Chicago-Area Skunk Population Raises A Stink Though the Illinois Department of Natural Resources can only guess at the number of skunks in the state by counting roadkill, officials and residents of Chicago say they see — and smell — a dramatic increase in the number of skunks.
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Chicago-Area Skunk Population Raises A Stink

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Chicago-Area Skunk Population Raises A Stink

Chicago-Area Skunk Population Raises A Stink

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In the 1970s, a novelty song about skunks became a hit.


LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: (Singing) Dead skunk in the middle of the road. Dead skunk in the middle of the road. Dead skunk in the middle of the road, stinking to high heaven...

BLOCK: You might not think this song by Loudon Wainwright III would be playing out in the big city but think again. As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, the skunk population in Illinois is on the rise, especially in the Chicago area.

CHERYL CORLEY: So I get out of the car, and the smell of skunk is undeniable.

BRANDON OWEN: It's from another skunk I had picked up. It's from one of our traps.

CORLEY: There is a slight stench as Brandon Owens steps out of his truck. The biologist is a wildlife technician with ABC Humane Wildlife Control. The company has captured 687 skunks so far this year in northeastern Illinois, about 200 more than last year. Owen and company president Vito Brancato are on a skunk run in Des Plaines, a suburb near Chicago's O'Hare Airport. The animal is a juvenile, says Brancato.

VITO BRANCATO: We've very lucky in that way because we're going to at least be able to approach the skunk that is a little less likely to spray.

CORLEY: That's good because skunks can spray the oily substance they use to defend themselves up to 15 feet, and their aim is good. Brancato and Owen find the skunk in a small cage in the homeowner's leafy backyard. It's small. Its white stripe visible, but its head hidden behind the trapdoor. Skunks are nocturnal animals. It appears to be asleep, and thankfully, its tail is down.

RICHARD KAULBACK: This is an ongoing thing all summer.

CORLEY: Richard Kaulback, the homeowner who caught the skunk, has watched all sorts of wildlife traipse across his yard for nearly 50 years he's lived in Des Plaines. This year has been a bad year for skunks.

KAULBACK: Before, we had a lot of raccoons, but this is the first time we've had so many skunks. This is the second skunk we got. Third skunk?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

KAULBACK: Oh, yeah. OK. That's the third skunk we've gotten.

CORLEY: Brancato says skunk populations can grow large because they really don't have any natural predators.

BRANCATO: So their population numbers are only controlled by highways, you know, by cars. So they do pretty well because they don't really move a lot. Hey, you smell that?

CORLEY: It's difficult to get a real count on the number of skunks in the state, says wildlife biologist Bob Bluett. He works with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. But the department makes a best guess by counting roadkill.

BOB BLUETT: Well, we've seen a dramatic increase. Last year, we saw a 46 percent increase.

CORLEY: Companies licensed by the department to capture skunks, snared 8,700 of them across the state last year, most in the Chicago region. Bluett isn't certain why the numbers are up, but skunks in the Midwest are prone to rabies, and there hasn't been an outbreak to lessen their numbers for more than 25 years. Even so, any skunk captured in Illinois is euthanized. And because skunk numbers are up, there's more chance of a household pet tangling with one outside. Rebecca Fyffe of the Wildlife Control Policy Institute has advice for owners of pets that get sprayed.

REBECCA FYFFE: The first thing we tell them is don't let Fido or Fifi inside.

CORLEY: Wash them outside with peroxide and baking soda, not tomato juice, as the old wives' tale recommends. And make sure pets have rabies vaccinations. Of course, skunks can't be all bad: They love grubs and help keep the insect population down. And for years, they've even had their own cartoon mascot, Pepe Le Pew.


MEL BLANC: (as Pepe Le Pew) You are the aroma of spring flowers that bloom in the spring.

CORLEY: But homeowner Richard Kaulback says there's nothing adorable about a skunk.

KAULBACK: No, no, because they really stink up. Sometimes at nighttime, it's bad out here.

CORLEY: That's even with the door closed. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.


SINGER: (Singing) Take a whiff on me, that ain't no rose. Roll up your window and hold your nose. You don't have to look, and you don't have to see because you can feel it in your olfactory. You got your dead skunk in the middle of the road. Dead skunk in the middle of the road...


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