A few friendly tips to make life, if not more pleasant, then 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 smelling like a rose.
If prudence fails, however, you could be drenched with a brew so powerfully foul it's reputedly 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. Even worse, a parasitic roundworm 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.
Bearing Their Young
All over Southern California foothills, skunks are bearing their young. By late April, the babies will be old enough to travel, and skunk families will start leaving their nests to forage for food. As housing projects continue to encroach on their natural habitat, the food they find might turn out to be your dog's kibbles instead of slugs and grubs and fallen fruit.
In the Southeast section of Los Angeles County, skunks are pretty much confined to the foothills of Whittier and La Mirada, and along the San Gabriel River, according to Gana Sharp, supervisor of the South Gate Shelter of the Southern California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"About 75% of all the calls we get are from Whittier, although we have gotten calls from as far down as Lakewood," she said. At the height of the season, the SPCA will get at least one or two calls daily, she said.
There is no need to panic if you see a skunk in your yard, Sharp said--unless it's during the day. Skunks are nocturnal, and a skunk out and about in the daylight usually means a sick animal. Since skunks, like all warm-blooded animals, can carry rabies, beware of a sick-appearing animal, she said; call an animal-control officer.
Usually Not a Problem
However, if the skunk family is just passing through, it's often not necessary to trap the animal and have it destroyed. Skunks usually do not pose a great problem for most households, unless they decide to move in. Sharp advises residents to check all the vents on their houses to make sure they are secure. If a skunk moves in, it can be difficult to dislodge, and a frightened skunk spraying inside the air vents of a house is a highly memorable experience.
Skunks are not likely to attack people or pets, Sharp said. "They'll look at you and beat their little feet on the ground to scare you," she said. "If that doesn't work, they'll turn around to spray." That's when to run.
The reason so many skunks are killed by cars, Sharp said, is that they have a perfect natural defense and they know it. "They're slow-moving animals, and when a car approaches, they just turn around to spray it," she said.
If a skunk family does take up residence on your property, it can cause problems.
Dennis Kroeplin, the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation's wildlife officer for the San Fernando Valley and its environs, said that when the season reaches its peak and hungry skunk families start their nocturnal foraging he will field 30 calls a week.
"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 reminisces. "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 before 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 recalls. "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 easily.
Prowling the Zoo After Hours
"Griffith Park is loaded with them," says 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 self-assured enough to know they won't be messed with."
And, there's always the threat of rabies.
That's why animal control officers frequently use chloroform-soaked sponges to kill the skunks who make their way into the traps they lend to homeowners. The bodies--Kroeplin alone chloroforms about 100 skunks a year--are taken to the county veterinarian's office for examination.
"We do make sure that what is in the trap is a skunk before we chloroform it," Sharp said. "A lot of times, it turns out to be a neighbor's black and white cat."
Times staff writer Beth Uyehara contributed to this story.