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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Skunks bring about the smells of spring

Mary Charbonneau pets her three basset hounds, from left Sophie, Oliver and Tucker at her home on Friday, April 7, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. The three dogs were sprayed by a family of skunks in her backyard. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

It was Mary Charbonneau’s birthday and she was looking forward to a day off.

Like any other morning, her three basset hounds Oliver, Sophie and Tucker went through the dog door into the backyard. But this they followed their noses and encountered the surprise of their lifetime.

“All three of them ran right into a mama skunk and she defended her babies,” Charbonneau said. “All three hounds got sprayed at the same time and they ran, blinded, back into the house.”

Basset hounds are scent hounds so Charbonneau suspects the olfactory impact overwhelmed her dogs, who panicked as she tried to grab them and haul them back outside.

“They were all rubbing their eyes and faces on everything, trying to get the stink out,” Charbonneau said. “The baby skunks sprayed too. It was like a cloud out there.”

Skunks commonly stink up most Spokane neighborhoods.

So does Spokane have a skunk problem?

Michael Atamian, the wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Spokane district, doesn’t necessarily think so.

“They live here and they are very common,” Atamian said. “But if we hear about them it’s usually because people are trying to get rid of them.”

Nearsighted and mostly nocturnal, Skunks are unlikely to draw attention to themselves as they go about eating insects, the occasional backyard chicken egg, small rodents and any pet food left outside. They dig dens under houses and sheds, where the female typically produces one litter in early spring. The males are bachelors traveling between many dens.

Female skunks keep their litters together for the summer and it’s not unusual for them to hibernate together that first winter as well.

Atamian said Washington skunks don’t have rabies and rarely carry any diseases that can affect human or domesticated animals, except canine distemper and the bacterial infection tularemia (also common in beavers).

It’s not legal to keep them as pets – even if they’re ability to spray is removed – in Washington or Idaho. However, some homeowners choose to make friends with skunks instead of calling the “nuisance animal operators” – a fancy name for exterminator .

Kay O’Rourke lived for years near the John A. Finch Arboretum. When a female skunk moved in beneath her chicken coop and later emerged with a litter of what she described as adorable skunk kittens, O’Rourke’s dog got sprayed, but only once.

“I taught my dog to leave them alone,” O’Rourke said. “It was hard for her. She’d sit there and quiver, but she wouldn’t go near them.”

The skunk got so comfortable she’d bring her litter out on visits during the day, all the way up to O’Rourke’s backdoor looking for a treat.

“I probably shouldn’t have given them anything but they never caused any trouble,” O’Rourke said, adding that she felt sad when she sold the house and moved. “I don’t know for sure, but I figured the new owners probably had them exterminated.”

The home Shallan Knowles bought in West Central came with skunks living under the floor.

“I could hear animals and smell them a tiny little bit,” Knowles said.

The skunks had gotten in through vents the previous owner left uncovered. Curious about what was going on, Knowles set up a borrowed wildlife camera.

“It was kind of cool. I saw one nose bump my cat,” Knowles said. “The cats never got sprayed.”

A neighbor talked her out of calling an exterminator.

“Honestly, we are surrounded by river, raccoons and skunks, moose and deer,” Knowles said. “Being so close to nature, and downtown, is one reason why we live in West Central.”

When the skunk family left the space below her house, she covered up the vents to prevent them from moving back in.

“I don’t mind if they eat an egg my chickens lay in the yard,” Knowles said, “but I don’t want them killing my chickens or anything.”

Wildlife biologist Atamian said skunks may get in a chicken coop, and they do eat birds, small mammals and eggs, but contrary to popular belief they aren’t big disease carriers.

The one thing to fear is their spray.

Skunks don’t just “go off” at random, and they don’t “attack and spray” Atamian said. “They only spray if they feel threatened.”

The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website calls skunk spray “nature’s version of tear gas.” And there’s more: “It can be discharged either in a fine mist or in a water-pistol-type stream. It has a stifling, pungent, often gagging odor that can persist for weeks and be detected over a mile away.”

A skunk will charge a perceived threat a few times, raise it’s tail and then, as a last warning, stomp it’s front feet. If that doesn’t scare you away, then it will swing it’s rump around and fire, according to the state wildlife department. An adult striped skunk can go off five to eight times before it’s empty and has to reload. Reloading takes about a week.

The problem is that dogs just can’t resist the temptation of running after a cat-like animal.

In the case of Charbonneau’s basset hounds it was probably the surprise element that set the skunk off.

“Clean up took all day,” Charbonneau said. She eventually got rid of a chair one of the dogs had rubbed his face on. “We just couldn’t get the smell out.”

She ended up taking sets of long drapes to be professionally cleaned.

“I washed some clothes and put it in the drier, but the drier set the stink and everything smelled,” Charbonneau said. “It was awful.”

She recommends washing in cold water or calling a professional dry cleaner before doing anything.

To prevent another skunk incident, Charbonneau buried mothballs every five to six inches around the outside of her fence. She said the cheap home remedy works for her.

“We haven’t had a problem since,” Charbonneau said. “The smell of mothball is a little strong to begin with, but it dissipates.”

She’s talked to her neighbors about not leaving cat food outside.

Charbonneau said she sees skunks in her neighborhood all the time and she smells them just as frequently.

She doesn’t want to call an exterminator. Trapped skunks and other wildlife are not relocated but euthanized.

“There is no relocation of wildlife in Washington,” Atamian said. “It sounds like a good plan but it’s not fair to the animal.”

He said the state wildlife department often gets calls about relocating the sizable turkey population on the South Hill.

“You can’t just move them. They are urban turkeys, if we dropped them off in a national forest they’d just die,” Atamian said.

Toward the end of her smelly birthday, Charbonneau’s husband suggested they go out for dinner. She said they felt clean and odorless, but a server at the restaurant they went to shot them a sideways glare a few times.

“I finally asked if we smelled and she said yes,” Charbonneau said. “She wasn’t rude and when she heard the story we all laughed. It’s funny now. It wasn’t so funny then.”