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Striped Skunk Mephitis mephitis At Glasgow Zoopark 1970-1998

Sadly, the two Striped Skunks at Glasgow Zoopark are no more. Having died of old-age related disorders over the last couple of years. Both now reside in perpetuity in the freezers of the Toxicology Department of the Kelvingrove Museum.

In the U.K. now, there are, at most, two or three pairs all related to stock at Marwell Zoo and the Cotswold Wildlife Park.

During the 1970's, animal dealers Ravensden, and others frequently imported and quarantined this interesting little animal.

I had been brought up on stories such as those of the late Ernest Thomson Seton who describes a family of Skunks living under the floorboards of his raised, wooden cabin in the U.S.A. Their sociability and family life - albeit anthropomorphised and exaggerated, no doubt, and engaging nature made an indelible impression on me.

I found it distressing to see such intelligent, almost dog-like creatures incarcerated into rabbit-hutch sized structures in smaller zoos and wildlife parks. At that time skunks were selling at about 25 pounds sterling each. So they were well within the range of those looking for quick space fillers

The predecessor of the current Zoo Secretary/Director, Jerry Fisher, who had departed for Riverbanks Zoo, South Carolina, U.S.A. , was quite keen on small mammals. He had left behind a young pair of skunks, and an old, rotund male called Pudding . Both the pair, and Pudding were kept in large, open-plan enclosures, surrounded by a low (60cms high)wall. The only fault was that the ground inside was flat, with a glass-sided house, or a wooden box for the skunks to retreat into. They could not see out of the enclosure easily, if at all, something which can easily be avoided if earth is mounded in the centre, which I would advocate whenever possible.

In consequence, Pudding in particular devised his own amusements, usually consisting of jumping to bite fingertips of hands - usually children's - dangled over the wall. No number of warning notices could prevent this, and Pudding's activities became the bane of my life, especially once the staff told me that he ferociously attacked, and would kill, any female skunk offered to him - again something we would not accept nowadays. Eventually, we had to move him to an enclosure, where it was just not possible for Pudding to bite anyone, and peace was restored.

Soon afterwards, our pair of Skunks bred and produced four kittens. The time came when these had to be de-scented . Tame skunks are most reluctant to skunk anybody, nevertheless, we were advised that in the interests of vets and others who might have to handle them in emergencies, this should be carried out. The Glasgow Veterinary School offered to accomplish it.

I volunteered to deliver the skunks to the Vet School ( on the far side of Glasgow from the zoopark ) and carefully drove there one day, with the windows open most of the way. Because they were altogether, in a hay-filled box, they weren't too upset, so, so far as I could tell, nobody acually became excited enough to let fly.

It was a bit different once we arrived. The room where the operations were to be carried out, was on the Ground Floor, and was approached through large doors from a courtyard. The bulk of the Administration was on three floors directly above. The ventilation system, I was told, usually sucked cold, fresh air in, at ground floor level, and dispersed it through the floors above. So we'll just switch it off, for the time being, shall we! Said the young vet who greeted me.

Then, with a large American text-book propped open at the appropriate page I've not actually done this before he set to work.

Each baby skunk was lifted out by the tail, anaesthetised, then dunked head first into a long thin glass jar , with his hind legs hooked over the edge of the jar, proferring his rear end to the world. Then the two little tubes of what looked like mustard were cut away from either side of the anus. Holding one of these up with a pair of tweezers, the vet no sooner told me: You have to be careful not to nick one , than this was followed by Ooops!! , and an horrendous choking smell, filled the room. By popping outside for fresh air at intervals, we managed to proceed, but not so the rest of the school. Whether somebody had switched the ventilation back on, or whether it just permeated everywhere naturally, we soon heard the sound of running feet, as the entire building seemed to have gathered outside on the grass.

It took quite a while to clear the air so they could return!

Having now experienced at first hand what a skunk can do, it does not surprise me to learn that in the U.S.A. allegedly, all camper vans carry large containers of Tomato Ketchup. If a dog is skunked , bathing him with tomato ketchup is the only way to get it off apparently - the sort of trivial pursuit type piece of information which could, who knows, come in handy one day!

Our baby skunks were in due course, passed onto other zoos, a decision I have subsequently regretted many times. Because these are common, and not endangered, and at that time cheap to buy, whilst simultaneously possessing demanding requirements if they were to be kept properly ( though most people didn't appreciate this ), few zoos made any attempts to, or managed, to breed them, and gradually they died out in U.K. collections.

On the Continent, the story was rather different. The 1975 Dangerous Wild Animals Act in the U.K. had prevented Skunks from being taken up as pets in the UK, but in Germany, where there are no such Acts, significant numbers were being kept by hobbyists. As so often happens with small mammals, hobbyists were more successful and by the mid-1980's, Striped Skunks - and their white and cinnamon (I believe) colour mutations, were available in pet shops!

We tried to become involved again importing a pair of oldish animals from Prague Zoo, and working with Marwell Zoo and the Cotswold Wildlife Park, but the pair did not breed.

A number of specimens have been maintained during the period, 1970-1998. Initially purchased from animal dealers, at a time when small mammals were cheap and easy to acquire. Skunks suffered from being regarded as so common as to be relatively unimportant, and certainly not endangered.

Our skunks were maintained in low-walled open enclosures, which by the standards of the time, were large. One was about six metres by four metres. Another, containing the pair which bred, was fifteen metres by eight metres, approximately. However, they suffered in that the dens were glass sided and not very private, much of the perimeter of the dens was slabbed with crazy paving and the remainder was maintained as very short grass.

There was no significant behavioural enrichment, and the skunks were fed in small steel bowls.

After an absence of several years, when we kept them again in the mid-1980's, we moved them to enclosures constructed in 1972-1974, but designed for African Porcupines. These were far larger. The African Porcupine enclosure is about 20 metres in length, by eight metres in width, with a tall heap of earth running lengthways through it, and supporting the house. This hill was cloaked in long grass, through which the skunks made runs.

The other enclosure for North American Porcupines contained a tall, dead Sweet Chestnut tree, which was above all very large. Approximately forty metres by fifteen metres, it contains rocks with holes underneath, barrels, small mammal huts, a larger, walk-in bird aviary type of hut, and logs. The grass was cut in some places, left long ( with numerous flowering plants i.e. weeds growing in it )in other areas.

To counter the problem of this crepuscular (nocturnal species never being visible, it was kept with North American Porcupines. Provided the introduction is taken slowly, and both species can proceed with their daily routines without being forced into confrontation, they seem to co-exist without undue difficulty.

Left to their own devices, the skunks emerged soon after four in the afternoon , when many visitors were still about, so most people who wanted to see them did so.

Although this management was good by European Zoo standards, especially if it could be combined with behavioural enrichment techniques such as scatter feeds through the undergrowth. I would like to try and capture the spirit described by E. Thomson Seton, where the skunks lived at liberty and co-existed with him, living under his hut. Phil Drabble, in the U.K, a well known naturalist and former presenter of One Man and His Dog , a television programme about sheepdog handling, keeps Badgers in a rather similar way also. They live in specially constructed concretesetts on the badger gate which gives entry to a nearby wood. This lights up a display above his T.V., so Phil Drabble can monitor their comings and goings from the comfort of his arm chair.

When you compare these animal life-styles, ( which are probably replicated many times in the U.S.A with skunks and Raccoons in particular ) it can be no surprise that most, if not all, zoo facilities are verging on the grossly inadequate, from a Skunks (or Raccoons) psychological point of view. We would eventually like to try keeping these species (and Porcupines) in very large ( i.e. much larger --more ungulate sized ) enclosures of great complexity. Until we, and other zoos do this I don't see any way of avoiding the repetitive, bobbing runs, round and round the enclosures which you so often see.

One hesitates to deride these as frenetic (which they certainly are, in small enclosures, and especially cages), but they are so fast and uninterrupted, that it is difficult to describe them as patrolling round their territory. Patrolling suggests proceeding at a measured pace, not at a gallop, though perhaps mustelids do normally patrol by galloping . If so, then the necessity for even larger enclosures, becomes more pressing. The apologist expressions promulgates behavioural enrichment specialists that size isn't everything , and that quality of space is what counts, is fundamentally flawed with the mustelids at least, where size is just frankly inadequate.

Within the enclosures, our skunks were fed on as wide a range of food as possible, including chopped fruit, and chunks of beef, powdered with carnivore calcium supplement, dead day-old chicks, and the occasional, fur-covered rabbit leg.