CADILLAC — Delores Hickey has never seen skunks as a nuisance. Quite the opposite, she sees them as members of her family.
At one time, before she lived in Cadillac, Hickey owned five pet skunks, which lived indoors and even slept with her in the same bed like a cat or dog would.
She obtained the skunks through a licensed breeder ... which many people might find extremely strange, given the impulsive reaction most have when they see the distinctive white-striped critters under any circumstances — to go the other direction, fast.
In her skunks, the gland that produces the scent that poses such a formidable defense against predators was removed — although she still would have considered owning skunks with their glands intact.
“It would have been part of the fun,‘ Hickey laughed.
Hickey described the temperament of a skunk as being similar to a cat in some respects, and a dog in others; they’ll show affection to humans but only on their terms.
While mostly docile around people and animals they knew, Hickey said there was never a doubt in her mind that the animals were still wild: they were aggressive around food, even toward people; they caused a lot of damage to carpet, which they dug at with their claws as if it were soil; and when it came time to relieve themselves, they frequently had no qualms about doing it wherever they happened to be.
Hickey said she wouldn’t trust skunks around very young children, given their sometimes aggressive qualities and the particular habit that children possess of not knowing how to respect an animal’s boundaries.
“They’re definitely not a pet for everyone,‘ Hickey said.
In the eyes of wildlife and community health officials, along with many homeowners, skunks aren’t a pet for anyone.
Steve Canfield, owner of Canfield Innovative Pest Management, out of Buckley, said skunks are one of the most common animals he removes from homes, where they find shelter underneath porches, sheds or anywhere else they can squeeze into.
In his 41 years in business, Canfield said he’s noticed skunks becoming more common in suburban areas, where human habitation has expanded into what was formerly wilderness. He said the animals don’t seem to mind going into areas with heavy concentrations of people.
Vern Richardson, wildlife biologist for the Cadillac DNR office, said skunks are very comfortable around humans — possibly due to the terror they inspire in them.
“Skunks have a pretty good defense system,‘ Richardson said. “They’re pretty safe to be around humans. Most people learn their lesson pretty quick after being sprayed not to mess with them.‘
Mostly nocturnal, Richardson said there is plenty of food available for the omnivorous skunk around places humans live, as well as abundant opportunities to find shelter where they can rest during the daytime (one method of getting rid of skunks is to play a radio near where they sleep in the daytime).
Although their fur can be used to some extent, Richardson said there aren’t a whole lot of reasons why someone would want to harvest a skunk, other than for being a nuisance they don’t want around their house.
“Having a skunk around may not be much of a problem for some people,‘ Richardson said.
That isn’t to say humans should welcome the animals into their homes; skunks are one of a number of animals with a higher likelihood of carrying rabies; several tested positive for the virus earlier this year in the Detroit area.
Doreen Byrne, communicable disease coordinator for District Health Department No. 10, said she can’t stress enough the importance of not handling wildlife such as raccoons, foxes, skunks and especially bats.
Over the last 10 years, there have been a total of nine cases of positive rabies exposure in Wexford, Missaukee, and Lake counties. In one of those cases in Missaukee County, a person was infected by a bat and eventually died from rabies. All of the animals that tested positive were bats.
Last year, Byrne said an elderly woman in Wexford County woke up to find a bat crawling around in her bed. She trapped the animal and brought it to the health department. Testing of the animal’s brain determined it was rabid.
Situations like this can arise very easily, Byrne said. For instance, opening a window in a child’s room may seem like an easy way to let some fresh air in, but it also can let everything else in.
Once someone contracts the virus, either from being bitten or from the animal’s saliva coming into contact with an open wound, it’s only a matter of time before symptoms begin to show, at which point it’s too late ... in the vast majority of cases, the person will die.
The health department performs tests on animals to find out if they’re a rabies carrier free of charge. If someone suspects they’ve been exposed to rabies but doesn’t have the animal for testing, Byrne said they often are given treatment anyway, just to be safe.
Testing an animal requires it be euthanized first, which is why in cases of someone being bitten by a pet dog or cat, the process can involve a period of quarantine, wherein they will be observed for signs of rabies exposure — rather than killing the animal in order to do the test.
The treatment for rabies is pretty expensive — around $7,000 — which is why avoiding exposure in the first place obviously is the best strategy, Byrne said.
Chipmunks, gerbils, gophers, guinea pigs, hamsters, moles, mice, muskrats, prairie dogs, rabbits, rats, shrews, squirrels and voles are not known to spread rabies to humans.
To view a quick reference guide about what steps to take if you think you’ve been exposed to rabies, go to https://www.michigan.gov/documents/Rabflowcht3people_7361_7.pdf.