The Eastern spotted skunk rescued at Gumbo Limbo draws a crowd including (l-r) Francesca Manzia, executive director of Lipu Wildlife Recovery Center in Rome, veterinary student Audrey Saint-Marc, and freelance journalist and photographer Irene Alison, as it is released back to its native hammock habitat in Boca Raton. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Little skunk wins hearts along way to recovery
By John Pacenti
In the once-upon-a-time jungle in which we live, where canals and highways long ago tamed the swamp and bulldozers shaped the barrier islands, there lives an elusive creature among the sand dunes and mangroves of Boca Raton: the Eastern spotted skunk.
This is no randy Pepé Le Pew or childlike Flower, our cartoon North Stars for everything skunk. No, this is their smaller inquisitive cousin with no singular stripe. Instead, its black-and-white coat is like a Rorschach test. The skunk is the size of a squirrel and possesses soft, curious eyes.
Living among raccoons, foxes and feral cats, these little stinkers have made their home in the dunes and mangroves that run along South Beach Park, Red Reef Park and Spanish River Park in Boca Raton.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” said Jeff Wade, who often walks among the dunes and the mangroves in Boca Raton. “I point them out to people and they say, ‘Really, skunks?’”
The Eastern spotted skunk is considered a “species of greatest conservation need” in the state, according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
In Boca, besides the beach area and mangroves, the skunks can be found playing along the roots of the big trees lining the boardwalk of Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.
Nearly terminated with the termites
It is at Gumbo Limbo where one skunk’s tale of near death and resurrection, of lost and found, made two veterinarians cry.
In mid-December, a male skunk ended up trapped under the nature center’s main building while it was undergoing weeklong fumigation for termites.
David Anderson, Gumbo Limbo’s sea turtle conservation coordinator, said staff doesn’t believe the skunk was there when the tent went up because staff did several walk-throughs and inspections under the building.
“Anything trapped would probably not have survived. So, we suspect the skunk entered immediately after or found a way in right before it was removed,” Anderson said of the tenting.
Either way, the skunk was in dire straits.
It was sent to Fort Lauderdale’s South Florida Wildlife Center, where it fell under the care of medical director Dr. Charlotte Cournoyer and veterinarian Dr. Erica Sheppard. They nursed him back to life, feeding him by hand until he was back to his skunk self.
“He was a tough case when he came into the center. He was suffering seizures,” Cournoyer said. “It was a very long road for him.”
The vets don’t name their patients so they don’t become attached to the animals, but he won them over anyway. “He’s a special little case,” Sheppard said.
A handful of visitors and staff were on hand on Feb. 2 to witness the skunk’s return to Gumbo Limbo. He was released right next to the center’s main building where he almost met his demise.
Sheppard and Cournoyer watched as their patient poked his head out of a pet carrier and ventured slowly but surely into the brush.
They hugged and wiped tears from their eyes, counting one more animal rescue — a total now more than 8,900 — for the South Florida Wildlife Center.
Anderson was also on hand for the homecoming.
He said he once was cleaning out a sea turtle nest when a skunk came right up to him as he removed rotten eggs. One time, a skunk rolled away with a rotten sea turtle egg, guiding it across the sand as if it were a prized boulder.
The skunks will get to live turtle eggs as well, burrowing into nests. “There’s not much we can do about it because they are too small,” Anderson said. “They only take an egg or two.”
Yes, it sprays when threatened
Skunk sightings are like falling stars — rare but always noteworthy. The best time to catch sight of the skunks appears to be at around sunrise. Regulars are well acquainted with the creatures.
Chandrika Khera first spotted them while walking her newborn in Red Reef Park, saying she was hyper-vigilant as a new mom.
“The first time I was like, what kind of animal is this?” she said. “I Googled and I found it was a skunk. They’re cute. That’s why I keep looking for them.”
The native species is known for its spraying behavior. When spooked it will stomp its feet, give a warning hiss or squeal, and do a headstand with its tail extended, trying to look as big and threatening as possible. If that fails, well, then the perceived threat is drenched in a foul-smelling musk that the skunk sprays up to 15 feet.
This weasel-shaped skunk actually has four stripes in a broken pattern that gives the animal its spots. There is always one white spot on the head.
Found in Canada, northeastern Mexico and much of the U.S. east of the Rockies, the animal has seen its numbers decline over the years in the Midwest but has found a home in South Florida.
The skunks are not just Boca bound, either. They can be found up Florida’s east coast.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission says the range of the spotted skunk extends from the Keys to the extreme northeast portion of the state — but more data is needed.
The state agency separates the spotted skunk into two subspecies — the Appalachian and the Florida, with the latter dominating south of the Suwannee River. FWC even conducted a skunk observation project to find out more, but the agency did not return calls or emails for further details.