County Problem : Skunks: An Influx From the Wilds

Times Staff Writer

Skunks used to plague Bob Nickelson.

They got into his garage. They dug a hole under his house. They stunk up one of his Siamese cats. He smelled their pungent odor constantly at night.

“They seem to come into my yard. I don’t know why,” said the retired Northrop engineer.

This is not the sort of nuisance tolerated easily in Palos Verdes Estates, where the median household income tops $65,000, the median price of a house is $230,000, and civic pride runs deep.

So Nickelson built himself a trap 2 1/2 years ago.

Skunks still bother Nickelson. But he believes he is gaining on them. He has kept careful records.

The records show that Nickelson has caught 165 skunks.

Nickelson’s skunk problem, while extreme, is far from unique.


Widespread Problem

From Santa Barbara to San Diego, from the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Hollywood Hills, Baldwin Hills and Malibu to Mount Washington, Eagle Rock, Rosemead, Altadena and the foothills of the San Fernando Valley--wherever development has gone up in wild areas, wherever undeveloped areas bump up against human habitation--Southland homeowners are battling the skunks.

This year, the skunk problem got worse in a number of affluent neighborhoods. Complaints rose as much as 50%, officials reported.

The reason for the influx: The unusually dry weather that made the Southland one huge tinderbox earlier this summer also damaged the entire food chain, sending all manner of thirsty and hungry wildlife--skunks the most noticeable--into populated areas.

“Skunks don’t like coming down where we are but when they don’t have the choice, they take their chances. Threatened by a (lack of) food supply, there is no area they won’t go in,” said Bruce Richards, assistant director of the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control.

Found in Houses

“Our calls increased 50% or more. We find skunks very active--even to the point that we will pick them up in people’s trash cans, in their houses, in the streets. We find them in surprising places. A month ago we picked up one in someone’s car.”

“We trap 200 a month,” said Christine Whiteside, an animal control officer for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which serves the South Bay. “If we let them go, next month it would be 450.”

“A lot of it is landscaping,” said Ron Hudson, animal control chief of special services for Orange County. He said that people in the more affluent areas have more property and thus do more landscaping and more watering. “It creates more of a natural habitat for these little critters.”

The influx of animals justified two new positions for animal control officers, Hudson said. They will do nothing but trap wildlife in Orange County.

In the spring, residents of Hollywood Hills, Los Feliz and areas near Griffith Park began complaining about the skunk invasion, said Larry Morales, a wildlife officer for Los Angeles.

In March, Morales said, he confronted a skunk hiding in the pool filter enclosure at a Hollywood Hills estate. “It was a wild skunk and able to spray at will,” the 28-year-old wildlife officer said. “It was one of those moments.”

By using a six-foot aluminum pole with a loop on it, Morales was able to hoist the animal out gently without being sprayed.

Skunks being what they are, it is scarcely surprising that no one has gotten close enough to make an accurate count.

Mike Crotty, curator of mammals for the Los Angeles Zoo, guesses that there are “thousands and thousands” in Los Angeles County.

The trappers have been busy.

The SPCA has caught about 200 skunks a month this summer in the South Bay. Morales has trapped 150 this year. About 300 skunks have been trapped this year in the 4,000 square miles of Los Angeles County served by the county Department of Animal Control.

Skunk Sightings

In Orange County, homes in the hills of Fullerton have become prime skunk turf, while in San Diego County, where trapping is done privately, Herb Field with Lloyd Pest Control Inc. said the drought caused new reports of “everything from skunks to bobcats in residential areas,” he said. Skunk sightings outnumber all the others 10 to 1.

Field estimated the increase at 15%, concentrated in some of the most exclusive areas--Rancho Santa Fe, La Jolla.

Skunks in such areas pose a delicate problem for real estate agents.

Some homeowners want to sell after discovering to their dismay that their house with the advertised view also has an unadvertised skunk nearby.

“The person is not going to say to a buyer the reason we are selling is because of the skunk,” said Thelma Orloff, vice president of Stan Herman & Associates, a real estate firm that has sold numerous estates in Hollywood Hills. Skunks have been common there for years.

Orloff recalled selling a house on Whittier Drive that faced the greens of the Los Angeles Country Club, an area where homes typically sell for several million dollars.

“The client in the middle of the night was getting the smell of skunks. This was one of the reasons she sold the house. Today it is worse,” she said, adding that the buyers “didn’t find out” until after the sale.

On the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where the skunk problem is particularly bad, real estate agent Virginia Rice said: “Normally, when you are showing property during the day, you don’t run into this. Usually it is in the evening, after dark, that you smell them.”

Sees Nothing Wrong

Besides, she argued, “what if you lived in Florida where you have to fight poisonous snakes? Every state has some wildlife that is undesirable. There is nothing wrong with a skunk.”

On the Peninsula, where environmental battles are fought hard and nostalgia for less-developed days is strong, many share that live-and-let-live attitude.

Ward Proudfoot of Palos Verdes Estates likes skunks.

He has had as many as eight regulars showing up for nightly snacks.

“Definitely, skunks are part of the charm. A skunk is a beautiful animal,” he said.

“Sure it smells. We don’t say that is a terrific experience but it can be avoided. It is unfortunate that people are coming from those areas where everything was paved over and they believe that is the way it should be.”

In heavily developed areas of the Southland, steady trapping efforts appear to be keeping the skunk population on a more even keel, although the problem is far from solved, officials say. Richards reported a skunk was found recently near his Downey office--"right in the middle of a concrete jungle.”

The object of all this attention is a small member of the weasel family with the scientific name mephitis mephitis. It means “smelly smelly” in Latin.

Glandular Substance

A native of the New World, its most remarkable characteristic is the substance produced in two glands, each about the size of a hickory nut when fully loaded.

Skunk essence, a complex mix of more than 100 organic sulfur compounds, is one of the most powerful scents known to man. It smells to some like garlic mixed with burning rubber. The substance has been detected at levels as low as six parts per billion. Its stench has been smelled aboard ships 20 miles offshore. The smell has lingered for more than 100 years on specimens at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Concentrated vapors give some people headaches. About 1 in 1,000 cannot smell it.

Because of its remarkable persistence, the less volatile (and less offensive) portion of the substance was at one time used as a perfume base, according to Richard Van Gelder, curator of mammals at the New York museum.

Hunters, particularly archers who must get close to game, use it in aerosol spray cans to disguise the human scent.

Skunk scent has even gone yuppie.

In January, Dr. Jack Scaff, a Honolulu physician, began marketing Skunk Guard, a 25% solution of skunk scent in a glass vial, as a rape and mugging protection for joggers. Break the vial and the assailant loses interest. The price is $14.95 plus $1.50 for shipping.

Skunks are still trapped for their fur in colder climates where the fur is thicker, but the popularity of it always has been understandably limited.

Smell Lingers On

“My mother had a velvet jacket that was trimmed with skunk fur,” said curator Crotty. “It only smelt of skunks when it was damp.”

In its habits, the skunk is nocturnal. Its food in the wild typically is field mice, grubs and insects. It will also eat cat food, dog food and garbage. With poor hearing, eyesight and sense of smell, unthreatened skunks usually appear oblivious to other animals.

“Skunks are pretty nonchalant,” said Jess Morton, past president of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Audubon Society, who once encountered a skunk in his kitchen.

“When I went to shoo it away, it just looked at me (as if to say), ‘Who do you think you are?’ ” he said.

The skunk uses its scent defensively, first stamping its feet as a warning. Then it will turn with tail raised and let fly, looking around its shoulder to see if another shot is needed. Its range is up to 20 feet, with accuracy good only within six feet.

Two species--the larger, more common striped skunk, which may weigh more than five pounds, and the smaller, spotted skunk--live in Southern California. The spotted skunk sometimes will do a handstand when spraying. The skunk mating season is in the spring. Females produce from one to nine offspring, who follow their mother on her foraging rounds. By this time of year, young skunks have left their mothers.

Rabies Danger

The skunk population can be a prime reservoir of rabies, but no skunks have been found to carry rabies in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, according to state contagious disease statistics for 1984 and 1985.

Because of the possibility of rabies, almost all trapped skunks are put to death with chloroform by animal control officers in Los Angeles and Orange counties. In San Diego County, trapped skunks are set free in remote areas.

It is against California law to own or sell a skunk--even a de-scented skunk. State law allows exceptions only for zoos and research institutions. The maximum penalty is six months in jail or a $500 fine.

Because of its powerful defense, the skunk has few natural enemies. Most--even rattlesnakes-- appear to know better.

In the wild, the great horned owl, which can swoop down on a skunk before the animal can position itself to spray, is the only regular predator of skunks.

The owl, like most birds, has a poor sense of smell.


Here is a word or two of advice from experts about how to act in a variety of encounters with skunks:

MEETING A SKUNK AT NIGHT Remain calm. Make no sudden movements. Skunks spray defensively. They will pound their front feet in warning before spraying. Duck if they turn around with tail raised.

MEETING A SKUNK DURING THE DAY There is a good chance the skunk has rabies. Do nothing to provoke the skunk. Get away. Report the skunk to the county health department. If bitten, see a doctor immediately.

IF YOU ARE SPRAYED Wash immediately. Use a solution of five parts water to one part vinegar or tomato juice if available. Otherwise, use soap and water. It may be necessary to clip a long-haired pet that has been sprayed. Clothing may have to be destroyed. Skunk spray in the eyes may cause temporary blindness. Flush with water immediately and copiously.

KEEPING SKUNKS OUT --Store garbage in containers that skunks and dogs cannot open.

--Never leave cat food or dog food outside.

--Put screens over vents or crawl spaces under houses.

--Remove flap doors for cats and dogs that permit entrance to the house or garage.

--Clear brush. Remove woodpiles.

GETTING RID OF SKUNKS --Mothballs may force skunks to leave an enclosed space.

--Call county or city animal control department or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They will lend a trap and service it when a skunk is caught. Private pest control firms typically charge $50.