Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

March 27, 2008

Couple wants to legalize skunks as pets

Tony Huffman

Dominique Durbin of Farina is raising quite a stink these days. After his wife found a litter of abandoned skunks and raised them for release, his brother decided a kit, a baby skunk, would be a great wedding gift.

Dominique and his brother, who lives in Indiana where domesticated pet skunks are legal, didn’t realize the law was different in Illinois.

“We tried to take Penelope to the vet to get her spayed. It was then that we found out that having her was illegal,” said Dominique Durbin. “If you are found having a domesticated skunk as a pet, there is a fine and the skunk is euthanized. If it wasn’t for the last part, we would have kept Penelope and you probably wouldn’t be hearing about this.

“Once you have the animal descented, which is a nonevasive procedure done early in the animal’s life, having one is a complete joy. It’s like a cross between a house cat and a calm monkey,” said Durbin.

The basis for the ban goes back to an outbreak of rabies cases in the mid-1970s.

It is Durbin’s belief incorrect information and public stigma is holding a lift on the ban.

“The biggest opposition is coming from a lack of knowledge,” said Durbin. “The cases of rabies are much less than they used to be, which any animal can get. If a responsible pet owner keeps their skunk indoors, they would be fine. You can go to the store and buy a fur-bearing permit for every animal except the skunk and coyote.”

In bringing the issue before state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Greenville, Durbin hopes to bring a breath of fresh air to the situation.

“I have to admit I wasn’t entirely sure of all the details of this, so I asked the research committee to get more information from wildlife experts and veterinarians,” said Stephens. “I am keeping an open mind, but I will come down on the side of reason. After all, because of the possibility of rabies, this is a public health issue.”

How a skunk contracts rabies is at the heart of the debate.

“The difference between a skunk and other animals a person would have as a pet is the fact a skunk doesn’t have to be in contact with another animal to develop rabies,” said Dr. Walton of Walton and Haarmann Veterinary Clinic in Effingham. “Adding to the problem is that you can’t test live animals for rabies. You would find out your pet has rabies after it starts showing signs of a problem.

“I have known people that have had pet skunks and they are cute as can be,” continued Walton. “I just don’t think it is worth it for people to risk their lives, especially with a virus like rabies.”

“There isn’t a registered vaccine available for skunks because producers don’t have a market on them and the vaccine isn’t guaranteed to be effective. Some other states use vaccines, but the license isn’t there,” said Bob Bluett, wildlife biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “We live in an area that has an endemic on rabies in wild skunks.”

It is Durbin’s contention, through personal research, including the article Skunk Rabies in the book “In The Natural History of Rabies” that the rabies issue is a non-issue.

“This book is the definitive reference on rabies, edited by George M. Baer, chief of the viral zoologist branch and rabies laboratory at the Center for Disease Control. Skunks simply do not carry rabies; a skunk that is excreting rabies virus and is thus infective will, within days, develop clinical rabies with its associated symptoms including paralysis, coma, and death.”

With opinion varying on the carrying and transmitting of rabies, some consider the risk greater than others.

“My question, on any pet, has to be is it worth it? A lot of kids can play on the interstate without all of them getting hurt. That doesn’t mean I am going to let mine do it,” said Dr. Walton.

Tony Huffman can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 135 or tony.huffman@effinghamdailynews.com.