The skunk: Mephitis mephitis and its cousins. They're cute, they're smelly, and they've been scaring people in the Americas since time immemorial. One of the first Europeans to encounter a skunk was a Jesuit priest, Paul le Jeune, who described the creature thus in 1634:
The other is a low animal, about the size of a little dog or cat. I mention it here, not on account of its excellence, but to make of it a symbol of sin. I have seen three or four of them. It has black fur, quite beautiful and shining; and has upon its back two perfectly white stripes, which join near the neck and tail, making an oval which adds greatly to their grace. The tail is bushy and well furnished with hair, like the tail of a Fox; it carries it curled back like that of a Squirrel. It is more white than black; and, at the first glance, you would say, especially when it walks, that it ought to be called Jupiter's little dog. But it is so stinking, and casts so foul an odor, that it is unworthy of being called the dog of Pluto. No sewer ever smelled so bad. I would not have believed it if I had not smelled it myself. Your heart almost fails you when you approach the animal; two have been killed in our court, and several days afterward there was such a dreadful odor throughout our house that we could not endure it. I believe the sin smelled by sainte Catherine de Sienne must have had the same vile odor.
- Jesuit Relations
Theological opinions aside, skunks are relatively harmless unless they spray you. Skunks are normally placid, but when frightened, they resort to chemical warfare. Their anal secretions, which they can project up to 10 feet (3 metres), contain several thiols (also called mercaptans). These are about the worst-smelling substances on Earth.
There are several misapprehensions about skunks out there which we would like to clear up. Read on for helpful advice as to what to do when you encounter Father le Jeune's 'dog of Pluto'1.
What To Do If You See a Skunk
- Do not scream. This is likely to alarm the skunk, which is a shy creature. If you don't bother it, it will not bother you. Let it go about its business. If you're seeing it, it's probably at least twilight – skunks are crepuscular. It will amble off in a minute.
- Do not attempt to speak French to it. Cartoonists like Chuck Jones and comic strip artists like Walt Kelly like to make their skunk characters French. This is merely a bad joke about French perfume. Ignore it. Skunks prefer not to be talked to unless they're pets. Do not attempt to domesticate wild skunks. This does not work out well.
- If you have a dog, grab it and put it indoors. Dogs bark and annoy skunks. Dogs also fail to respond to the warning signs of an agitated skunk. If you don't want to spend days bathing a reluctant dog, get it out of there now.
- Heed the signals. A scared skunk will stamp its feet and hiss. It will raise its tail. It will point its rear end at you. Get out of there. A spotted skunk – of the Mephitidae species Spilogale gracilis, Spilogale putorius, Spilogale pygmaea, or Spilogale angustifrons – will do a handstand. This is highly entertaining, but ominous. Run.
What to Do If You or Your Dog Has Been Skunked
Do not despair. No, that smell won't go away by itself. But chemical help is available, courtesy of the US government and its pamphlets.
First of all, don't touch anything in your house. You'll just spread the noxious substances around.
Next, let us advise against that popular home remedy, tomato juice. It doesn't work. Soap and water won't work, either. Contact with water just makes thiols worse. Here's your best bet: fight chemistry with chemistry. You will need:
- 1 quart (950ml) 3% hydrogen peroxide
- 1/4 cup (55g) baking soda
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) liquid dish soap
Mix these ingredients gently. Don't make bubbles. (It's exothermic.) Wash the exposed parts of you and your dog. Don't get this in your eyes or mouth. Don't leave it on your hair or the dog's fur too long unless you want a bleach job.
Resolve to give skunks their space in future. They are beneficial animals who eat vermin.
For Further Information
Enjoy this helpful 'how-to' episode of the Public Broadcasting Service's series Gross Science.
Read up on striped skunks, courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.