What To Do If You Run Into a Skunk

Per Courtenay’s request, we now have ‘What to do if you run into a skunk’ in our series on how to interact with increasingly less-threatening wildlife. Next: deer. See also, previously, what to do if you see a mountain lion, rattlesnake or bear.

1. Don’t run into a skunk. First off, as per all wildlife encounters, avoid them. This isn’t that hard with skunks, since they want to be seen and also are recognizable. And, also, are you know, not that terrifying. So, let’s make sure we all know what a skunk looks like. They look like this:

Aww. Cute.
Aww. Cute.

And, also this:

Though, I would be more scared if I saw this walking down the street.
Though, I would be more scared if I saw this walking down the street.

2. If you do see a skunk, come on, seriously, don’t kill it. Apparently, this is a problem. So, let’s all play an imagining game: you’re just making a home, raising your kids, doing your shit. Then someone bigger comes along and thinks you smell, and more importantly thinks you’re going to make them smell. You try to mind your own business, but they promise a nice big dinner, so you head over and then, bam, you’re dead.

I think my favorite advice came from the City of Sacramento: “practice tolerance” when dealing with wildlife. Which is, you know, good advice for other kinds of things in life too.

Skunks tend to have babies in February and March — meaning don’t try to get the family to move out during that time and practice extra caution around skunks with babies. For some extra sympathy, let’s all look at a skunk baby:

Tell me you don't identify with the look on the skunk baby's face.
Tell me you don’t identify with the look on the skunk baby’s face.


3. Skunks only spray when threatened. Meaning if you aren’t threatening, then you probably won’t get sprayed. Probably. Look unassuming. But, skunks are very near-sighted, so they may spray simply because they can’t see you — like when your deaf great-aunt becomes paranoid because she can’t hear what everyone is saying. Talk in a low voice, move slowly.

Typically, you’ll have a warning that a skunk is about to spray. They stamp their feet, hiss, twist around to point their spraying end in your direction, and raise their tail. Spotted skunks also, oddly, do a handstand. See:

4. If you can: walk away. If not: convince it to walk away. You can convince it to leave by stomping your feet, talking in a low voice, gently scaring it off. If it’s living in your garden or under your deck, etc, well, maybe it’s the time for some self-reflection. Why dd the skunk move in? Is it because you leave food and garbage around? There are also repellents to get skunks to leave. Motion-activated sprinklers work  — they certainly make me get off a lawn — as do commercial scent-repellents or household ammonia (not to hurt the skunk, to get it to leave). Skunks, evidently, also haven’t learned how to climb well. Evolution didn’t do that for them. So, fences and boarding up of holes keeps them out. Though, you’ll likely want to make sure they’re out of the hole before you board up the hole. To get them out, you can play a radio or shine a light into a dark hole, to make it less dark and hole-like.

Conversely, you can also stand perfectly still and wait for the skunk to leave. Also a strategy in life, but probably not a great one.

5. If you get sprayed, don’t pour tomato juice all over yourself. If you do pour tomato juice all over yourself, send me a picture.

Skunk spray may cause temporary blindness, so that’s cool. Wash it out of your eyes and off your face immediately. However, you should also know that once you’ve been sprayed, anything you touch will also smell. Weigh staying blind with having your sink smell like skunk.

In order to get the smell off, you have to counteract or neutralize the chemicals in the skunk’s tail. What most places seem to recommend is mixing one quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, one teaspoon mild dishwashing detergent, and 1/4 cup baking soda. Rinse, wash, repeat. Ideally, since you don’t want your car to also smell, send someone else to the store to make this mixture.

Have you run into a skunk?

What To Do If You ‘Run’ Into a Mountain Lion

This is a specifically requested follow-up to ‘What To Do If You ‘Run’ Into a Rattlesnake.’

Mountain lions are also quite common around here. People are always seeing them wandering down from the hills — even all the way into the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley. Steve swears he saw one at the top of Fairfax-Bolinas Road, by the golf course. He also says he wasn’t worried about it because the lion was eating a deer, so something in that story doesn’t sound totally right.

Whenever anyone says they saw a mountain lion, the police always assume it was really a bobcat (which are, evidently, less dangerous), because they’re easy to confuse. You’re supposed to look at the tail to tell the difference. So, if a large cat is running at you, remember to have it turn around.


On the prowl. With a shorter tail.
On the prowl. With a shorter tail. From Tory Kallman

Mountain Lion:

With a long tail.
With a long tail.

With a rattlesnake, the main things you need to know are about what to do after you’re bitten while running on trails. With a mountain lion, the main things you need to know are about not getting bitten. Once you’ve been attacked, there’s really only one thing to do: call 9-1-1.

1. Not that many people get killed by mountain lions — just 20 in the last 100 years. So, you know, not a huge problem. Mostly, it’s small children that get attacked, suggesting that the best way to not be attacked is to not be small. In recent years, more adults running, hiking, biking, skiing in lion territory have been attacked, suggesting that the second best way to not be attacked is not to wander into their territory.

2. Avoid mountain lions in the first place. Which sounds stupid, but, well, apparently needs to be said. If you’re on a trail in the hills where there is nature and shit, you really shouldn’t be wearing headphones. Mountain lions are more active at dusk and dawn. They also like to go after small things — children, dogs, people by themselves. Don’t run on trails at night. Run in groups at those times — large cats are less likely to attack herds. Stick to trails, especially frequently used trails, instead of wandering into undergrowth. If I do end up stuck on a trail at night (thank YOU Steve and Justin), then it’s always helpful to yell or talk loudly while you go, so as not to surprise any animals out. This led to one instance where I was running full speed, sprinting to get back to my car as dusk fell, and yelling at the top of my lungs, “DON’T EAT ME,” the entire time.

3. If you happen upon a mountain lion, back away. Be large. As is always the advice with these kinds of things: stay calm.  You’re supposed to essentially convince it that you’re the scariest thing out there, which means raise your arms, talk loudly but calmly, pick up any kids or dogs with you so they don’t run. If it starts to behave aggressively, you should throw things and yell –while backing away. But, don’t bend over or crouch to pick up things to throw, because then you’ll look small and it’ll attack. (How you’re supposed to throw things without picking them up is a mystery to me. Presumably, you carry rocks for just such an occasion.)

4. Don’t run, but don’t stand. Traditional logic has always said that if you turn and start to run, then the lion will instinctively chase, which has caused me to be afraid that a lion in the brush will mistake me running on the trail for me running away and try to chase me. New research is suggesting that ‘Don’t Run’ may not be the best advice. If you can run quickly on relatively even ground, you have a decent chase of escaping, but if it catches you then you’re more likely to be killed. If you run on uneven ground, it may mistake you for limping or being weak, which encourages it to attack. If you turn your back, it may go for your spinal cord. But, if you stand totally still, you are almost definitely going to be attacked. Make sense? Good.

5. Fight back. Again, this also sounds stupid, but some animals, supposedly, are less likely to kill you if you play dead. That is NOT the case with mountain lions. You need to convince it that you are too much trouble to eat. If a lion attacks you, hit it. People have been successful in getting away after hitting it with sticks, rocks, gardening tools, etc. This is partially why many people carry a walking stick.

Really, when I think too hard about all the things that can attack me, I start to lose my shit. I generally just take comfort in the fact that if I get attacked by a mountain lion, I will be the first in Marin County and it will definitely be big news.