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Those little stinkers.
It’s that time of year again: Hordes of skunks are roaming the streets, alleys and backyards of the county, from Bonita to Poway to University City, bolstered by the packs of newborns that enter the world each May.
Plenty of people have skunk tales. One reader told me about a nightly “skunk pageant” in Normal Heights. Another says skunky odor and black-and-white-striped roadkill plague Rancho San Diego all year long.
Other folks report canine-skunk confrontations and near-misses. Last year, a friend of mine in San Diego almost got rid of his dog because a skunk sprayed at her through a screen door, contaminating his entire bedroom — and everything in it — with sulfurous skunk perfume.
The good news: There are ways to keep skunks away, and they’re not as likely to spray as you might think, just as long as there’s not a barking dog (or screaming adult) in the picture. The bad news: It’ll cost you to find someone to rid of them if necessary.
Here are answers to some frequent questions about these pesky critters.
Why are they here and what do they want?
Skunks are natives of San Diego County, not transplants like so many of us humans and other species, like possums. Two kinds live here: the spotted skunk and the striped skunk, with those white stripes that spell trouble.
You’re not likely to see the tiny spotted skunk, which only weighs around two pounds, unless you head to the backcountry. But it sometimes shows up along the coast around Del Mar, apparently because the species follows the San Dieguito River to the sea, said Scott Tremor, a mammal specialist at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
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Skunks have a hankering for the usual things, like an opportunity to breed. So they search for mates in the spring. “The males are looking for the females and vice versa,” Tremor said. Then the little skunks appear, typically in May, helping to explain why skunks seem so common around this time of year.
Besides finding romance, skunks want to eat, and urban areas provide a natural buffet. “They’re just fine without us, but they do even better with us,” Tremor said. “We provide lawns that have a lot of insects. It’s easy for them to dig up and grab worms and many other insects that they prefer to eat.”
And, of course, pet food left outdoors is a delightful treat.
Are skunks dangerous?
In general, skunks are gentle creatures. “They can be terrific pets once the scent gland is removed,” Tremor said. “Some people even keep them as pets with the scent glands.” (Ownership of domestic skunks is illegal in California, however.)
But it’s not a good idea to sidle up to a wild skunk and say hello. They can carry rabies, although no tested skunk has had the disease locally since 2005.
What’s with the spray and the smell?
Skunks often spray when they’re cornered, said Sarah Whorley, a spokeswoman with the local Project Wildlife organization. They can also spray when startled, such as when a person sees one and screams before running away. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)
In many cases, though, skunks will give warning before letting loose. “They’ll growl, they’ll stamp their feet,” Whorley said. “But the young ones and mothers who have their young with them might be more likely to spray without warning.”
Male skunks may also spray during breeding season when they’re fighting over females.
Skunks spray either a cloud or concentrated spray of horrible odor from nipples in their anal scent glands.
“Some people are fine with it, and some people like it,” Tremor said. “But I’m not one.”
If you or your pet gets sprayed, don’t run for the tomato juice. The internet is full of other strategies (including a mix of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and liquid soap) that might work better.
How can you make skunks stay away?
Keep your fences in good shape and push the supports deep into the ground — 1.5 feet deep — so skunks can’t dig underneath. Watch out for even the tiniest gaps. Even a couple inches of space can be enough for skunks to get through since they can easily squeeze into a tight space, Tremor said.
Whorley advises that you protect your garbage and make sure there’s no entrance to a deck, crawl space or wood pile. Water and bird feed also attract skunks, she said.
To keep skunks away, you can also spread cayenne pepper and mothballs outside, she said, adding that some people put fake owls on their property to scare skunks into going somewhere else.
What if skunks won’t leave?
Under California law, you can’t legally relocate a skunk without permission unless it is hurting your property or endangering it. San Diego County Animal Control doesn’t remove skunks, but it does contract out animal removal services for a minimum fee of $100. If there’s a dead skunk around, the city can help if it’s in a public right of way.
For a fee, Project Wildlife will relocate skunks and fix problems that may attract them. The cost is $75 for an estimate and up to $250-$500 depending on the level of work required.
My cat is fascinated by skunks. What should I do?
Rabies is a possible danger from skunks, so you may wish to keep cats inside, at least at night when skunks are most active and feline-friendly.
However, cats and skunks often get along just fine. Unlike, say, dogs and skunks. “I’ve heard many times of people who have outdoor cats who will be hanging out on the back patio with a skunk,” Tremor said. “There’s no aggression. They’re just hanging.”