An adorable skunk family lit up the Internet this week when a cyclist in Quebec posted a video of his surprise encounter on a woodland trail. A female striped skunk and her four kits ran up to him and sniffed his shoes and bike tires while he remained completely still. Eventually, the curious clan scampered off in a furry group, fluffy tails held aloft.
The cyclist did the right thing by staying calm and quiet, says Robert Dowler, a biology professor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. “Striped skunks aren’t usually quite that bold,” he added. “I think they are just not quite as aware of potential threats as other animals are until they happen upon them—probably because their defense is a good one.”
The sight of some common North American animals, like skunks and porcupines, on a trail can stop hikers or mountain bikers in their tracks. While these two misunderstood mammals don’t usually pose a threat to humans, people in the outdoors should still steer clear. Here’s a quick guide to avoiding a regrettable encounter.
Know Your Wildlife
Striped skunks can be found across North America in a variety of habitats: woodlands, meadows, open fields, and even suburban backyards. North American porcupines, whose Latin name means “quill pig,” prefer trees in forests across the western United States, boreal Canada, and Alaska. Both animals can be common sights for trail runners, hikers, cyclists, and skiers in these regions.
When they feel threatened, striped skunks emit a foul-scented spray from glands under their tail as a deterrent. The odoriferous mist doesn’t cause injuries, but once it hits its target, it can linger for days.
Porcupines are usually shy and nonaggressive, but if they sense danger, they will raise the spiny thicket of quills on their backs to appear larger and more menacing. Contrary to popular belief, porcupines cannot shoot their quills. “I do not know where that myth comes from,” says James Holmes, a wildlife tech with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “If I had to guess, I’d bet that it might have come from parents trying to get their children not to mess with them.”
Give skunks and porcupines plenty of space. If you see one, stop walking or riding. If the animal is still a ways off, move slowly in the opposite direction. “If [people] are calm and not threatening when they encounter a skunk, the animal will usually just move on,” Dowler says.
Dowler recalled a skunk once coming within a foot of him on a trail before it detected his scent. “It jumped as if in surprise and its tail went up. I stayed calm and didn’t move. The skunk immediately moved off a bit and continued its foraging activities as if I wasn’t there,” he says.
Though skunks are usually nocturnal, they can be active during the day, as the viral video shows. “Many people assume that a skunk seen in the daytime is rabid,” Dowler says, but that’s usually not the case unless the skunk is aggressive or acting aberrantly.
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Porcupines are also mostly nocturnal, but occasionally appear at dusk. “If a hiker or biker encounters a porcupine, they should just give it room and not attempt to touch it or harass it,” Holmes says.
If you do get sprayed by a skunk, don’t bother with the typically prescribed tomato juice rinse. “The recipe that seems to work well is mixing one quart of hydrogen peroxide (three percent solution), a quarter-cup of baking soda, and a teaspoon or so of dish soap, and washing with that,” Dowler suggests.
Holmes says that reports of people being stuck with porcupine quills are exceedingly rare—but that dogs get quilled all the time. “It seems that dogs cannot resist chasing and harassing porcupines. Even after a dog has a face full [of quills] they just seem to get madder at the porcupine and come back for more,” he says.
If you’re hiking with your furry friend, avoid going out at dusk or at night, when porcupines are most active, and keep an eye on your pet. If he does get quilled, call your veterinarian right away so the doctor can remove the quills quickly and safely.