No Scents in this Business (Sep, 1956)

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No Scents in this Business

By Thomas K. Worcester

Colorado couple earns up to $3,000 a year in novel sideline of raising skunks to sell as pets.

SKUNK pelts bring good money but a Lyons, Col. couple finds that the fur sells better when attached to live animals.

Through a venture which started as a small sideline business, Ken and Ardetta Barris now raise more than 100 skunklets a year for sale as pets to motorists who stop at their farm on the road to Colorado’s famous Rocky Mountain National Park. Ken and Ardetta became interested in skunk-raising several years ago after reading an article on profitable “polecat” culture.

In 1951 the Barrises ordered two pre-bred female skunks from a commercial breeding farm. That year, and every year since, they have been able to sell all the skunks they could raise.

Since buying their first pair of females the Barrises have purchased additional breeders, besides saving a certain number of the kittens born on the place. This year they have 30 breeders—24 females and six males. Six females to each male is the economical proportion for a skunk farm, say the Barrises, who have come to know a lot about skunks.

Once the debagged skunk was chiefly a comic prop in certain vaudeville acts but lately it has become popular as a house pet. If you want a skunk, you have your choice of ten or more North American species; the Barrises raise only the well-known common skunk, which is probably the prettiest of the lot with a glossy black coat and twin white stripes running from its head to its bushy tail. In his forest home the skunk is a nocturnal carnivore that feeds on bugs, reptiles, eggs, mice, rats and other small mammals. He is a supremely confident character because nobody on two feet or four wants to get skunked.

Skunks are trapped for their fur. From their bodies comes the skunk oil sold in drug stores as a liniment. Pet skunks must be bathed from time to time to get this oil out of their coats. Skunk flesh has been eaten and is reputed to be tender and sweet. The farther north they live, the more deeply do skunks hibernate. At the Barris establishment the creatures go into partial hibernation from late October through March.

The male skunk is about two feet in length, including the tail, and weighs about ten pounds. The female is somewhat shorter and lighter. Skunks raised in captivity tend to grow larger than their wild relatives.

The skunk’s short, pointed head with its overhanging snout holds a mouthful of 34 teeth quite capable of a vicious bite. Relatively shortlegged, the skunk has fairly large paws and long, non-retractable claws which he uses for digging or grasping food.

A litter of skunks may range in number from one to 13 kittens or skunklets, four to six being an average and ideal litter. At birth the kittens are about the size of a finger, and are naked, although they show faintly the marks which will distinguish the adult animal. They are weaned at about six weeks and at that time are small enough to sit in the palm of a hand. Skunks breed only once a year, in the latter part of February or early March. Gestation period is six weeks. Life expectancy of the animals is eight to ten years.

There are no particular problems to raising skunks either in quantity as do the Barrises or alone as pets. The animals are delicate when very young, but with a good start soon become hardy.

Ken and Ardetta can offer lots of valuable information to anyone going into the business. Their first tip would be to get the stock well ahead of the breeding season so as to learn the care and habits of the animals and have the skunks well-adjusted to new surroundings before mating. Late summer is the best time to obtain breeding stock.

Feeding the animals is a year-round chore, although during the winter months they will not eat as much depending on the amount of hibernation. The Barrises feed their animals on formula proportions of meat, cereal, fish, milk, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. For pet skunks they recommend canned dog food and table scraps, or a similar high protein diet.

Ken has devised a mixing drum for preparing skunk feed. Using a paddle attached to a portable drill, he mixes great volumes of gruel quickly and easily. He gets meat scraps from butcher shops, reject eggs from poultry raisers and vegetable trimmings from farms and markets, all at no cost. (During the summer they get too many crates of eggs, but boiling and deep freezing keeps them for winter use.)

Ken also makes all the skunk pens. The wood comes from lettuce and apple crates which cost a dime apiece. The nesting box is made from an apple box. Since Ken mass-produces the boxes, he uses a template for drilling holes to mount the nesting box to the pen, making the boxes interchangeable. Ken mounts his pens off the ground in groups of three’s so that the inside mesh in this case will serve two pens, saving two sides of wire in a triple unit.

Cost per individual pen the way Ken builds them is about $2.75, figuring $2.00 for wire, .60 for hardware (hinges, screws, and hooks), the rest for apple boxes, and paint. Ken buys paint in odd lots at $2.00 a gallon.

The skunks do not require much special care in the winter. The Bar-rises put hay in the nesting boxes, and double up the skunks in the pens so that they can help keep each other warm. Some of the animals eat once a day, while others in partial hibernation eat only twice a week.

In January the Barrises cut the animal’s feed in half to prepare them for breeding. If the skunks are too fat they are not only hard to breed but the yield is apt to be less.

Other year-round care includes spraying the pen area with germicide and cleaning in and beneath pens. Now and then the animals are bathed to help get rid of some of the body oil. No smell surrounds the area if the pens and ground are kept clean.

The Barrises recommend a 6 to 1 ratio of females to males in the skunk breeding stock. An average yield of about 5-1/2 skunklets per animal can be expected. Loss of skunklets can be kept to a minimum with proper care and feeding.

All descenting and medical care of the animals is handled by Ken and Ar-detta. The descenting, which requires an incision and removal of the scent bags before the kitten is weaned, takes Ardetta only about 5 minutes per kitten. The wound heals rapidly, particularly with the help of disinfectant and mother skunk’s nursing. The Barrises will furnish diagrams and complete information about how to do it to any person buying breeding stock from them.

Skunks, including breeding stock, are shipped F.O.B. Lyons by the Barrises to any point in the country, and they guarantee the delivery of live, healthy animals. Since a nesting box is used as a shipping crate, a deposit of $1.50 is required by the Barrises. They also will sell pens for the animals at $10 for a single pen and nest, or $25 for a triple unit. The animals sell for $30 each.

The Barrises find that their novel pets sell any time of the year although summer is best when the skunks still are young. Christmas also proves good and at this time they sell adults that are low producers.

As pets the skunks are almost a cross between a cat and a dog. They can be housebroken, taught tricks and obedience, and prove many times to be better mousers than cats. Young skunks will adapt to other pets in the house with little trouble, but other animals may or may not accept the black and white interloper. The Barris dog is quite friendly towards the skunks in his domain, and most of the young woodpussies respond playfully to his gentle nuzzling.

Ardetta and Ken have found that their skunk raising has almost got out of hand. Ken spends several hours a day around the pens. However, they can depend on the sale of their animals to bring them approximately $3,000 this year.

The Barrises will furnish all the necessary information as well as breeding animals to persons who request it. All it takes is time, understanding, and a bit of knowledge, and the return is terrific, they say.

Besides, as you may have guessed, the Barrises enjoy the little stinkers! This attitude is essential in skunk farming.

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