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From Ask the Expert, May/June 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors
Everything about a skunk says, “don’t mess with me.” Their distinctive black and white stripes show they don’t need to hide for safety. If a curious predator doesn’t get that message, the skunk employs an intimidating foot-stamping. If a threatening animal still doesn’t respond to an obvious tail-lifting, the skunk lets loose.
Skunk spray is a liquid produced by the animal’s anal glands containing several types of volatile chemical compounds. The primary stinky compounds are thiols and thioacetates, both rich in sulfur—the same element that makes rotten eggs gag-inducing. Sulfur atoms in thiols and thioacetates also have a lot of stability in the way they bond to other atoms, which is part of the reason the smell is hard to get rid of.
The odor is also hard to rid as skunks can spray so precisely. Using two muscular and independently-rotating nozzles, a skunk can spray a direct stream of oily, sulfurous liquid from its rear at a nearby predator, or choose to release a mist for a general or unpredictable threat. However, skunks generally conserve their spray, which may take more than a week to replenish. They also seem to dislike the stench as well, as adults will not spray each other for anything except fights between males
during mating season. They typically posture and fight for things like territory disputes.
Baby skunks, called kits, can spray from the time they’re born and have been reported to spray each other for fun—stink-bombing a littermate and then running to the other side of the den.
So what is the best way to remove skunk odor? Myth says use tomato juice, but that isn’t very successful. An effective wash must chemically grab onto sulfur molecules and wash it away and neutralize thiols by changing them into less odorous compounds. The Humane Society of the United States recommends a mixture of one quart hydrogen peroxide, one teaspoon dishwashing liquid and a quarter cup baking soda for general cleaning. It works on pets, too. Clean sensitive areas such as eyes with cool running water.
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