Hell's Grannies

I have nothing personal against skunks.  I actually think they are kind of cute in a “oh-god-please-don’t-spray-me” way.  However, like the rest of the mammalian kingdom, I do have a problem with the way they smell. But, you have to admire them. They are a true testament of brains…or, er…stink over brawn.

Living in a neighborhood with a wide variety of wild critters, it is the skunk that stands atop of the neighborhood hierarchy. I’ve dubbed them the “Hell’s Grannies” of Silver Lake. Humans cross the street to avoid them when they saunter down the middle of the sidewalk. Possums hiss at them defiantly before making a hasty retreat. And even predatory coyotes avoid them at all cost. The striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) is one of the most successful urban wildlife species. They don’t care about no stink’n loss of habitat.  They adapt.

Silver Lake's neighbor, Los Feliz, is also known for their urban community of skunks.

Silver Lake’s neighbor, Los Feliz, is also known for their urban community of skunks.

When we first moved into our house, a female skunk had claimed our yard as her own. Blissfully ignorant of California land ownership laws – or perhaps willfully defiant – this female skunk set up camp in various places around the yard. Skunks are nocturnal, so during daylight hours we came to an unspoken understanding: I would not mess with her sleep and she would not mess with me. This uneasy truce was broken in the first couple of weeks when she decided that the crawl space under our house looked like an excellent place to hang out at night. I still would have been okay with this arrangement if she didn’t resort to using her spray to notify all other critters that this new hidey-hole was hers to claim. Obviously, chemical warfare treaties do not apply to our gal.

The house was almost un-liveable after she sprayed. Most odors over a long period of time fade in pungency due to “nose-blindness”, a process in which the nose acclimates to the smell and the brain eventually ignores it. Nose-blindness does not apply to skunk spray in close quarters. In fact, skunk spray imprints a kind of “smell memory”, an unshakable sense the smell is lingering. I swore to my wife I could still smell the skunk spray even after it had dissipated from the house. I spent the entire day at work asking my coworkers to sniff me.

Obviously, this cheeky critter needed to be taught a lesson.

First, we mounted chicken wire across all the crawl space openings. I smiled in satisfaction as I heard the frustrated chattering of my nemesis as she pushed against the newly erected barriers. Check.

Second, I did what most humans do when faced with a crisis of knowledge: I consulted Google. The internet advised reverse chemical warfare. And so I installed mothballs across the frontiers of my kingdom. Coffee grinds were also collected from work, then spread around the perimeter of the house and in the planter beds. Check.

After two weeks of relative calm, I was ready to claim victory.  Check and mate!

But I spoke too soon. Mothballs lose their potency pretty quickly outdoors, and replacing them regularly is relatively expensive. We mounted them in nylon stocking bags on the front gate and perimeter fence, making our yard look a little bit like a scene from the Blair Witch Project. This tactic turned out to be not necessarily the most labor-free solution.

By the end of the month, it was obvious our she-skunk had brushed off the initial shock and awe. She was back happily going about her business at night. By then the only reliable solution was the endless (and free) supply of used coffee grounds I used to spread around the house, like a levee holding back the tide. Amazingly, this resulted in a second great truce. The skunk stayed away from the house, while we didn’t go out into the yard at night. Sure there was the occasional spray of a nosey dog or an aggressive coyote. But I could live with the residual smell of skunk spray from afar versus the unforgettable trauma of spray inside our home.

Then one summer evening at dusk, my wife was doing the dishes with the back door open when she noticed one large black and white tail followed by two smaller ones. Our skunk had given birth to a litter. With the mother as the head of a matriarchy, her babies (called “kits”) would stay with her for about a year. Great.

Fortunately, young skunks do not fully develop spray glands until adulthood, so they are relatively stink-less. We watched the siblings wrestle and frolic in the yard, then run away when the neighbor’s dog barked. One came over to check me out while I was watering the porch plants. I immediately dropped the hose and backed away slowly. This little guy/gal was learning who was boss, and it obviously wasn’t me.

It was pretty early on when one sibling disappeared. Mother and child went about business as usual until Mom came back alone one evening. Urban wildlife is still very much wild.

For the next year, the truce held.

There is comfort in habit. Pour out coffee grinds around the house on Sunday, take out the garbage on Wednesday. There were occasional violations of the treaty, like the time I opened the front door to see our skunk lounging on the front porch. She nodded at me as if to say, “Sup, dude” (she was a native Angeleno after all). I hastily, but gently closed the door. Whatever I needed to do outside, I could do it later.

That season, our skunk had a litter of four kits. My nephew raved about how cute these baby skunks were (he really wanted a dog at the time), but his tune changed when he and his father were trapped in the house while the family of five spread out across the front yard digging for grubs. We ended up lobbing “coffee grind bombs” (scoops of coffee grounds wrapped in paper towels) around the yard, opening up an avenue of egress after the ensuing chaos. Shortly thereafter, the kits started to disappear one by one. In just a few weeks, they were all gone. We suspected the desperate coyotes affected by the drought had turned to them as a food source. The coyotes were getting bolder in the neighborhood, and without their olfactory weaponry, kits can’t really defend themselves. But, who knows, cars are as likely a suspect when it comes to urban wildlife deaths.

One early morning, we could smell our skunk come back from her nightly hunting/foraging trip. We knew right away something was wrong. Usually, even if she had just sprayed, we could smell her just for a few minutes as she returned to her backyard den. This time, the smell lingered but didn’t dissipate. She was hanging around. As the night continued into the early morn, we finally got up to see what was going on. We could just catch a glimpse of her white tail stripe in the bamboo grove. We believe she had barely survived the fight of her life, and she couldn’t quite make it back to the den. By the afternoon, the smell and the tail had disappeared, and our skunk problem was solved.

I wouldn’t say I miss her. Her departure was more like having an annoying neighbor move away. But even with an annoying neighbor, you form a weird sense of care for them, however superficially and fleetingly. It was interesting to see the life cycle of an animal forced to adapt to our environment. My only conclusion is that the streets of Los Angeles are not an easy place to live – even for a Hell’s Granny.

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  1. Richard Core #
    December 21, 2016

    I came across your blog entry as I was searching for reasons why skunks have disappeared from our neighborhood in Hollywood Heights (near the Bowl). We used to have skunks running around all the time. But we haven’t seen any for a few years. We now have a problem with rats. They keep finding ways back into the crawl space of our house. Our exterminator gets rid of them and closes up any openings that can be found. But the critters find other ways back in. Today we discovered a spot where they chewed on wood to make a hole to get in. Our neighbors have had similar problems. We’ve lived here for 22 years and didn’t have a rat problem until a couple of years ago — when the skunks disappeared. So, if you don’t want them, we’ll take them.

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    • Gary J. Lai #
      December 24, 2016

      Interesting. They are still here though one has not taken up residence in our yard the last couple of years. If I had to guess, some major food source has disappeared in your neighborhood pushing the skunks out. Perhaps the drought has changed the ecosystem.

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