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AROUND TOWN

The Society Bent on Saving Little Stinkers

August 05, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For starters, there's the mailing address: P.U. Box 82, Topanga, CA 90290.

Then there's the acronym, SKUNKS, a bit of a stretch, standing as it does for the Society of Kind Understanding for Not Killing Skunks, a loose network of skunk saviors founded in 1994 by Share Bond of L.A. and now spreading to other states.

Its mission, as one member puts it, involves "a certain amount of espionage." More James Bond than Share Bond.

Bond's little army of volunteers takes in orphaned skunk babies, keeps them for six months--until they're able to squirt--has them vaccinated against distemper and rabies and releases them in the wild.

But rescuing and rehabilitating wild skunks is a misdemeanor, a violation of the state Department of Fish and Game code. But, as Deputy Chief Greg Laret of the wildlife protection division says, "People who rescue baby animals, raise them and release them are not high on the list of criminals."

Bond, on the other hand, is convinced that skunks are high on the department's hit list. "They make up excuses to justify killing them. It's an animal that is stinky and inconvenient"--and produces no hunting license revenue.

Bond isn't advocating that Fido and Fluffy move over for Flower. "No wild animal makes a good pet," she says. Besides, pet skunks are illegal in California.

Actually, Bond is not crazy about skunks. "I would rather work with orangutans," as she once did with scientist Birute Galdikas in Borneo. But she doesn't think it's OK to go around killing skunks, which to her are "sorely misunderstood, maligned, mistreated and much-needed animals."

Right off, she wants to dispel a few myths about Mephitis mephitis, the striped skunk common to the hills and canyons--and frequently splayed on the highways--of the Southland. One myth: that skunks go about spraying willy-nilly.

"They're nonaggressive," spraying only when angry or frightened, she says, and "they always give you a ready-aim-fire," stomping their feet, turning tail toward their victim and making a snuff-grunt sound (she demonstrates a snuff-grunt).

Truth is, she says, "they don't like to spray" because they have only six shots, which they can fire off staccato in two directions at once from a pair of glands under that bushy tail. "Then it takes an hour to reload one shot."

*

Another from her myth list: "All skunks carry rabies." This one is spread, she's convinced, by those who want to justify decimation of the species. Why, she asks, don't skunks suspected of being rabid get equal rights? Cats and dogs, but not skunks, get the benefit of a 10-day quarantine period for observation before being destroyed.

But Dr. Kevin Reilly, a veterinarian with the state Department of Health Services, points out that last year 383 mammals tested were rabid and, of those, 219 were skunks. "Typically, 50% to 75% of animals we test that are positive are skunks," he says. Those that the well-meaning might pick up for rehabilitation are at "high risk."

Further, Reilly says, the rabies incubation period in skunks may be "months, if not years," and orphan skunk kittens in the wild--the major focus of SKUNKS' rescue efforts--may have been infected by the mother's saliva. "These critters appeal to people, and they appeal to me as well, but the issue doesn't stop there."

Bond, 49, who studied animal health technology at Pierce College, has done her homework and has even written a basic primer, "Stinky Business: How to Rehabilitate Skunks," which explores skunk psyches as well as skunk anatomy. Did you know that skunks can squirt with deadly aim at 12 feet and that, while their natural prey are small rodents and large insects, they adore avocados, cat food and junk food?

To Bond, the skunk is both a delightful comic and an essential link in nature's chain. True, she says, being both plentiful and prolific, the skunk is not as yet in danger of extinction, but thousands become road kill or lunch for the great horned owl, which has no sense of smell.

As a "skunk rehabilitator," Bond has found herself belly-crawling under a house, barbecue tongs in hand, to rescue skunk kittens and giving bottle feedings at two-hour intervals around the clock. She laughs. "After you take care of these animals for six months, you're happy to see them go back into the wild."

Before releasing them, her volunteers mark the skunks' heads, then observe them for a week from dusk to dawn to make sure they make friends and find food. Usually, Bond says, "It's c'est la vie and they're gone. But I had one that crawled back in my sleeping bag and brought a friend I didn't know." A spray-happy friend.

A help call to the SKUNKS hotline ([310] 724-9643) may begin, "We've got four babies in our yard. . . ." Bond might refer the caller to a skunk-friendly vet or come to the rescue, cat carrier in hand.

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