How do you wake up in the morning? You may wake up naturally or use an alarm clock. Perhaps your spouse, child, or pet nudges you out of sleep. The occasional, unexpected noise may rouse you too.

We recently learned that one skunk can wake up a whole monastery.

Even those sisters who are sound sleepers and need the most aggressive, persistent alarm clocks to wake up. Even when all of the windows are closed. Even when you pull the covers over your head and try to go back to sleep.

I never knew that strong odors could rouse us from sleep, although I certainly remember waking up to the smell of cinnamon bread as a child. Then, my awareness of that sweet smell occurred at the end of my sleep cycle. Skunk musk is altogether different and capable of waking even the deepest sleeper. That’s quite amazing.

Later that day, during our recreation time at dinner, we discussed that morning’s unexpected wake-up call. Some sisters were understandably irritated by the skunk(s); all of us were surprised by its/their abilities to wake both wings of the monastery. We wondered: do we need to do anything? Would this be a continuing problem, and if so, how should we deal with it? As Franciscans, we want to live in harmony with nature. Can we live in harmony with Sister, or Brother, Skunk?

I didn’t know very much about skunks beyond the important facts – (a) stay clear (b) tomato juice doesn’t really combat the stench – so I did some research.

  • January is the start of mating time for skunks in SC. Sometimes a female will reject a male by spraying him, and sometimes a male will spray another male in order to drive him away from a desired female.
  • Skunks have the ability to aim their spray with astonishing accuracy, and the spray can reach up to ten feet.
  • The smell of their musk can carry half a mile or more (no surprise there).
  • The scientific name for the striped skunk is Mephitis mephitis, an apt name that repeats the Latin term for a noxious odor, perhaps implying that the odor is doubly bad!
  • They have enough concentrated musk in their anal glands that they can spray multiple times, although it takes several days for them to replenish their supply. They are more vulnerable when they’ve depleted their supply and so usually spray only as a last resort.
  • As well as being a powerful weapon, their musk is also a highly effective deterrent. Animals sprayed by a skunk normally learn to avoid them, although we’ve all known dogs who mistakenly thought that they could outwit one. Skunks therefore have few predators; animals that could eat them learn to give them a wide berth. The Great Horned Owl is an exception because it has a poor sense of smell.
  • Because they can drive away most predators, skunks are often described as “confident,” but they aren’t bullies or provocateurs. They tend to mind their own business.
  • They are “natural pest-control heroes,” according to Lynne Warren (“Skunks: Notorious – or Not?“, National Wildlife, April-May 2017). They eat a wide variety of insects as well as small reptiles and rodents.

Because we don’t use pesticides on our property, we were particularly pleased to learn about skunks’ ability to control insect and rodent populations. Like opossums, which eat ticks (yay!), they can help us with our efforts to live sustainably.

After a good night’s sleep, and after learning about their behavior and diet, we were less irritated by our early morning visitors. We haven’t had another dramatic wake-up call. That incident reminded us how important it is to understand the environment in which we live, and especially the creatures who are our neighbors. It’s easy to assume that anything that disturbs our sleep is a nuisance and anything that infiltrates our yards or gardens is a pest or a weed, but if we take a broader view, we can be more appreciative of the splendid diversity of God’s creation.

We can coexist peaceably – from a respectable distance – with skunks.