By SANDY BARNOSKY
The Pet Lady
When most people think of skunks they cringe, thinking of the pungent smell they can release. But Deborah Cipriani shares her home with more than sheâ€™s willing to put a number on.
Ciprianiâ€™s an authority on the care and health of skunks and founder and president of Skunk Haven, an international rescue and assistance group. With help from other licensed rehabilitators, including Lisa Novak of Medina, the organization is dedicated to both wild and domestic skunks.
Her first domestic skunk, Daisy, became ill with various medical problems, leading Cipriani to research the findings of other skunk rescues and working with her vet to find ways to help Daisy. She explored alternative healing methods and discovered which herbs worked and which didnâ€™t on skunks. The information and data she collected, as well as her holistic remedies, have been published and are on the veterinary page of her Web site, www.skunkhaven.net.
After acquiring the necessary state and federal licenses for wildlife rehabilitation and education, Cipriani began offering educational programs, as well as hosting an annual Skunk Fest.
Wild skunks only live a few years, but domestic skunks have an average lifespan of about seven to 10 years. People buy them as babies and then decide for various reasons they donâ€™t want them anymore. Thatâ€™s when they call Cipriani. A domestic skunk wouldnâ€™t survive in the wild, she said. â€œThey wouldnâ€™t know what to do.â€
Cipriani provides informational packets as handouts to breeders and pet stores that sell skunks and hopes that potential owners consider the responsibilities before the purchase.
Injured or orphaned wild skunks are kept outdoors with minimal human contact and adapt well when released to the wild, Cipriani said, but domestic ones live inside.
Besides the common black and white variety, they can be many different colors and patterns. Each has its own cage where itâ€™s fed, but many are allowed to roam free in her home. â€œWeâ€™re a sanctuary, and some need the exercise and socialization they get when interacting with other skunks,â€ she explained.
People considering a skunk as a pet should know that theyâ€™re high maintenance and best suited to homes without small children.
â€œEach has a different individual personality,â€ Cipriani said. Some are cuddly, but some are not, and thereâ€™s no way to determine what a baby skunk will be like as an adult.
Skunks are omnivores and need a variety of foods, including vegetables, cooked grains, small portions of fruit and poultry. Everything is cut up into small pieces and supplemented with taurine, calcium, vitamins and minerals.
Adults are fed twice a day, but young skunks need to be fed four to five times a day.
â€œSome are picky and donâ€™t like the supper for tonight, so they get something else,â€ Cipriani joked as she filled dozens of dishes covering a counter top.
Cipriani explained that because they can be finicky eaters, itâ€™s best to provide a variety of foods so they donâ€™t get bored with the same thing.
A pet carrier with a solid (not wire) bottom works well for a sleeping den. Skunks like to snuggle up with soft blankets for bedding and will collect any clothes or socks that are left lying around. They use kitty litter pans lined with newspaper or filled with unscented cat litter, but the opening must be cut low to the ground.
Cipriani advises new owners to handle a baby skunk as much as possible to socialize it. Play with its feet, touch its face and carry it around in a pouch, she said. They grunt, screech, make sounds like a squealing pig and will even chirp like a bird.
Most skunks go through a biting stage and must be trained not to nip.
Skunks are extremely intelligent and the best punishment, after being told no, is a time-out somewhere other than their cage so that thereâ€™s no negative association with it.
â€œTheyâ€™re like a 2-year-old,â€ Cipriani said. Cupboards and drawers need to be secured with baby latches. Plexiglas barriers are safer than baby gates and should cover screened windows and doors within their reach. A skunkâ€™s natural instinct is to dig, so houseplants must be placed out of reach. They might also dig at flooring and furniture.
Wild skunks give warning by stomping their front feet and raising their tails. If the warning isnâ€™t heeded, theyâ€™ll turn and spray up to 25 feet. Breeders remove the scent glands of domesticated skunks at 2 to 5 weeks of age, and the babies can be neutered between 4 to 6 months of age. A blood panel may be done at that time to have as a baseline in case of future health problems.
A pet skunk must be purchased from a licensed breeder. Itâ€™s illegal to take skunks from the wild, and if one is found abandoned or injured, a wildlife rehabilitation center should be contacted. Cipriani advises to keep the state permit and USDA license number of the breeder to prove the skunk is domestic.
For more information about Skunk Haven or to apply for adoption of a rescued skunk, visit www.skunkhaven.net.
Barnosky can be reached at 330-725-4160, ext. 4075, via e-mail at email@example.com or by writing The Gazette, 885 W. Liberty St., Medina, 44256.