Skunks sleep in groups for the winter, because of their body heat, and it’s usually one male and however many females he secures,” says Johnson. “He has this little harem that he keeps for the winter.”
A skunk can lose half its body weight during the cold months. In February they emerge. After mating in March, females give birth in May to litters of two to ten mouse-size kits. One year, local exterminator John Benson tells me, he trapped a female skunk with a litter of eight. “That was the biggest one I’ve ever had,” he says.
A lot of my neighbors would like the elected officials of Grand Rapids to approach the increase in skunk numbers aggressively, like a few other cities have. In 2011, Avalon, New Jersey, had a serious skunk problem. Located on Seven Mile Island—a barrier island off the Jersey coastline—Avalon was teeming with the animals. Locals had had enough. Mayor Martin Pagliughi employed trappers to haul the skunks away. “We’re trapping them and putting them in the witness protection program,” he joked to the Press of Atlantic City. “We don’t know where they’re going.”
In fact, Pagliughi had begun removing skunks around 2009. Back then trappers had relocated approximately 80 skunks, releasing many of them across the water in Upper Township, New Jersey, infuriating residents. After a request from Upper Township mayor Richard Palumbo, Pagliughi agreed to stop releasing skunks there.
Last summer, officials in Vernon Hills, Illinois, hired a trapper to thin skunk populations there. But most cities seem to stay out of it.
Is eradication even possible in Grand Rapids?
“We don’t have a program as a city, nor, as far as I know, does the county have any program,” says Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell. “It surely isn’t a good time to be talking about the city adding new enforcement programs when we’re trying to figure out how to live within our means.”
Still, many nights, Heartwell tells me, like other people across the city—in Heritage Hill and Alger Heights or to the south in the city of Kentwood—he or his wife closes their bedroom window because of the smell of skunks wafting inside.
“I don’t want to be so cavalier as to say we just have to learn to live with it,” Heartwell says. “But I think that individuals or neighborhoods are going to have to take action on their own using private-sector pest-control companies.”
It's a few minutes before midnight. A full moon lights the tree trunks. I stand on my deck, watching over the strange stillness of a city backyard at night. At around 9:30 a few nights earlier, as I carried a bag of trash outside, a skunk exploded from beneath one of the ferns in my yard, white stripe visible along its flank like a Nike swoosh. It ran along a fence, weasel-like, before disappearing into a thick wall of foliage.
It was one of the skunks that lives beneath my shed. I am watching for it now. Perhaps it is out scouring for food. Maybe it is dead. In a typical year, approximately 30 percent of skunks will die of disease—rabies or distemper, overrun by ticks or internal parasites. Another third will die of human-related causes, like being hit by a car or trapped by an exterminator. After a half-hour, a solid-looking opossum wanders out from the undergrowth instead, slipping between the shadows. An hour later I go to bed.
But in the morning I smell skunk again. My Honda Pilot—I had considered it an unthreatening presence—was sprayed by a skunk in the night. As I load my kids into the car, a noxious cloud fills the interior: the sulfurous, cloying smell of rotten eggs, garlic, and marsh gas.
We drive wordlessly to school. The smell is still there when I pick my kids up in the afternoon.
Jerry Dragoo, who has a poor sense of smell, is unable to smell skunks, a discovery he made decades ago as an undergraduate student. He’d been dispatched to the southern part of New Mexico for fieldwork, where part of his job was trapping them.
“I managed to catch one, and it sprayed me,” he says. “It wasn’t that big a deal. I thought, What’s everybody so concerned about? Three days later, when I went back to class, they wouldn’t let me in the building.”
For Dragoo, getting sprayed is an occupational hazard. He has been sprayed so many times, he now remembers only superlative instances. “I was sprayed by one animal nine times in eleven seconds,” he says with pride.
“A half-hour later it sprayed me again, three more times.”
Don VandenBos leans over an ancient rust-pocked chest freezer and hands me a still-warm skunk carcass. As I take the skunk and hold it like a baby, VandenBos, who operates a Grand Rapids Critter Control franchise, walks absentmindedly around his workshop, which smells of motor oil and skunks. In the workshop, a multitude of narrow wire traps is stacked against the walls.
A few minutes earlier, VandenBos had taken a trap, with the skunk inside, and lowered it carefully into a large garbage can primed with carbon dioxide gas. Early that morning, he tells me, a homeowner in East Grand Rapids had managed to trap the skunk, then realized he didn’t know what to do with it.
“We get that about once a week,” he says. “Somebody will catch a skunk—surprise the heck out of them—and they don’t know what to do. I don’t advise putting it in your car. I’ve done it. Put it in my wife’s car.”
He stops and makes a sour face. “Not a good thing,” he says.
The best way to eliminate problem skunks, says VandenBos, is to board up crawl spaces beneath the structures where they make their dens and ensure there are no food scraps or birdseed for them to eat. It’s better to let an animal-removal expert trap and dispose of a problem skunk. Don’t try this at home.
The skunk is a small juvenile male weighing perhaps two pounds, probably born earlier this year. We inspect it. Fleas crawl through its black, burr-filled fur. Its nose is caked with dried mud. I pull its lips away from its white teeth. When I grab it around the scruff of the neck to move it, I think I feel a distant pulse throb from somewhere in its thick body. On its shoulders are two thin white stripes, like faint parentheses—each a few inches long, almost not there at all.
“You’ll find everything from solid white to solid black,” VandenBos says, pointing to the markings on its back.
Tall, skinny, and sixty-something, VandenBos bends over the skunk again, trying to show me its scent glands. I take a step backward. As he pulls and kneads at the skin around the anus, I put a storage rack between the skunk and me. Eventually, to my relief, VandenBos gives up.
“As soon as this body turns chilly,” he says, “them fleas are going to start jumping.” He puts the skunk in a plastic bag, opens the chest freezer, and places it inside, where it joins a confusion of other bulging bags.
A few days after meeting VandenBos, my wife and I stand at a window at midnight, watching a skunk loitering in our driveway. Its back is almost completely white—two stripes that merge into one wide band.
Summer is now upon us in Grand Rapids, and the battle is being fought again. It takes place in parks and backyards, and in the shady, half-forgotten, garbage-choked spaces behind apartment buildings. The lines are drawn. If the summer is long and dry, and food is scarce, hungry skunks will pour from the outskirts into the city, like worms migrating from rain-filled soil. And if their population densities are high enough, perhaps rabies or distemper outbreaks will ignite, spreading through the streets to keep them at bay. No one knows yet what the hot summer months will hold. Cindy and Monty Burch are waiting to find out, along with hundreds of dog owners across Grand Rapids. Perhaps this year, if enough skunks infiltrate the city limits, officials will be forced to intercede.
I stand on my deck and focus on the shed at the bottom of the yard, surrounded now by a thick bank of hostas. It floats strangely in the darkness. In an odd way, I have begun to hope for a glimpse—a black body with a white tilde—moving quickly through the shadows. I never use my shed anyway. The skunks can have it. Fern fronds bounce on the breeze in the half-light.
I smell nothing.
But I know the skunks are down there somewhere, waiting.