Skunks can be found just about everywhere in North America. The most common, the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), lives in southern Canada, most of the United States, and parts of northern Mexico.
Because it somewhat resembles a house cat in size and appearance, the skunk has earned the nicknames polecat, stink cat, and wood pussy. However, it actually belongs to a different family, Mustelidae, which includes muskrats, weasels, and minks.
Skunks have few enemies thanks to their unique defense system. Like other mustelids, skunks have two scent glands on their posterior that produce a pungent odor. But only the skunk can accurately squirt the vile liquid up to 12 feet.
A slow, lumbering gait combined with poor eyesight make a skunk appear fearless as it prowls the night in search of a meal, but it takes a lot to provoke one. This docile animal, when cornered or protecting its young, will first give warning by stomping the ground with its front feet; it will then hiss and arch its tail over its back. If the attacker continues, the skunk will let go with either one or both scent barrels, which are capable of six shots each. If the spray hits the attacker’s eyes, it causes a burning sensation and often temporary blindness that may last 10 to 15 minutes. The chemical in the spray responsible for the putrid odor is the sulfide mercaptan, which may linger in an animal’s fur for a month or more.
If your pet is sprayed, bathe it as soon as possible (preferably outside) with pet or baby shampoo. If a skunk sprays your pet’s eyes, flush the eyes with plenty of water. Time-tested deodorizers include everything from vanilla extract to tomato juice or vinegar. Always rinse off your pet’s fur after using these.
A skunk is a great mouser, and also helps to keep grounds and roadsides free of carrion and fallen fruit. Its role in controlling harmful insects is what really earns the skunk its stripes, however. The animal will feed on plant pests such as cutworms, beetles, grubs, grasshoppers, and potato bugs, and occasionally even on scorpions and black widow spiders. A skunk’s best attribute, however, is its generosity. After all, what other animal would give its last scent to an enemy?