The year of the skunk
I have raised and released over 100 orphaned raccoons. During my years as a wildlife rehabilitator, I have worked mostly with raccoons. From time to time, I have also had the pleasure of raising and releasing opossums and squirrels. A couple of years ago, I developed an allergy to raccoons, which devastated me. I almost considered retiring, but wasn’t quite ready to call it quits. So, this spring, when I got a call asking if I could come to Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and pick up a litter of baby skunks, I was delighted.
I had never worked with skunks before, so I had a lot of learning to do. Each one of these species has different requirements for food, housing and enrichment. A couple of my friends have raised baby skunks and told me how much they enjoyed working with them, so I was excited. When I arrived at the center hospital to pick them up, there was a strong smell of skunk coming from the room. I was starting to have second thoughts; until the babies are big enough to be outside 24/7, they are in the wildlife nursery in our house!
But as soon as I saw the three tiny babies, my heart melted. They were little miniatures of their parents. Their eyes newly opened, they weighed between five and six ounces each. They were clearly very upset, crying and fussing, and they definitely smelled like skunks! Judging by their behavior, I expect they witnessed the death of their mother. Even at such a tender age they were quite stressed. I got them home, cleaned them up with a damp wash cloth, and put them in a nice warm crate full of blankets. They were still crying, but eventually settled down, and got their first feeding of formula made especially for baby skunks.
The following day, I got a second call from wildlife rescue. Another skunk had been found from this litter. It is not unusual for litter mates to come in over a period of days, as the finder hears or sees them after something has happened to their mom. Often these little orphans come in to the center in very poor condition. Without their mom to feed them, clean them, and keep them safe they go downhill quickly. They will come in totally dehydrated, covered with parasites and are sometimes injured as well. Many of them don’t survive. Fortunately, the little skunks in my care had arrived in beautiful condition. Obviously their mom had taken excellent care of them, and after she was tragically killed, the babies were quickly discovered.
I went and picked the little skunk up and brought her home to be with her siblings. What I wasn’t prepared for was the reaction of the babies to this family reunion. As soon as they saw each other, they were so excited. They ran to each other, rubbed against each other, made delightful little skunk sounds and were clearly joyful to be together again. In a short time they were all snuggled up together sound asleep. They didn’t have mom, but at least they had each other. It was a touching scene.
When you work with wildlife babies, you have the rare opportunity to examine every inch of them and see how they are put together. In addition, all of the animals I have worked with over the years have taught me so much about their own species. It is very special to be able to observe them at close range. I could spend all day doing it. Skunks have very short legs with very long nails, which are meant for digging. They have narrow heads and necks. Those coats with such distinctive marking are very thick and beautiful. They like to dig into the ground, and these babies tunneled under big logs that were in their enclosure.
Over the three months that the skunks were with me, I discovered that they are playful, intelligent, and resourceful. They are very gentle and will not spray unless they feel threatened. In all the time that they were here, they never once sprayed me. Also, contrary to what I might have thought, they don’t smell like skunks at all – unless they spray. In the wild, they eat insects, mice, voles, worms, grubs, berries, nuts, small reptiles and amphibians, and carrion. I duplicated that diet to the extent that I could, and their favorite treat here was mealworms that I had dumped into a tub of dirt so that they had to dig to find them. If you have a garden, you are very fortunate if you have a skunk nearby. They can eradicate a lot of pests. Skunks are beneficial.
Finally, the day came when it was time to release these youngsters back into the wild. Saying goodbye is always a little bittersweet as I develop a bond with each and every one of them. Just like all animals, each is an individual with its own personality and special in its own way. It is thrilling to be able to give them a second chance, but like any mom, I worry about their future.
Sharon Ponsford is a a longtime volunteer with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and a former board member of the California Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators. She lives in Glen Ellen. If you have questions or would like to ask her about our local wildlife, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.