There’s an unmistakable whiff of autumn in the air and it’s not your Trader Joe’s cinnamon broom. Skunk kits born last spring have reached maturity in recent weeks and they’re on the move in their annual fall shuffle, searching for cozy winter retreats, gorging on grubs and blasting clueless canines who wander too close.
Skunks will be out in full force until winter when they enter a state of semi-hibernation called torpor. Before the slumber party begins, you can follow a few common-sense guidelines to keep your house and pets smelling daisy fresh.
“There are many things homeowners can do to dissuade or discourage skunks from coming on their property,” said Ike Ogbo, Evanston’s Health and Human Services director.
For starters, he said, don’t feed them. “Keep pet food away, especially at night, given that these animals are nocturnal,” he said. “Garbage cans, keep them closed. For those who have bird feeders, they should be mindful of spillage.” Treating lawns for grubs in the spring and fall can be effective in eliminating another favorite food source.
To prevent skunks from setting up shop near the house, Ogbo recommends covering window wells and securing areas under a deck. “If there are any openings under your concrete slabs,” he added, “try to close those up and secure any type of access to crawl spaces. That will help.”
If efforts to skunk-proof your property fail and you find yourself with a new uninvited guest in your window well, the City offers the following guidance on its website and in a recent newsletter:
“Place a roughed board at a 45-degree angle into the window well. Make sure the board is long enough to act as a ramp to the top. If you do not have a roughed board, wrap a towel or carpeting around the board to provide traction for the skunk. Remember, they are not good climbers. Place fish scented cat food or Brie cheese at the top of the ramp to entice the skunk to leave the window well. Skunks are nocturnal and they may not leave the widow well until night.”
Those who lack the spirit of adventure or teenager necessary to execute the aforementioned plan can also contact the City. “The animal warden will assist the homeowner in removing the skunk,” Ogbo said. “Just call 311. If the animal warden is not available to attend to the request, he can provide instructions over the phone.”
As of Sept. 21 Ogbo said the City had logged just 95 skunk complaints this year. The total number of complaints last year was 207. The year’s not over yet, but he confirmed that the numbers appear to be trending in a lower direction.
That’s good news for local dogs, who all too often find themselves on the business end of a frightened skunk.
Ramie Gulyas, owner of Follow Your Nose in Evanston, said that the skunks seem to be getting an early start this year.
“We get two or three calls a week right now,” she said. “This normally doesn’t happen until November. They started earlier, which tells me that winter is coming sooner.”
Follow Your Nose, at 917 Chicago Ave., sells pet supplies and offers grooming services, even for freshly skunked unfortunates. Gulyas asks that customers let her know in advance if their pets have been sprayed. “We always do those dogs at the end of the day so we don’t contaminate the other dogs who have just been cleaned or bathed.”
Gulyas shared her de-skunking formula: She combines 1 quart of fresh hydrogen peroxide, 1 cup of baking soda and 2 tablespoons of Dawn dish soap. “Leave it on just a couple of minutes,” she said. “It’s extremely caustic, so you want to rinse it off really well and then follow up with regular shampoo.” If you notice lingering odors in your home, Gulyas recommends putting out bowls of white vinegar to help absorb them.
Of course, prevention is better than Dawn and vinegar for keeping bad smells at bay. Pat Shepard, owner of Paws, Claws, Fins & Feathers, has been walking dogs in Evanston for 35 years and is no stranger to skunks.
She has lots of advice for pet owners trying to minimize unpleasant encounters. If you’re letting your dog out in the yard at night, she said, don’t just open the door and let Fido run free. First, let the skunks know you’re coming.
“Go out and clap your hands. Sing an opera. Just make some noise, then count to 10. Skunks have waxed-paper vision. They can’t see. In a yard, you want to give them enough time to get away before you put your animal out. They will always choose to get away,” she said. “They do not want to spray.”
When walking a dog on a leash at night, don’t let your pup determine the route, she said. “Take a flashlight with you and if your dog wants to go into a bush … No! No bushes at night! Period. End of story.”
If you see a skunk, she advised, stop where you are and back up. “A skunk always wants to get away. Just give them a moment.”
A true lover of all creatures, Shepard believes skunks have been unfairly maligned and with a little effort we can co-exist peacefully. “They’re lovely animals,” she said. “They’re sweet, gentle animals. They just have a badass spray.”