Being Skunk Savvy: How to Avoid Getting Sprayed

Storyteller

Imogene Cancellare

These simple tricks can help your trails have no smells.

Scientifically speaking, skunks are awesome. These small, solitary, nocturnal mammals are relatively docile, but they are well known for their predator-defense mechanism: a foul smelling, oil-based spray excreted from glands located near the base of the tail. This secretion is composed of seven major volatile components, can be sprayed over eight feet, and at high concentrations can cause nausea, retching, and, let's not forget, make you smell horrible! Fondly known as nature's tear gas, it goes without saying that we really, really appreciate avoiding skunks. As someone who has been sprayed numerous times, here are a few tips to help you avoid getting skunked:

1. Understand Skunk Behavior

Did you know that there are five different species of skunk in the United States? The ranges of some overlap, which means you can potentially encounter more than one species on a hike. However, you're unlikely to cross paths with one during the day, as skunks will retire to burrows, brush piles, or inside of logs to sleep. As nocturnal species, they are most active from dusk til dawn. Skunks are opportunistic omnivores, meaning they will forage whatever they can find: insects, small mammals, eggs, lizards, etc. I've seen as many as twenty striped skunks foraging for grubs in a meadow at midnight! Skunks don't have particularly good eyesight or hearing, however, which means it's pretty easy to sneak up on one. When going on a night hike, always take a head lamp, make your presence known, and keep your dog on a leash.

2. Recognize Warning Signs

Skunks don't really need to worry about hiding from predators; the spray speaks for itself. Their bright colors are an advertisement to be left alone, but when they feel threatened, skunks run through a series of warning behaviors before spraying a predator (or you). Skunks spray as a last resort, but thankfully there are a few warning signs. When surprised, skunks may first freeze and shoot their tail straight up into the air. They may rear up on their back legs and stamp the ground with their front feet, or they may go into a head stand (no, I'm not joking).  If you see a skunk do any of these things, it is time to quietly back up, as loud noises may encourage the animal to spray more quickly. Note: even babies can spray.

3. What Getting Sprayed Looks Like

Even if you miss the above signs, you still have one last shot at avoiding skunk spray! When skunks feel too threatened and decide to spray, they may abruptly turn their back on you to spray, but they can also spray you from a head stand position (again, I am not joking!). Skunk spray has an accurate stream over eight feet, and the spray can be emitted as a fine mist (lower concentration) or in a thick stream (high concentration). If the skunk makes a sudden movement, diving backward and sideways (safely) is your best bet at avoiding the pungent stream.

4. You Got Sprayed. Now What?

Contrary to popular belief, tomato juice does not work. Eliminating skunk spray necessitates breaking down the volatile compounds into compounds with no odor. Neutralizing the odor requires oxidizing the smelly oil, and one way to achieve this is to combine hydrogen peroxide with baking soda and dish detergent. Recipe:

- 1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide

- 1/4 cup baking soda 

- 1 teaspoon dish soap

- Patience

Mix together and use immediately. Skunk spray will fade over a few days.

Skunks are valuable members of the ecosystem, and you don't have to fear them in order to safely share the trails with them. Remember, wildlife do not make good pets, and you should never try to feed or handle a skunk, as they can also bite. 

Cover image: Chad Hordwedel

Published: June 11, 2016

Imogene CancellareStoryteller

Wildlife biologist, science communicator, and explorer. Currently doing snow leopard research. For daily wildlife facts, follow me on Instagram: @biologistimogene. To learn more about a career in conservation: biologi...

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