Skunks have made headlines across the Chicago area recently as municipalities grapple with an exploding population during the peak season for skunk activity (mid August through early November.)
City officials in Des Plaines, for example, recently had to call in private contractors to help their overextended animal control officer.
The skyrocketing skunk population, however, is not news to those whose job it is to keep an eye on the critters, says John Buhnerkempe, chief of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ division of wildlife resources. According to Buhnerkempe, the skunk population surged by 46 percent from 2009 to 2010. (The numbers for 2011 won’t be compiled until early next year, Buhnerkempe said, but will likely reflect further increases in the population.)
In Northbrook, animal control officer Gina Manski confirmed that the village has been inundated with the pests this year. But there are signs that the animal’s population is starting to succumb to disease, a trend associated with a mammal whose numbers are peaking, according to Manski. In one recent week, she said, five area skunks turned up infected with distemper. Such skunks are usually seen during the day, and are often reported to be acting strangely. The village traps them and euthanizes them free of charge because they are considered “sick or injured” wildlife, and therefore a danger to human health, according to Manski.
Buhnerkempe said the current booming skunk population reflects favorable conditions for skunks to reproduce and thrive, but like a pendulum that eventually swings back the other way, Illinois' skunk population will sooner or later experience its fair share of rabies infections. Combined with distemper, the two illnesses can make the skunk population plunge rapidly.
So far this year there have been 144 skunk-related complaints in Northbrook, Manski said. About two thirds of them came from properties that did not contain skunk dens, evidence that most callers were noticing skunks that were merely passing through a given property rather than living on it. This is the most common type of skunk sighting, according to Manski
Although this is the first year the village has formally kept track of skunk complaints, Manski is certain there are more such incidents. Right on time, the village received its first skunk complaint the day after Valentine’s Day—when skunk mating season begins. Typically, skunk activity continues to remain high through early fall, when skunks feed for the winter, then declines significantly around the time of the area’s first frost, Manski explained.
The animal control officer has had her own skunk issues as well in recent weeks. Three skunks in particular have been plaguing Manski’s property and two of her dogs were sprayed. She called a service to catch the skunks, but unfortunately, all that turned up in the traps were opossum. Manksi believes, she too, was just another victim of a skunk passing through—rather than one making a home on her property.
Other Northbrook residents have had similar complaints.
“We have to keep our windows closed at night, there are so many ‘accidents’ of a skunky-nature around here,” said Josh Braken, who lives in an apartment near downtown Northbrook.
“We catch them running through the patio areas behind my building every so often.”
Midday Wednesday, as if on cue, the pungent odor of skunk wafted up from a stretch of Shermer Road near Glenbrook North High School, just a mile south of Braken’s home. Visible in the northbound lanes, the skunk casualty appeared to have gone down to a vehicle.
About an hour later and a mile northeast, the scent of skunk could also be detected along the western side of the Anetsberger Golf Course near Techny Park and Prairie.
Despite their odor, there are a few unexpected upsides to skunks. They actually do a service for homeowners by removing Japanese beetle larva, or grubs, from lawns, according to Manski.
And some states even allow people to keep skunks—which can be litter-box trained—as pets.
In Glencoe, . Police advised the caller to slide a wooden board into the well, which succeeded in allowing the skunk to make its escape.
Manski recently had an encounter with a baby skunk herself. She petted the animal, which had had its odor gland removed, at The Grove in Glenview.
Her report? Should you ever get up close to stroke its fur, this stinky pest actually has a soft side.