Recently, Kris Newby and her family unknowingly hosted uninvited visitors in their Palo Alto home: a family of skunks.
Wildlife such as skunks can be a nuisance and cause property damage, according to Russell Parman, district manager at Santa Clara County Vector Control. The district's first priority is to teach residents how to make their properties unappealing to wildlife, he said, which encourages animals to live elsewhere.
Newby first noticed one skunk a year ago, when she saw it walking down her driveway and through her yard at night.
"This year, (the skunk) dug a hole under our outbuilding," Newby said.
Soon after, there was more than just the one skunk.
"You can smell them in the (outbuilding)," Newby added. "The smell was unbearable, especially when the babies were born."
Newby said she learned that skunks emit little "poofs" of gas continuously, as a way of announcing their presence to others.
"Then there is the angry spray," she said.
She and her husband, as well as the family dog, experienced a skunk's angry spray firsthand. The dog would chase the skunks at night. Once, the dog caught a baby skunk and after playing with it, killed it.
"Then (the dog) got sprayed," Newby said. "My husband was trying to take the skunk away, and he got sprayed."
Being sprayed by a skunk did not deter the dog, she said.
"Just a couple of weeks later, he was sprayed again."
To combat the smell on her dog, Newby said she tried store-bought remedies, but washing the dog with a solution of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dish-washing soap worked the best.
Even so, it was "at least a month before he was bearable," she said.
Newby's dog and husband were not the only ones affected by the skunk smell.
"We had to remove all my son's clothes from the (outbuilding)," she said. "(My son) went to work the first day and people noticed the smell."
For help, Newby contacted Santa Clara County's Vector Control, which provides free assistance in dealing with wildlife to county residents.
"There are techniques you can use to discourage animals from being on your property in the first place," Parman said, "and to ... make it miserable for (animals) to approach humans."
Most importantly, he said, "limit the food, water and shelter that your property makes available to animals." But when animals either take up residence or become a health threat, vector control will trap them, Parman added.
"Relocation of animals is not legal; California Fish and Game does not allow it," Parman said. Trapped animals must be put down by law.
To combat Newby's skunk problem, staff from vector control showed her how to make the nest uninhabitable and the yard uninviting.
Plugging the hole where the nest was located was not an option, Newby said, because then the skunks would die and they would deal with another terrible odor.
Skunks are sensitive to smells, so vector control stuffed the skunk's nest with pepper-sprayed newspaper, Newby said. Vector control also identified the route that the skunk was using across the Newby property.
Though the pepper-sprayed newspaper from vector control lasted only a day -- the mother skunk shredded it to get to her babies -- Newby said she did not give up.
"We kept doing the pepper-spray newspaper thing for three weeks," she said. "Then the skunk just got impatient and left."
To keep the skunk from returning to her yard, Newby said they made the entrance to the nest impassible with a strategically placed flowerpot. They also plugged other holes in their yard.
Because skunks typically use multiple dens along a circuit, Newby said the problem might have just been pushed down the road.
Skunks are not the only wildlife that might visit local yards.
In Santa Clara County, "the big four are raccoons, possums, skunks and coyotes," Parman said.
While skunks are destructive with their spray and hole digging -- he said raccoons also cause large amounts of damage.
"Raccoons can literally roll up lawns" to get at bugs living underneath, he said.
"Depending on one's philosophy about pesticides, there are products you can use to get rid of grubs and make the lawn unattractive," he said. "Raccoons are known for ripping siding off mobile homes, tearing shingles off roofs to get in."
Parman added that there is no one easy solution for co-existing with wildlife.
"For the long term, people need to make sure their property doesn't have holes or nooks and crannies for wildlife to take advantage of," he said. "There are various kinds of tricks, like keeping wood piles at least 18 inches off the ground, keeping shrubs and trees trimmed away from structures, and trees trimmed away from your roof, to make it difficult for animals to access your structure."
The dog was the only member of the family who enjoyed having the skunks around, Newby said.
"He is disappointed they are gone," wrote Newby in an email. "He had so much fun chasing them. Now he plays with his stuffed skunk."
Editorial intern Kimberlee D'Ardenne can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.