It's been an especially smelly summer in Hailey. Many evenings have been marked by a wafting rank and slightly sweet smell that could only come from the rear end of a skunk.
From a distance, the smell of a skunk's spray can almost be interesting. Up close it can be toxic and even dangerous.
Skunks, also known as polecats, are omnivorous. In the wild they eat insects, earthworms, small rodents, eggs, berries, roots and nuts.
"Skunks are one of those common critters out there," said Idaho Fish and Game biologist Jerome Hansen. "They can be a problem child. They get urbanized pretty easily."
Hansen said Idaho has two species of the skunk, the striped and spotted.
"The striped ones are more common," Hansen said. "The spotted skunks are more ... well, spotted."
Both species can emit a foul spray from glands in their hindquarters when threatened. The spray is smelly enough to deter predators, and toxic enough at close range to cause skunk toxic shock syndrome.
This ability gives skunks a certain savoir-faire in towns and cities, perhaps because they have little fear of humans. In urban areas, these scavengers will seek human garbage. They have a particular fondness for cat food and will find their ways into garages or basements to get at it. They also have powerful claws for digging and are known to take up residence inside and under buildings.
Mother skunks give birth to litters of two to 10 young each year, usually in May. The babies follow their mothers around for several months, leaving in late July or early August.
"We have three skunk traps available and we can't keep them in stock long enough to meet everyone's needs," said Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter. "Our assistant police chief's dog was skunked. It's a nasty job to get the spray off."
On Tuesday, there was a waiting list in Hailey of seven people waiting for the next available trap.
Gunter said the traps are covered, and that a skunk, once it has been baited inside and trapped, will not spray.
"It won't spray what it can't see," he said. "We keep the traps as a courtesy. It's up to them to take the skunks up into the hills somewhere."
Hansen said baiting the traps with a can of tuna or fish-flavored cat food will usually work to get a skunk in the trap. There may be a sublime connection between skunks and cats; the Warner Bros. character Pepe le Pew's unwilling paramour was a black cat.
Della View resident Irene Robinson is still waiting for the skunk traps she borrowed from the Department of Fish and Game to work.
"My dog has been sprayed two times in one day," she said "If you have ever been on the receiving end of this sort of attack, it is debilitating. It stopped me dead and I had to retch—so foul—you cannot imagine."
If skunk spray is ingested, it can cause skunk toxic shock syndrome. Immediate symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions and shock.
"Usually, a dog will calm down, or else they can be treated with medications," said Maggie Acker, a veterinarian at the Sun Valley Animal Center. "If they get it in their eyes, you can flush them with saline solution."
Hansen said he isn't sure if the apparent preponderance of skunks this summer is due to a specific biological cause. He said that if skunk numbers are up, it could be related to a mysterious abundance of voles last year.
"Skunks do eat both mice and voles," he said. "There's a lot of connections between species out there in nature."
Tony Evans: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sun Valley Animal Center skunk spray cure:
1 quart hydrogen peroxide
A squirt of dish detergent
¼ cup baking soda
Wash and rinse pet with water. Use saline solution for flushing eyes.