Saturday, March 1, 2014

Skunks Are the True Harbingers of Spring

Groundhogs get way too much credit for predicting the arrival of spring.

In fact, rather than the shadow of some rodent whose appearances are better orchestrated than some would-be rock stars, I'm more inclined to pay attention to the smelly scent of skunk suddenly wafting through the February air as a sign than the seasons are changing.

After being rather low profile for most of the winter (they don't hibernate, but do den up in groups for long periods, not something you'd want to stumble on), skunks are out in full force as their mating season hits full gear.

Why, you may wonder, do they have to do the deed near the road? Well, they pretty much have to mate where they can. Although they are no longer classified as part of the weasel family, at one time they were and weasels are among those animals that, when the urge arrives, must mate or die. Whether skunks still fall in that category of desperation when mating season comes around I don't know, but either way, it's important.

So, from mid-February to mid-March, skunks are desperately looking for love.

What they encounter, however, can be less friendly. It could be a vehicle on the highway -- hence the telltale black and white carcasses on the side of the road. Quite often it is a curious dog.

I started my day last Saturday with one such unfortunate pup. A lot of unfortunate pup.

Sis is more than just a regular guest, because she's here every day during the week, and her "parents" have become like family. She's like the unofficial mascot for my kennel. And late last Friday night, while making her rounds in her fenced back yard, she apparently spotted something moving and bounded over to take a look. Odds are good that the fence still stood between her and the skunk, but the little mammal was taking no chances. Sis got sprayed, but good.

Needless to say, she spent the night outdoors and by Saturday morning, both she and her "parents" were eager for relief. Luckily for them and me, I had already had one bathing encounter with a skunk scented dog, and an internet search late at night already had them in possession of the right ingredients for cleanup.

The recipe you'll find on line for 1 quart hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup baking soda and 1 to 2 teaspoons of liquid soap does work. Add lukewarm water if needed (for larger dogs). Mix ingredients well. The solution will fizz, as a chemical reaction is occurring so don't mix it in a bottle with a lid. The quicker you can do it the better and it needs to sit on their hair for a while before rinsing out. Recommendation is to not wet the dog first, so the stuff is less diluted on their hair. Oh, and use mineral oil as protection in their eyes and don't use this stuff too much around eyes, ears and mouth.

Unfortunately for Sis, that was where she took the bulk of her spray, so even after returning her to a much more pleasant condition, she's still sporting a bit of aroma. She also doesn't like a bath at all, so I required a wardrobe change, but at least she was able to go home and stay indoors.

For almost 18 years I had a dog who got sprayed on a regular basis, but since he stayed outdoors he never got bathed afterwards, just left alone. Otis loved other dogs and cats and I don't think he ever quite figured out that skunks weren't kitties.

Despite our unfortunate relations with skunks, I have a soft spot for them as well as they're one of the breeds of orphaned animals I've raised. One summer we found a series of dead baby skunks in the yard -- never knowing what misfortune their mother had met. On one evening returning home, we found a survivor under one of the cars in the driveway. He was the size of a small kitten and despite his knowledge of how to spray, stamping the ground with his front feet and then twirling and flipping his tail up for action, he wasn't yet chemically equipped to do the job.

R.J., as we named him after a coworker who died suddenly the night we caught him, lived much of that summer indoors with us and soon overcame his fear. Since skunks are omnivores and he was big enough to be eating on his own (his siblings were often killed trying to steal dog food to survive, even in a dog lot), he wasn't hard to feed. My daughter lobbied for keeping him, but a bit of research determined that if we did and he ever bit anyone, he would be beheaded for rabies testing. Although some states have approved rabies vaccines for skunks, we didn't live in one. There was also the issue of his scent glands, which I didn't know a vet who would remove since he was pretty much an illegal pet.

Once he reached a more reasonable cat size, we moved R.J. to a large outdoor dog carrier in the edge of the woods and began limiting our interaction with him. When he once again began showing signs of fear and an apparent ability to spray, we hauled the carrier to the end of our rural road where an area had been timbered over leaving lots of good hiding and hunting places for a skunk and we released him into the night. We never knowingly crossed paths again, however any time we'd smell a skunk near the house, we always wondered if it were R.J.

So the next time you smell a skunk's aroma in the late winter air keep in mind what I always think.

That isn't the stench of a black and white, love seeking mammal. That's the first scent of spring.

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