Chicago-Area Skunk Population Raises A Stink

Sep 29, 2011
Originally published on September 29, 2011 4:15 pm

There is a slight stench as Brandon Owen steps out of his truck. The biologist is a wildlife technician with ABC Humane Wildlife Control, and his company has captured 687 skunks so far this year in northeastern Illinois — about 200 more than last year.

Owen and the company's president, Vito Brancato, are on a skunk run in Des Plaines, a suburb near Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Brancato determines that an animal they just picked up is a juvenile.

"We've very lucky in that way, because we're going to at least be able to approach the skunk that is a little less likely to spray," Brancato says.

This is good news for Brancato, because skunks can spray the oily substance they use to defend themselves up to 15 feet — and their aim is good. Brancato and Owen find the skunk in a small cage in homeowner Richard Kaulback's leafy backyard.

The animal is small. Its white stripe is visible, but its head is hidden behind the trap door. Skunks are nocturnal animals — it appears to be asleep, and thankfully, its tail is down.

Kaulback has watched all sorts of wildlife traipse across his yard over the nearly 50 years he's lived in Des Plaines. This year has been a bad year for skunks.

"This is an ongoing thing all summer," Kaulback says. "Before, we had a lot of raccoons, but this is the first time we've had so many skunks. This is the second [or third] skunk we've got."

Brancato says skunk populations can grow large because they don't really have any natural predators.

"Their population numbers are only controlled by highways, you know, by cars," he says. "So they do pretty well because they don't really move a lot."

It's difficult to get a real count on the number of skunks in the state, says Illinois Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Bob Bluett. But the department makes a best guess by counting roadkill.

"We've seen a dramatic increase," Bluett says. He adds that there was a 46 percent increase in the number of skunks from 2009 to 2010.

Companies licensed by the department to capture skunks snared 8,700 of them across the state last year, most in the Chicago area. Bluett isn't certain why the numbers are up, but skunks in the Midwest are prone to rabies, and there hasn't been an outbreak to lessen their numbers for more than 25 years.

Even so, any skunk captured in Illinois is euthanized. And because skunk numbers are up, there's more chance of a household pet tangling with one outside.

"The first thing we tell them is don't let Fido or Fifi inside," says Rebecca Fyffe, of the Wildlife Control Policy Institute.

Wash them outside with peroxide and baking soda (not tomato juice, as the old wives' tale recommends) and make sure pets have rabies vaccinations. Of course, skunks aren't all bad: They love grubs and help keep the insect population down. And for years, they've even had their own cartoon mascot, Pepe Le Pew.

But Kaulback says there's nothing adorable about a skunk.

"They really stink up," Kaulback says. "Sometimes at night it's really bad out here."

And that's even with the door closed.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

In the 1970s, a novelty song about skunks became a hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD SKUNK")

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: (Singing) Dead skunk in the middle of the road. Dead skunk in the middle of the road. Dead skunk in the middle of the road, stinking to high heaven...

BLOCK: You might not think this song by Loudon Wainwright III would be playing out in the big city but think again. As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, the skunk population in Illinois is on the rise, especially in the Chicago area.

CHERYL CORLEY: So I get out of the car, and the smell of skunk is undeniable.

BRANDON OWEN: It's from another skunk I had picked up. It's from one of our traps.

CORLEY: There is a slight stench as Brandon Owens steps out of his truck. The biologist is a wildlife technician with ABC Humane Wildlife Control. The company has captured 687 skunks so far this year in northeastern Illinois, about 200 more than last year. Owen and company president Vito Brancato are on a skunk run in Des Plaines, a suburb near Chicago's O'Hare Airport. The animal is a juvenile, says Brancato.

VITO BRANCATO: We've very lucky in that way because we're going to at least be able to approach the skunk that is a little less likely to spray.

CORLEY: That's good because skunks can spray the oily substance they use to defend themselves up to 15 feet, and their aim is good. Brancato and Owen find the skunk in a small cage in the homeowner's leafy backyard. It's small. Its white stripe visible, but its head hidden behind the trapdoor. Skunks are nocturnal animals. It appears to be asleep, and thankfully, its tail is down.

RICHARD KAULBACK: This is an ongoing thing all summer.

CORLEY: Richard Kaulback, the homeowner who caught the skunk, has watched all sorts of wildlife traipse across his yard for nearly 50 years he's lived in Des Plaines. This year has been a bad year for skunks.

KAULBACK: Before, we had a lot of raccoons, but this is the first time we've had so many skunks. This is the second skunk we got. Third skunk?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

KAULBACK: Oh, yeah. OK. That's the third skunk we've gotten.

CORLEY: Brancato says skunk populations can grow large because they really don't have any natural predators.

BRANCATO: So their population numbers are only controlled by highways, you know, by cars. So they do pretty well because they don't really move a lot. Hey, you smell that?

CORLEY: It's difficult to get a real count on the number of skunks in the state, says wildlife biologist Bob Bluett. He works with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. But the department makes a best guess by counting roadkill.

BOB BLUETT: Well, we've seen a dramatic increase. Last year, we saw a 46 percent increase.

CORLEY: Companies licensed by the department to capture skunks, snared 8,700 of them across the state last year, most in the Chicago region. Bluett isn't certain why the numbers are up, but skunks in the Midwest are prone to rabies, and there hasn't been an outbreak to lessen their numbers for more than 25 years. Even so, any skunk captured in Illinois is euthanized. And because skunk numbers are up, there's more chance of a household pet tangling with one outside. Rebecca Fyffe of the Wildlife Control Policy Institute has advice for owners of pets that get sprayed.

REBECCA FYFFE: The first thing we tell them is don't let Fido or Fifi inside.

CORLEY: Wash them outside with peroxide and baking soda, not tomato juice, as the old wives' tale recommends. And make sure pets have rabies vaccinations. Of course, skunks can't be all bad: They love grubs and help keep the insect population down. And for years, they've even had their own cartoon mascot, Pepe Le Pew.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

MEL BLANC: (as Pepe Le Pew) You are the aroma of spring flowers that bloom in the spring.

CORLEY: But homeowner Richard Kaulback says there's nothing adorable about a skunk.

KAULBACK: No, no, because they really stink up. Sometimes at nighttime, it's bad out here.

CORLEY: That's even with the door closed. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD SKUNK")

SINGER: (Singing) Take a whiff on me, that ain't no rose. Roll up your window and hold your nose. You don't have to look, and you don't have to see because you can feel it in your olfactory. You got your dead skunk in the middle of the road. Dead skunk in the middle of the road...

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.