Chicago-area skunk population raises a stink
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.