It had been about a month since Sweet Pea came into our lives. She was so much fun. So sweet and extremely playful. She loved to play spray us all evening. There she goes, running into the kitchen away from us in the living room. A few seconds later, a small, chubby bottomed skunk would come running back at us, tail up and loaded! Charging at us full force she would stop short, throw her front feet in the air, stomp down on the ground, scrape them backwards and quickly whip her rear around at us! Never once did she actually try to spray us. I really wasn’t worried about her actually spraying because this was all play. The only time skunks spray is when they think their life is in danger and she clearly thought we were family so it wasn’t an issue. The only thing we ever experienced was the occasional little skink fart. Yes, all mammals get gas and Sweet Pea’s were, well, rather fragrant!
Once grown, Sweet Pea was going to be living in an exhibit for the public to enjoy. It’s not that we don’t trust our guests, but sometimes children are a little less predictable than skunks! If one happened to throw something at the exhibit or bang on the fencing, we didn’t want to take a chance that Sweet Pea may mistakenly think she was in danger. Being able to accurately spray 14’ we thought it would be wise to have her scent gland removed.
I was about to find out that this is much easier said than done. The scent glands of a striped skunk are simply enhanced, specialized anal glands. The gland sits right inside the anal opening and is not sitting there loosely, but rather, wrapped with a web of tiny muscles that control when and how much spray will be emitted.
Everyone knows how strong a skunk’s spray smells when your dog comes home covered in it. But that isn’t even a full dose. Imagine if you smelled the entire load! Well, the vets were not willing to find out. The surgery to remove the gland requires a very delicate hand to gently remove all of the muscles and then the gland… without nicking it at all. One slip and the full concentration of oily pungent, foul aroma would fill the room. Once in the room, it will never come out. There are stories of it destroying vet clinics! So the search was on for a willing vet to attempt the surgery. We found a vet in town who was willing, but under one condition: the surgery was not to be done at the clinic, but outdoors at Turtle Bay itself!
Using portable equipment, the vet arrived at Turtle Bay. We decided to set up in our outdoor quarantine mew. If a gland was nicked there, it would be able to wash down and air out. I had no idea at the time quite how invasive this surgery was going to be. Once inside, I was shocked not only at the size of the glands, but the amount of muscles engulfing them. The vet carefully separated each little piece of muscle and removed it. One after another until the gland was free. Then a little snip and it was out! “Get the sealed baggy,” he said to us. “Don’t let it break open putting it in.” We carefully held the baggy as he placed the dangerous stink bomb in and then sealed it and put it into a second bag. “Get it outside!” we all exclaimed in unison. Whew, one down and one to go! The vet turned to us and declared, “That was the easy one.” What did he mean by that? Well from all the stories he had heard, most vets are successful with the first one, but once they realize how easy it was they get complacent and slip up with the second one. He was determined to learn from their mistakes and he did! Two glands out, no seepage, no leaks, no breakage… no smell!
While I thought this was the worst of it and her recovery from the surgery would be pretty quick, I was sadly mistaken. The vet informed us that some skunks have complications with the recovery from this surgery.
Not long after we got home with her, I noticed something wrong with her rear end. “What is that?” I asked as I noticed something sticking out. “Oh my!” I exclaimed as my husband, Wayne, quickly joined me. “She’s prolapsing, those are her insides!” About 2 inches of her intestines were hanging out and they were not going to go back in on their own. One thing I love about my career is that I am always learning new things and this was one extremely new thing. I had to figure out how to reinsert a skunk’s intestines back inside of her. The vet had sent me home with some lubricant so I grabbed a little and tried putting it on. It had an anti-swelling property to it, so I thought it may help to make it easy, but like usual, I was wrong. As soon as I touched it, Sweet Pea let out a squeal that sounded like I was slaughtering a pig. I asked Wayne to help hold her as I tried again. Nothing, she just squealed in pain and I was getting nowhere. It had to get in back in or the tissue would dry out and start to die. Every time she squealed, I stopped, but I couldn’t do that. Even though I was hurting her, I had to keep going. Wayne held her firmly in his arms, her head buried in his arm, I slowly started closest to her body pushing her intestines back inside. A little at a time it was going in. I was almost there, but every time I let up the littlest bit, her body would constrict and it would push it back out. “Please, Sweet Pea, let me do this,” I pleaded as tears were welling up in my eyes. I kept going, patiently, and finally, it was all back in. I moved my hand away and it starting coming back out. So, like the little Dutch boy with the hole in the dam, I plugged it up with my finger. Yes, I shoved my finger up a skunk’s butt and held it there for about 20 minutes! “How long would be long enough?” I thought. I cautiously removed my finger and thankfully it all stayed in.
This was not the end of it either. An hour later I saw her turn around and plop, out it came again. This time, I caught it quickly and only about an inch was exposed. So, yup, in my finger went. I sat on the floor with a skunk in my lap, my finger firmly planted up her rear as we sat and watched tv. I spent most of the next six hours this way, just hoping it would all stay in. “What am I going to do tonight,” I thought. “If she prolapses in the middle of the night and I don’t see it, she will be dead by morning.” This terrified me so I cleared my nightstand, placed her kennel on it and set my alarm for every 30 minutes. Every time my alarm went off, I rolled over, turned on a flashlight to get a good look and then, back to sleep for another 25 minutes. Thankfully, she made it through the night. Through all of this, she never once tried to bite us.
The next day everything seemed fine. She was keeping her insides inside, which was much appreciated! Over the next week, she seemed to be doing well. She was still pretty swollen, but that was to be expected. Then on day 6, plop, her insides fell out again! This happened many more times over the next month. She would be fine for a few days and then it would repeat again and again. I was starting to think she was never going to hold onto her insides. But she was healing and it was less intense each time with less coming out and less time I had to spend in my Dutch boy role for it to stay put. Finally, after six weeks, she stopped and never prolapsed again. As she continued to grow into a healthy young skunk, I learned that the de-scenting of a skunk is a much bigger ordeal than anyone ever realizes. It is very invasive and traumatic for all involved. In all my years working with animals I have seen and done some pretty gross things from being vomited on by vultures to emptying maggot-ridden garbage, but I never thought I would be able to add to the skills on my resume: Skunk proctology!
Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs
“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”