Wildlife experts advise caution with skunks

By Clarence Plank: PNT staff writer

A skunk can be a very brazen animal and make someone have a bad day.

Aside from the nuisance should one get sprayed, skunks are notorious carriers of rabies.

Eastern New Mexico University experts — Wildlife Biologists Zach Jones and Tony Gennaro — offer these insights into skunks, rabies and ways to keep these pesky pests away:

“The striped skunk is the only species here,” Gennaro said. “The striped skunk is a native animal of the American southwest.”

Skunks are nocturnal animals. They eat, small rodents, bugs, eggs, lizards, snakes, leaves, grass, nuts, birds and moles.

Recently, a skunk was diagnosed with rabies in Curry County. It was the first case of rabies in the area this year.

Rabies can be spread by contact with the saliva from an infected animal. Usually through a bite or a scratch. But it can also be spread even by an infected animal licking the skin of a person.

Rabies is a virus. It affects the neurological system of an animal, according to Chris Minnick, public relations officer with New Mexico Department of Health.

“There is a prevention for rabies,” Minnick said. “There is a shot to prevent rabies. If someone is infected by an animal there is a vaccination to prevent the disease from happening in the body.”

But, Minnick cautions, “Once someone has been diagnosed, it is almost always fatal”

Skunks do not often hide when they encounter humans.

“They don’t want to hide,” Gennaro said. “That is part of their protection and that’s when you encounter rabies.”

Skunks are very bold animals, they want to be seen, said Gennaro.

Just because someone sees a skunk during the day doesn’t mean it is rabid, said Jones.

When a skunk is going to spray, it will raise its tail as a first warning. Sometimes they stomp their feet as a warning.

“When I was growing up,” Jones said. “We had stacks and stacks of six inch irrigation pipes…(skunks) would go into there and make a nest. You (would) be carrying a pipe, next thing you know a skunk comes squirting out of there and sprays you.”

Skunks are rabies carriers but are not the most frequent to have the virus.

“A lot of people think dogs are the most common domestic animal to have rabies,” Gennaro said. “That’s not true. It’s cats. The reason is there are more stray cats, than there are dogs.”

Jones said cats usually aren’t immunized against rabies.

“If your animal has been in contact with wild animals,” Minnick said. “Then you need to take that animal to the vet immediately.”

Jones said a rabid skunk would not spray someone. It would attack them.

“An immunization series is not the old days of a three inch long needle,” Gennaro said. “They don’t do that. It is a shot in the arm, much like a tetanus shot. The reason I know this is because I had to be immunized when I was working with bats.”

One way Jones found to keep skunks away from his house was sealing moth balls in a small plastic container. A skunk would come along and bite the plastic container thinking it might have food in it and get blasted by the smell of moth balls.

“My house is an old house that has a lot of openings,” Jones said. “I throw them underneath (the house) and the container keeps the moth balls from drying out overtime. Skunks are curious, so they will bite the plastic. I’ve found that usually works.”