Peaceful coexistence

Peaceful coexistence

It’s hard to make a stink over the family of friendly skunks living under my porch 

By John Grula 07/17/2013

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I’m trying to live with a family of skunks. The family appears to consist of a mama skunk and three recent offspring that are almost fully grown. They’ve taken up residence under the short flight of wooden steps leading to the door of my home office, which is a converted garage.

At first I thought, “This is intolerable — I can’t have a family of skunks living under my office steps!”  I initially noticed them earlier this summer when they emerged one evening to begin their nocturnal foraging. After the little family pranced off into the gathering darkness (I have to admit, they’re actually kind of cute), I rolled a small log against the gap at the bottom of the steps, hoping to block their entry way and force them to find a new home.   

Alas, the clever little critters, probably working together, managed to roll away the log slightly and get back under the steps early the next morning.   

I decided further resistance was probably futile. Besides, where would the poor little family find another home? During the day I go in and out of my office while the skunks snooze harmlessly under the steps until dusk arrives. So far they haven’t caused a stink (mom and the young’uns apparently haven’t had any reason to spray yet), plus I can tell they’re more scared of me than I am of them. At this point we are peacefully co-existing, yet giving each other respectful distance.

What good, you may ask, is a skunk? According to my “Field Guide to the Mammals,” Striped Skunks (which are the most common and widespread of North America’s four skunk species, and almost certainly the species one would encounter in the Pasadena area) are omnivores, and feed primarily on rodents, insects, and berries. So, from a human perspective, skunks may even be considered beneficial, unless, of course, you are unfortunate enough to be sprayed by one. Well, many animals, including humans, have their own defense mechanisms. Ours include nuclear weapons, which can cause considerably more harm than skunk spray.

According to my field guide, striped skunks can make a “fair pet” if de-scented (have their scent glands removed, much like neutering a dog or cat).  In the market for an unusual pet? Consider a cuddly little skunk.

I referred earlier to skunks being clever. They may also have communication abilities, perception skills and emotional lives of which we still have only a rudimentary understanding. In 1976, Rockefeller University Press published a book titled “The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience,” written by a scientist named Donald R. Griffin. Griffin was an authority on animal physiology and behavior and is most famous for his research that determined bats orient themselves and capture food (flying insects in this case) by listening to echoes of their own voices, a kind of sonar that he named “echolocation.” In his 1976 book, Griffin argued that humans would be mistaken to underestimate how mentally and emotionally sophisticated certain animals may be.

Since Jane Goodall’s studies of chimpanzees, Dian Fossey’s of gorillas, and others, it has long been appreciated how intelligent, communicative and socially complex are the so-called higher apes. This appreciation has been extended recently to include other species, especially a family of birds known as corvids. In the Pasadena area, we have three common corvids, including the Common Raven, American Crow and Scrub Jay.    Keep an eye out for these birds; their complex communication, behaviors and social life may surprise you!

Anthropologist Barbara J. King writes in the July 2013 issue of Scientific American that “[Charles] Darwin thought that, given the evolutionary connection between humans and other animals, many emotions must be similar across species.” King’s article, “When animals mourn,” summarizes the growing evidence from studies of many species — including those of elephants, dolphins and even domestic cats — that “humans are not the only species that grieve over the loss of loved ones.” Ever had a dog or cat that seemed to grieve the loss of a companion? I have several friends who say yes.

Do I think skunks are intelligent and emotional creatures worthy of respect (and not just because of their smelly spray)? Believe me, I would never underestimate their mental abilities, and no one else should, either. Unfortunately, most of us experience skunks only as stinking road kill. They seem to epitomize the alien “other” when it comes to our fellow travelers on planet Earth, including other human beings who are different from us. 

But as Rodney King pleaded after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, “Can’t we all just get along?” Amen to that. 

So I will try my best to get along with my little skunk family and urge others in my position to do the same. I’m confident St. Francis of Assisi, Jesus and Gandhi would all approve. 

John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.

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