The mere rumor of a mountain lion sighting in the suburbs merits front-page news. Pet owners fret about coyotes and birds of prey. But what's worse than having a skunk living under your front porch?
How about a mama skunk and her litter of a half-dozen little stinkers? Not that the additional smell makes much difference.
"One skunk usually is sufficient," subtly notes Laura Kammin, manager of the Living With Wildlife in Illinois website run by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. From now until maybe the middle of June, skunks give birth to between four and 10 members of the next generation of skunks, and some do so from a comfy spot around your house. While many critters are picky about where they make their homes, skunks are "habitat generalists" and not too persnickety, Kammin says.
Or maybe skunks are just lazy, suggests Brandon Kulosa, president of Animal Trackers Wildlife Co. of Hoffman Estates, which removes nuisance animals throughout the suburbs and has a contract with the village of Hoffman Estates.
"A groundhog will make the equivalent of a three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar mansion with two or three rooms," Kulosa says. "The skunk will stop after three shovelfuls."
Skunks often move into a groundhog's abandoned burrow, Kammin says. But this spring has increased the real estate options for skunks, or Mephitis mephitis, a species so ripe they named it twice.
"All the rain we've had makes the ground softer, and it's easier for them to dig a burrow," Kammin says.
Our lush suburban yards serve as delicatessens for the odoriferous omnivores, which eat grubs, grasshoppers, beetles, bees, some plants and even mice, rats, baby rabbits, bird eggs and birds.
"In the urban environments, you may very well find them eating on garbage and pet food," Kammin says. "They especially like the canned cat food."
A decade ago, a rabies epidemic knocked down the skunk population, but "over the past two or three years or so, the skunk populations have been higher," says Tim Preuss, wildlife biologist with the Lake County Forest Preserve District. "We typically get more skunk calls."
While government agencies provide tips to make homes less attractive to skunks, they don't offer removal services.
In the wild, the skunk's predators include great horned owls, coyotes, badgers, foxes and bobcats. In the suburbs, skunks are most likely to be done in by a Toyota Camry, a Ford Escape or some animal-control service. It is illegal to trap a skunk or other fur-bearing animal in the suburbs without qualifying for a Nuisance Animal Removal Permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which recommends that you hire a professional instead. "People are hesitant to deal with skunks on their own," Preuss says.
As required by law in this state, where permitted trappers can sell skunk pelts, all commercial trappers must euthanize the skunks, which are still thought to be possible rabies carriers.
Animal Trackers Wildlife Co. uses cage traps to catch skunks alive as they leave their burrows. To limit the range of a trapped skunk's spray, the cages are lined with cardboard. "Political signs are perfect," Kulosa says. But not foolproof. About half the caught skunks try to spray their stink on Kulosa, his partner Tony Miltz, or the inside of their truck. Does that make their truck stink?
"Yes, but it also has an odor of feces and urine," quips Kulosa, who adds that thorough cleanings are frequent.
The best way to remove the skunk spray from a vehicle, your deck or a once-curious family pet is a mixture of one quart of hydrogen peroxide, one-quarter cup of baking soda and one teaspoon of liquid soap with no water, Kammin says.
"The fur might lighten up a little bit because of the peroxide, but you probably don't care as much if he doesn't stink anymore," Kammin says.
"I've been sprayed many times," admits Kulosa, who says stories that a skunk won't spray if it can't see you or can't lift its tail are myths. The best way to get rid of the stink is just to put the sprayed items (or pet) in direct sunlight, which works better that smell-removing products, Kulosa says.
Euthanizing the skunks may sound cruel, but those deaths (usually by toxic gas) are considered a humane alternative to the cruel fate of wild animals relocated in strange new areas filled with new predators and other surprises.
In a few more weeks, skunks will be finished nesting with their litters. That's when the real busy season for skunk trapping begins, Kulosa says.
"Once the forest preserves are full of skunks, the young skunks have to move out," Kammin says. "So where they move is our backyard."
Unless they are eaten by a suburban mountain lion.