A stink in the tale: Why Britain is swooning over the pet with a pong

The skunk might seem an odd choice for domestication, but Tom Peck is smitten

One look and she's got you, hook, line and stinker.

The little thing is unutterably adorable, with her thick, ivory-coloured fur, long tail and pointed little face, long nose and shiny black marble eyes. Her back end of course, is a markedly different prospect, but more on that later.

The skunk, originally native to the Americas, Indonesia and the Philippines, has expanded its territory to all corners of the UK.

Demand for skunks as the latest exotic pet is rising rapidly. Since 2007 it has been illegal to "de-scent" them, but would-be skunk owners are undeterred. About 2,000 are now thought to be kept in the UK. Michelle Rhodes, 38, a breeder of skunks and other exotic animals in Cosham, near Portsmouth, has had more inquiries this year than ever before. One question precedes all others.

"It's not nice," she answers. "It smells of raw garlic and burning rubber, and sticks around for three or four days. But they only do it as a last resort. If they feel they're under threat, they will spray rather than bite. But most happy skunks never do it."

Interacting with Damson, a three-year-old female, is a little like playing with a kitten. Unnervingly, though, a skunk's favourite ruse is to pretend it is going to spray, and then not. "They stamp their feet, shoot their tail in the air, then turn their body into a C-shape, so they're looking at you, and pointing at you at the same time," says Michelle's husband Sean, a business analyst. "It's really funny." Hmmm.

When the couple were caring for a traumatised male skunk, he got out of his crate and clambered up the back of a chest of drawers. Mr Rhodes opened the drawer and tried to pull him out. Mistake. "I took a direct hit, double-barrelled, right in the face from six inches," he said.

Mr Rhodes, 35, washed profusely, with hydrogen peroxide, but the smell stuck to him for days. "It didn't go down well at work. The guy who sits next to me went out and bought pot pourri and stuck it on my desk."

Mrs Rhodes, who keeps 11 raccoons, three chinchillas, seven ferrets, four chickens and three skunks at their home, said skunks appealed because they were considerably easier to keep than other exotic pets. But they are not without their challenges.

"They are diggers," she says. Little Damson certainly has the claws for it, two inches long at least. They have been known to find a stain on the carpet from years gone by, and dig to find what is under it. Not the most suitable pet for residents of blocks of flats, then. "That is very rare though. Only around one in 10 will dig up a carpet," says Mrs Rhodes.

There are also, predictably, issues around excretion. Skunks like to poo in dark corners, and teaching them to use the litter tray can be hit and miss.

Last year one of Mrs Rhodes' fellow skunk keeper friends became concerned by an intensifying aroma in the living room, unaware that for some time their pet had been politely defecating behind a bookcase. One day the owner moved it to discover a "skunk poo volcano".

Holding little Damson in the air, it seems unlikely she would be capable of such unpleasantness. But her feared scent gland is inches from my face. Even after the most robust reassurances, this remains discomforting.

Though skunks are generally docile – in more than an hour's photographing, Damson does not make a sound – it is unwise to leave one to roam the homestead unsupervised. Mrs Rhodes recommends a six-foot crate to keep them in at night, or if no one is around. They may chew through wires, and are adept at opening fridges.

But skunks do not object to being kept by themselves, and if introduced slowly, will happily share their home with all manner of other animals.

Some owners like to take their unusual pets for a walk, secured with a ferret harness, but it is not essential, and is more for the owner's entertainment – and ego – than the skunk's welfare.

One potential problem, however, is the skunk's quite staggering stupidity. If left alone in a garden or outdoors, it will wander off and, lacking the homing instincts of a cat or dog, forget where it lives and never return. This is one reason why some wildlife groups argue they should not be kept as pets – there are reports of escaped or disowned skunks breeding in the wild.

One meal a day will satisfy a skunk: a teacupful of broken dog or cat biscuits, then a quarter of a cup of fresh fruit and veg, and half a chicken breast. No more.

"They will eat whatever's put in front of them, and they will eat it all," says Mrs Rhodes. "A skunk will eat til it pops."

However, Mrs Rhodes is selective about where she will place a skunk, and has turned down potential owners in the past. "It is not something you should enter into lightly."

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Suggested Topics
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Planner

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen withi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£13676.46 - £15864.28 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Re...

Recruitment Genius: Existing Customer Telephone Consultants

£13000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Every day they get another 1000...

Recruitment Genius: Contract Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrigeration, mechan...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor