Skunks have become a familiar sight at the Jersey shore

CRAIG LINE / Associated Press
CRAIG LINE / Associated Press
Posted: May 31, 2012

As beachgoers enjoy the early summer season at the Jersey Shore, they might be greeted by some unexpected company: the skunk. In many South Jersey coastal towns, skunks have become a familiar sight — and smell — as they meander through the salty evening mists on their nightly food patrol.

Skunks became such a problem in Avalon that the borough passed a "skunk remediation plan" in 2009. Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi estimates that, over the last two summers, more than 150 skunk calls have come in to the borough police department. Neighboring Stone Harbor fields about the same volume.

While trying to discourage skunks, Avalon’s plan acknowledges they keep pests such as mice and grubs in check, eat roadside carrion, and rarely spray without warning. Andrew Burnett, a biologist at the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, says, "The mere presence of a skunk does not warrant its removal."

But it does raise eyebrows. John Rose, of Baltimore, has summered at his Stone Harbor home since 1954. Yet it wasn’t until about five years ago that he saw his first seashore skunk. Avalon homeowner Frederick Browne, of Newtown Square, has been coming to Avalon for more than 35 years. "We’ve seen a lot more skunk roadkill here in the last few years," he says.

Classified as a carnivore, the skunk lives as an omnivore. It will eat everything from insects to mollusks, fruits to vegetables, rodents to reptiles, and fresh meat to carcasses.

"Skunks are very opportunistic," says Jerry Dragoo, an evolutionary biologist at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, "and if you’ve got people, you’ve got resources." Like half-eaten burgers tossed into outdoor trash cans and ice cream cones dropped by mistake. At the Shore, many pets are fed outdoors, where they scatter kibble crumbs for the skunks to clean up after the sun goes down. Rose recalls a fellow Stone Harbor resident who watched each night as the local skunks and his own cats happily shared the backyard food dish.

But, according to Dragoo, 85 percent to 90 percent of a skunk’s natural diet is excavated from the ground, things like roots, worms and soft, chewy grubs, which abound in the rich soil brought into Avalon and other Shore communities by landscapers. With five long, curved claws on each front foot, the skunk is well-equipped to dig up food.

One of the skunk’s favorite foods is eggs, which the turtles (diamondback terrapins) that nest along the shores provide in ample supply. "Skunks, and also raccoons and foxes, are heavy predators on terrapin nests," says Roger Wood, research scientist at the Wetlands Institute, in Stone Harbor.

Beach houses typically have garden sheds, latticed porches, crawl spaces, and other nooks that skunks can call home. And skunks are helped by the high turnover in summer residents, who leave shed doors open and misplace trash-can lids. Shore towns up north, such as Asbury Park and Deal, with their older homes, outbuildings, and shrubby yards, also have thriving skunk populations, says John Nesti, owner of All Wildlife Removal Service L.L.C. in Monroe Township.

Skunks have almost no predators. One eye-burning spray is enough to make lifelong believers of most potential enemies, like coyotes, foxes, and bobcats.

But not the great horned owl. This large raptor can lift off the ground with all but the largest adult skunk, and its poor sense of smell renders it virtually impervious to a faceful of skunk spray. Luckily for skunks, great horned owls rarely visit the barrier islands, where trees are scarce.

All carnivores have anal glands, but the well-developed glands of skunks are like bazookas. Skunks spray with directional precision up to about 10 feet, and they can modulate the output from steady stream to atomized mist. The ammunition: about four tablespoons of pungent, yellow, oily fluid. Consisting of sulfurous compounds, known as thiols, skunk juice becomes more volatile — and smelly — when exposed to humidity, such as in the seashore night air. A metabolic expense to produce, this tonic is released only as a last resort, when a skunk feels threatened and cannot escape.

Skunks, like all mammals, can transmit the deadly rabies virus. In 2011, skunks were New Jersey’s No.?3 carrier of rabies — after raccoons and bats — with 32 confirmed positive cases. Yet not a single rabid skunk was found in Cape May or Atlantic Counties last year, and only four turned up in Ocean County. Skunks don’t seem to have cut into beach tourism — revenues have risen for Cape May County every year since 1994.

As adults, skunks are active — and quite visible — in the late spring/early summer, when they have to eat well to nurse their young. They forage in the fall in order to store fat reserves for the winter, when they "pseudo-hibernate."

Skunk calls from Avalon ran steady throughout the fall and mild winter, then rose sharply around Valentine’s Day, says Middle Township animal control officer Bill Candell. If a skunk is actually causing property damage — digging holes in yards or spraying — a control officer will trap and relocate it. Since February, Candell has relocated about 16 skunks from Avalon alone.

And the season is just getting started: Skunks, which live five or six years, maintain as many as nine dens at a time, and may travel two or three miles a night in search of food, to the dismay of some Shore vacationers.

John Rose lived with a family of skunks — a mother and four weanling kits — under his bungalow-style Stone Harbor house last summer. "Everyone told me, ‘Go call animal control.’?" But Rose, a philosophy professor, reasoned, "They’re not hurting anyone."

Joan Capuzzi is a veterinarian and writer in the Philadelphia area.

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