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Be Scentsible : Some Don'ts to Do Now That It's Skunk Season

March 21, 1987|STEVE CHAWKINS and GORDON GRANT | Times Staff Writers

A few friendly tips to make life, if not more pleasant, at least less noisome over the next few months:

Don't root around beneath your house. Don't trail grubs into your living room. Strap canisters of tomato juice to your belt. Wear goggles. Warn your children and dogs to avoid other mammals, in particular certain New World omnivorous mammals of the weasel family-- Mustelidae .

If prudence prevails, you'll emerge from the annual blitzkrieg of skunks into Orange County, and just about everywhere else in Southern California, smelling like a rose.

If prudence fails, however, you could be drenched with a brew so powerfully foul that it reputedly has been sniffed by sailors 20 miles offshore, so long-lasting that traces of it have been known to linger on museum specimens more than a century.

(Animal experts say, in fact, that a skunk's spray has two elements, one that smells bad and one that makes it last a for long time. Strangely enough, the second element, which is odorless for the most part, is highly prized by manufacturers of expensive perfumes).

But even worse than the odor, a parasitic round worm could infest your brain. You could be temporarily blinded. Or you could be infected with rabies.

The chances of such a crippling or lethal encounter are minuscule. But be wary. This is the season of the skunk. Over the past few weeks, they've been emerging from an on-again, off-again winter's sleep in burrows and in brush.

They've been mating, and even now they're seeking out an eclectic range of places to bear their broods of two to 10, from within the plastic caress of swimming-pool filters to the dark, soft, tranquil crawl spaces beneath houses.

All over Southern California, the skunks are stirring. The lush and isolated Palos Verdes Peninsula is a particular haven, say animal officials, and such Orange County neighborhoods as Corona del Mar also are favored territory.

By as early as May, the skunk population will begin to soar as babies from the current mating season are born and grow large enough to venture out, said Greg Hickman, director of the North Orange County Regional Occupational Program, which teaches handling and care of wild animals.

Joe Oliver, chief of field services for the Orange County Animal Shelter, said that his office is getting two or three calls a week about skunks.

When the season peaks in a couple of months, and hungry skunk families start their nocturnal foraging for grubs and bugs and field mice in gardens and yards, Oliver probably will get more than two dozen calls a week.

So will Dennis Kroeplin of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation. Kroeplin has seen man pitted against skunk time and again, and most often, he has seen man lose.

He has seen lawns torn up "like a really horrible golfer had been there." He has toured houses that have reeked for weeks, despite all deodorant efforts. He has known dogs to be blinded and even borne witness to skunk-spurred marital discord.

"One guy up in the Hollywood Hills told me he'd lose his wife if I didn't get the skunks off his property," Kroeplin reminisced.

"He'd gotten home late one night and found this skunk family rooting around at the top of a steep walkway right in front of his front door. He didn't know what to do, so he spent the night in a motel and had to explain it to his wife in the morning."

A woman who was six months pregnant and a recent transplant from New York never had seen a skunk until she saw one in a trap Kroeplin had set in her yard.

"She thought it was a raccoon and she handed it a cookie," Kroeplin recalled. "She promptly got sprayed, which made her extremely nauseated and rushed to the hospital to make sure nothing happened to the baby."

Nothing did--but the incident underscores the cardinal rule animal experts offer for dealing with skunks: Back off. Skunks can squirt as far as 15 feet. A good dousing with tomato juice dissipates the odor, but their fluid, which has been likened to Mace, stings the skin and burns the eyes. And skunks don't scare.

"Griffith Park is loaded with them," said Tony Valenzuela, curator of mammals at the Greater Los Angeles Zoo, "and they're very brazen.

"They're opportunistic. I've seen them at night in the snow leopards' enclosure, going after the food we set out. I've seen them with ravens, with eagles, with hawks, with almost every animal you can think of, and 99% of the time, they're left alone. They're slow-moving, but they don't need the speed. They're self-assured enough to know they won't be messed with."

With good reason. In addition to their loathsome odor, skunks possess sharp teeth and claws and explosive dispositions, although they usually strike only when provoked. "They're aggressive," Valenzuela said. "They can be quite ferocious."

Besides, they can transmit rabies. But Joe Oliver said he has not heard of a rabid skunk in Orange County in more than 20 years, and not one rabid skunk has been found in Los Angeles County since 1970, according to Dr. Eric Hughes of the county veterinarian's office. But rabid skunks have been found in Northern California and as close as Santa Barbara.

Researchers scrutinizing the remains of dead skunks discover even more nastiness. "A child playing where a skunk has defecated, and ingesting it, can come in contact with a parasitic roundworm larva that migrates to the brain," Hughes said. "It can be fatal."

Still, Kroeplin has a certain sympathy for skunks.

"We've pushed them back a little ways into the hills," he said, "and they're just coming back to their old stomping grounds looking for food and water."

"After all," he said, "they were here first."

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