Image via Allstate Animal Control
The closest I’ve ever been to being a Disney Princess happened last summer, when two baby skunks along with their mother and five kittens (and their mother) all crowded around my back porch and ate the cat treats I tossed at them. I was close enough to touch them, but I didn’t dare. Once I got over my fear of being sprayed, it was magical, adorable, and random. I still kick myself for not videotaping the whole thing. The weird little animal herd never came back, but if they did, I wouldn’t feed them again—not because I am heartless but because the United States currently has a skunk problem.
Headlines coming out of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Missouri, Colorado, California, and Texas this summer are all suggesting their respective state skunk populations are on the rise. One Pennsylvanian man has seen more skunks this year (dozens!) than the entire 70 years he’s lived in Somerset. In a 2013 first, the Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles has had seven skunk sightings, though the team still denies having a skunk problem.
This increase in skunks isn’t a new development: one suburb in New Jersey started a relocation program to deal with their “excessive skunk population” in 2009, and is expected to keep relocating the animals until next year. Relocating skunks is illegal in some states however, like Colorado for example, because of disease concerns.
New York City’s skunk problem began in 2009 too, though it appears to have dwindled after Hurricane Sandy. Last year, the Chicago Tribune—from where I live—reported the skunk population was at an all-time high in Illinois, while the year before, one suburb claimed their skunk population was reaching “epidemic proportions.” Martha’s Vineyard saw a “very unusually large” amount of skunks last October, which will probably make another appearance this year.
Marty Johnson, a biologist working for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, told the Associated Press that the population explosion in Wisconsin is probably due to the abundance in food (aka human garbage) and shelter. Wisconsin has battled a foreclosure crisis for the last seven years, and it appears once the people moved out, the skunks moved in. The national foreclosure crisis was probably good for skunks outside of Wisconsin too, if you think about it.
The state budget crisis that started a few years ago is also great for skunks, as one of the departments almost every state reduced or altered was their trash and waste budget—which affects how often trash is picked up. Wisconsin reduced its trash budget, as did Colorado. You get the picture. Could this have led to more food for the black and white critters? Possibly.
Another reason for the increase in skunk population are mild winters. From now until late October, skunks are out and about fattening themselves before the first frost, but if the coming winter is gentle the skunks eat more, getting bigger and healthier. The result is larger litters once the weather heats up again. Normally skunks give birth to two to 10 babies, but lately its been 10 to 12. If the trend of warm winters continues, the skunk population will only continue to grow.
A growing skunk population doesn’t just mean the likelihood you will be sprayed increases, however, though it goes hand in hand with an increase in rabies, which is not just fatal, but a rough way to go. Skunks are the second most likely animal to get rabies, after raccoons. The disease occurs naturally, and while some states don’t keeps statistics on their skunk population, they do keep stats on rabies.
Compare the Center for Disease Control's rabid skunk chart from 2009:
...to 2011. Note the increase in Texas and on the Eastern seaboard, which is clearly visible.
The number of rabid skunks in Missouri reached a 15-year high this summer, indicating a larger than normal population. Arkansas, which does not have data on their skunk population, reported 91 cases of rabid skunks by July, an “unusually high number” compared to their second highest rabid animal statistic, three bats. Virginia currently has a “rabies epidemic” among its skunk population, while Texas will be dropping 100,000 rabies vaccine food packets—up from 38, 000 last year—via helicopter in one county to deal with their rabid skunk problem.
It's possible that an outbreak of rabies could reduce skunk populations, but that did not happen in Texas. After a five-month-old baby was bitten in the face by a rabid skunk in Minnesota following sightings of rabid skunks in a nearby town, Sheriff Michel Wetzel told CBS “there might be a little outbreak going on.” You think?
From the warmer winters, more garbage and the growing dystopian suburbs, things are looking pretty swell for the skunks of America.