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Skunked

6/16/2009

The great naturalist and writer Ernest Thompson Seton once maintained that the striped skunk was the proper emblem of America. "It is, first of all, peculiar to this continent," he wrote. "It has stars on its head and stripes on its body. It is an ideal citizen; minds its own business, harms no one, and is habitually inoffensive, as long as it is left alone; but it will face any one or any number when aroused. It has a wonderful natural ability to take the offensive; and no man ever yet came to grips with a skunk without being sadly sorry for it afterward."

Seton's logic was sound, but it's doubtful skunks will ever earn status as our national emblem. They're handsome animals, no doubt. And they possess all the fine characteristics Seton attributed to them. But try as we might, most of us can't get past their malodorous nature. Mention "skunk" and our brain manufactures the sickening, clings-to-your-nostrils stench of truck-flattened road kitty. When my sons were young, they called them, quite appropriately, "stunks."

Skunks stink so predators won't eat them. What makes them stink is a yellow oil composed of chemical compounds called thiols. Thiols also are responsible for the odors of decomposing flesh and fecal matter. Most animals have a deep-seated repulsion to thiols, a gift of evolution that keeps them from eating things that will make them ill.

The skunk's liquid secretion is stored in two walnut-sized glands with nipple-like openings just outside the anus. When alarmed or attacked, a skunk can eject this secretion up to 10 feet. At high concentrations, the spray causes nausea and retching. If it gets in the eyes, it acts like tear gas.

Even at low concentrations, skunk juice has a very foul odor. Seton described it as "... a mixture of strong ammonia, essence of garlic, burning sulphur, a volume of sewer gas, a vitriol spray, a dash of perfume musk, all mixed together and intensified a thousand times." He probably didn't know it, but the human nose can detect skunk spray thiols at about 10 parts per billion.

Skunks are the most common and best-known members of the weasel family. Four different kinds — striped, spotted, hognose and hooded — inhabit North America. Two occur throughout the South — the striped skunk, which is fairly abundant, and the spotted skunk, which is relatively scarce. Hooded and hognose skunks live primarily in the desert Southwest.

The stench of these skunks is an ever-present hazard to the outdoorsman, and although no one has ever died of it, a great many people have thought they were about to. As with seasickness, most victims regret the news that they will survive.

Fortunately, skunks usually warn you before spraying. They often stamp their front feet. The tail snaps up in warning. They may arch their back, or, in the case of spotted skunks, do a handstand. Problem is, when you see the warning signs, you're vulnerable. They can get you if you are behind them, and they can get you if they are facing you. You're never in a safe position unless you're at least 50 yards away.

If you're caught off guard and sprayed, or if a family pet gets doused, you'll want to know immediately how to get rid of the smell. A garden hose is impotent, soap is utterly useless, and tomato juice is nothing but a quaint old wives' tail that has left many people with skunk-sprayed dogs that not only stink but are pink.

Enter Paul Krebaum, a chemist at Molex, Inc. in Lisle, Illi. This ingenious individual is credited with developing the first real home remedy for skunk spray. Krebaum's formula is winning over converts who thought the only viable antidote was the passage of time.

A few years ago, Krebaum was studying thiols, the stinky chemicals in skunk spray, in his lab. Using basic chemistry knowledge, he figured out a way to get rid of the foul odor by changing the thiols into other compounds. The trick was oxidation — getting oxygen molecules to bond with thiols and change them into things that didn't smell bad at all. To do that, he made a solution of hydrogen peroxide and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) that did the trick quite well. The solution threw off oxygen like a dog shakes off water, and some of that oxygen grabbed onto the thiols and neutralized them.

When a cat owned by one of Krebaum's colleagues got sprayed by a skunk, Krebaum recommended a variation of the formula he used for getting rid of thiols in the lab. He told his friend to combine these ingredients and apply the resulting mixture to the pet's fur:

  • 1 quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide

  • 1/4 cup of baking soda

  • 1 teaspoon of liquid soap

The stuff worked like magic, and the next day, every trace of skunk odor was gone from the cat. In October 1993, Chemical and Engineering News published Krebaum's formula.

If you try the formula, be sure to always mix and store the solution in a large, open container. Never use a closed container as it might explode. The mixture will bubble because of the chemical interaction between the baking soda and the hydrogen peroxide. Use the entire mixture while it is still bubbling. Wearing rubber gloves, apply the solution, work it into lather, and leave it on for 30 minutes. The soap breaks up the oils in skunk spray and allows the other ingredients in the solution to do their stuff. The solution should be rinsed off with tap water.

Krebaum briefly considered patenting his formula, but quickly abandoned the idea. The solution is essentially a chemical engine for churning out oxygen, and all that oxygen refuses to be bottled.

"Once you mix the hydrogen peroxide with the baking soda, it is no longer stable," Krebaum said in an interview with a Chicago Tribune reporter. "You can't store it in a bottle, because it would explode from all the oxygen. It wasn't worth trying to get a patent on it because I couldn't put it in a bottle. So I figured, why not make this a free-gift-to-humanity type deal."

The best remedy, of course, is don't get skunked in the first place. But if you do, Paul Krebaum is likely to become a hero in your watery eyes.