Raising a stink
Robert Van Overmeiren’s business has been booming lately — and it’s no surprise.
A rise in the Fox Valley’s skunk population has kept this Aurora animal trapper busier than usual with residents willing to dish out dough to get rid of the stinky critters.
“There are definitely more (skunks in the area),” Van Overmeiren said. “I’d say they’re up at least 30 percent.”
Although opinions differ on the actual numbers, the familiar black-and-white critter seems to be an increasing presence in the region.
Jack MacRae, a naturalist at Glen Ellyn’s Willowbrook Wildlife Center, said he isn’t surprised by a possible increase in the skunk population.
“It’s cyclical, like any other animal population,” he said. “Some years it’s less and others more. It’s been a good year for plants and a good year for the insects that feed on plants. The animals feed on the insects ... it wouldn’t surprise me to see an increase.”
One person who has no doubt about the growing ranks of skunks is Tim Pettinelli, an animal control specialist with Prairie State Wildlife in Oswego.
“Absolutely there has been an increase,” he said.
Pettinelli cited figures from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources that showed a 46 percent increase in the skunk population statewide.
“The uptick is due to a (past) rabies epidemic,” he said. “The population is rebounding to normal ... they have a high reproduction rate.”
And while skunks are “generally pretty docile creatures,” Pettinelli said, there is a downside to a run-in with the critters — getting sprayed. While the occurrence is rare, residents who decide to trap a skunk themselves are at the greatest risk, Van Overmeiren said.
“It’s a 50/50 chance you’ll get sprayed if you use a wire trap,” he noted. “(Trappers) are quoting residents big prices, so they’ll go to Farm and Fleet, get a cage, and try it themselves.”
Van Overmeiren said that residents need permits to do such a thing. “They just can’t be released down the road (to become someone else’s’ problems),” he said. “A lot of people don’t know this.”
Pet owners, especially, should be aware of the critters and make sure their pets are up to date on their rabies shots in case they run into one of the striped creatures, Pettinelli said.
Van Overmeiren said he has seen several pets end up in skunk scuffles.
“People aren’t really getting sprayed, but their pets are,” he said.
It can take a couple of days to get the stink off Fido, even after a bath.
Bob Bluett, wildlife biologist at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, confirmed Pettinelli’s rabies theory. Bluett said that Illinois’ skunk population suffered a rabies epidemic in the early 1980s and it is only now that the population is getting back to normal.
But like Pettinelli, Bluett reassured residents about the limited danger posed by a random encounter with a skunk.
“They are near-sighted, so it’s easy to surprise them,” he said. “But they try to avoid you. They’re not real apt to come after you and try and get you.”
Bluett stressed that with the increased population, there is a natural rise in the number of rabid skunks. Not all skunks have rabies, but along with bats, they are the wildlife most prone to be carriers of the disease.
Willowbrook Wildlife Center officials said that skunks are at home in a variety of habitats but prefer forest borders where water is nearby. Suburbs like Naperville and Aurora provide adequate food and shelter. Common den and resting sites include hollow logs, wood or rock piles and under buildings.
“A lot of houses and different things are being built, forcing animals to get into places where garbage and food are accessible,” Van Overmeiren said.