Pet skunks: Cuddly, friendly, yes, but some states are saying No
People do a double-take when Sherry DeMarchi pushes her pet, Ozzie, down her Jamesburg, N.J., street in his enclosed kitty stroller.
Some remark at the surprising beauty of her 11-pound black and white furry friend. But others make a big stink when they making a shocking discovery: Ozzie is a skunk.
“That’s disgusting,” a woman once told DeMarchi after sneaking a peak inside the stroller.
“People see them as these filthy, rabid, scavenger rodent-type creatures,” DeMarchi said. And yet, “they are very clean."
"They’re just not what they seem," she said.
Like DeMarchi, pet skunk owners across the country often grapple with misunderstandings. While they are not a common household pet, skunks have actually been bred domestically for years. The vast majority are de-scented at a young age, and those who own them say skunks are generally friendlier than cats, they can be litter-trained, they love to snuggle in bed and they can be quite funny.
“They’re very intelligent--too much for their own good,” said Mary Vice of Summerville, S.C., who has 11 pet skunks in her home and started a small online group called Striped Bandits. “They’re more personable than any other pet I’ve ever had.”
But many state wildlife agencies say that domestically bred skunks are still wild animals, and should not be kept indoors. And with each passing year, it is only getting harder for aspiring skunk owners.
Most states already bar people from owning skunks because of the fear of rabies, and more states are opting to follow suit. In 2006, West Virginia became one of the latest states to prohibit skunks as pets. Now, Georgia, which allows people to keep certain kinds of skunks in their homes, is considering a change to prevent people from owning any pet skunks.
“In Tennessee, it’s completely illegal,” said Lynnda Butler of Florida Skunks as Pets, Inc., a nonprofit that provides support, education and animal-rescue assistance. She said skunks that are confiscated are often euthanized. “If you drive through there [with your skunk] and get a flat tire, it’s like signing a death warrant.”
It is hard to say how many people in the country have pet skunks. Fewer than half of the states allow it and not all of them require people to obtain pet permits, making it hard to track. Florida, which has a more liberal pet skunk policy, has one of the highest numbers of skunk owners with more than 400 permits on file. In Ohio, 199 permits are registered.
Most states that do track pet skunks only have permits numbering in the double digits, but skunk organizations believe there are many more owners out there who live in states that ban skunks, keeping quiet for fear their pets will be confiscated and euthanized.
According to a tally posted online by Skunk Haven, a non-profit support group and animal rescue service in North Ridgeville, Ohio, more than 30 states prohibit people from having skunks as pets. And even states that don’t flat out ban skunks, such as South Carolina, usually have strict rules that make it hard to obtain them legally. Some people get around the tough restrictions by applying for permits that allow them to provide animal rescue services.
That has allowed Landa and Milton Berry, also of Summerville, S.C., to keep 35 skunks in their home. Many of the animals were abandoned by their owners.
“We started getting calls from people who had bought skunks as pets and didn’t realize the high maintenance,” said Landa Berry, who said her husband jokingly calls their home the “Skunksberry Inn.”
The primary reason for bans on pet skunks is the fear that people could contract rabies if they are bitten by a skunk. While cats and dogs are routinely vaccinated for rabies, there is currently no approved rabies vaccination for skunks.
“I think it’s pretty clear in the public health community and the wildlife community and the agricultural community there is very little support for having wildlife animals as pets,” said Richard Chipman, the assistant rabies management coordinator for the United States Department of Agriculture. “Even if they were born in captivity, they are still wild animals. With all the options out there, it doesn’t make sense to choose a wild animal as a pet when you can choose a great dog or cat.”
Over the years, skunk owners have made attempts to reverse state wildlife policies. They argue that domestically bred skunks are not a rabies threat because they have never come in contact with the deadly disease. They also say wildlife experts just don’t appreciate skunks.
“If I could get (a New Jersey wildlife employee) here one day to sit here and play with him, I think that would change the minds of so many of them,” DeMarchi said. “They really need to encounter it. How can you make a determination when you’ve never even spent 10 minutes with one?”
In Farina, Ill., Dom Durbin is on a mission to make owning pet skunks legal in his state. He has written to state legislators, posted an alert at Congress.org and launched a website, www.skunklaw.com.
He got into skunks last spring when his friend discovered an abandoned litter in his barn. Durbin liked them so much his brother sent him a skunk named Penelope for a wedding gift a few months later. Durbin accepted the gift, unaware it was illegal to own one.
But his beloved pet grew ill and died. Now, Durbin wants to get another one. So far his grassroots campaign has not had much of an effect, but he says he will not give up and hopes to convince wildlife agencies to embrace his point of view. He expects it will be tough, but he is driven to get another skunk without living in fear that wildlife officials could take it away from him.
“My wife and I adored her,” Durbin said, remembering Penelope. “We loved that little critter.”