skunkpicThough I have lived in Manhattan for most of my life, I had never seen such an abundance of skunks until I moved to Fort Tryon Gardens. Beautiful, crepuscular, quiet, determined, and forever nosing around for food, I find them endlessly fascinating. Mephitis mephitis is a remarkable animal. Mephitis is Latin for foul odor. Mephitis mephitis means… double foul odor. Watching them and learning about their biology and all the ways they are beneficial to us, and our backyard, has been a pleasure.

Skunks are beautiful creatures, with glossy black fur and bold white markings leading to a long, fluffy tail. Each skunk has his or her own individual markings. The female skunk is a devoted mother. She generally gives birth to an average of six, hairless, blind babies in her leaf-lined burrow/den, under rocks in our park or under a building, sometime between April and June. Though they have no fur, they do have the outlines of where their white stripes and black fur will soon grow in. Mom nurses her babies for six weeks and then, on a warm spring evening, she leads them out to the park or on the walkways around our buildings and teaches them to hunt.

Many of the animals we don’t want in our apartments are a desirable meal to a skunk: mice, rats, centipedes, beetles, spiders, wasps, bees, and creepy-crawlies of all sorts. Skunks are omnivores and will eat fruit, berries, seeds, insect eggs, insect larvae, worms, small mammals, and human garbage. After about a year, the babies will leave their mother, but should they run into each other they immediately recognize their mother or siblings and will greet each other with love and playful tumbling. They have poor eyesight and usually we see them before they see us. They have only one defense, their spray, which they are loathe to use, because they have a limited amount and only use in times of utter urgency. That is why it is best to give them a wide berth when you spot them. They shuffle along quickly, nosing the ground, searching for prey. Their little paws are like hands, and they use them to turn over rocks and logs. They use their long digger claws to scratch away the grass looking for earthworms in the soil. In the morning you can see shallow holes in the dirt, evidence of their nighttime foraging.

Here is a link to a wonderful video on skunks produced by Nature, WNET, in which they give you the antidote for skunk spray:

Here is the recipe:

  1. Apply a small strip of eye lubricant (such as Puralube) or 1-2 drops of mineral oil to your dog’s eyes. This will help protect the eyes in case any of the solution splashes or drips in.
  2. In the plastic container, combine 1quart hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup baking soda and 1 to 2 teaspoons of liquid soap. Add lukewarm water if needed (for larger dogs). Mix ingredients well. The solution will fizz, as a chemical reaction is occurring. Use immediately – do not store.
  3. Do not soak your dog with water prior to bathing. Promptly begin cleansing the affected areas thoroughly, massaging the solution deep into your dog’s coat. You may wish to use a sponge or washcloth. Avoid getting the solution in the eyes, ears or mouth.
  4. Allow the solution to remain on your dog for at least five minutes (longer if strong odor persists).
  5. Rinse your dog well with lukewarm water. Repeat steps as necessary until odor is gone. Dry your dog well and give him/her a treat!

Skunks are generally fine around people as long as you don’t seem threatening. One summer evening we were eating outdoors at the New Leaf Café in Fort Tryon Park and a skunk started to walk into the dining area. One of the waiters started to clap his hands. The skunk did an about face and walked into the shrubs. A minute later, it tried to walk back into the dining area from another angle, this time the diners started gently clapping, and out it went. For the next quarter hour you could hear diners clapping from one area, then another, then another, until the skunk finally gave up and left the restaurant. Like us, all it wanted was something good to eat.

The only real predator of the skunk is the great horned owl who has no real sense of smell and is not deterred at all by skunk spray. For some years, we had a nesting pair of great horned owls in Inwood Hill Park. The main killer of skunks is the automobile. Last week I was crossing Bennett Avenue and smelled a really strong skunk smell. One large male was lying dead in the middle of the road, hit by a car. When they finally see the car coming, instead of running, they will spray the car, thinking that will stop it. Although intelligent, skunks have not yet evolved to identify oncoming cars.

Illustration by Arismendy Feliz

Skunks in the wild only live a few years because they so often end up as road kill. In captivity they can live up to 10 years. Once winter comes, several skunk families of mothers and their pups may den together for warmth, often using abandoned woodchuck burrows, or they may den with a woodchuck family. If the temperature is warm enough, they will emerge to feed, but usually once the hard frosts set in and the ground freezes, they go into “torpor” and become inactive for long periods of time.

When asked about the presence of skunks in northern Manhattan, Jennifer Hoppa, director of Fort Tryon Park, Inwood Hill Park, and Highbridge Park told DNA Info: “I think it’s a learning opportunity. If you’re planning on living in a community that is more than one third open space, you have to learn how to peacefully coexist.” I couldn’t agree more.