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Skunk sightings spark cautious curiosity

Community members cite increased encounters with striped intruders

As students settle into the rhythm of the first fully in-person semester in nearly two years, an unlikely population has also joined them in their return to Brown’s campus: Mephitis mephitis, or the striped skunk. Since the start of the semester, skunk sightings have spiked on College Hill, and hastily-taken photographs of encounters have circulated across social media, including pictures of a skunk who wandered into Sharpe Refectory uninvited which was posted on the Instagram account @brownumemes

While skunk encounters are not new to Brown’s campus — The Herald previously reported on them in 2007, 2011 and 2013 — some students report that the sightings have been far more frequent this semester, with many saying they had never seen one on campus before this fall. When discussing close encounters with Brown’s newest and furriest residents in interviews with The Herald, students expressed curiosity and amusement — along with a certain charmed empathy. 

This semester, Logan Bauman ’23.5 has been “having encounters with skunks almost daily” but did not realize “that their prevalence was so widespread that it’s getting media attention,” he noted in an email to The Herald.

“Almost every night when I go to my dorm in Diman, I have to put my head down, walk briskly and try to keep from making any possibly menacing sounds or movements,” Bauman explained. “Being a city boy from Los Angeles, the sightings have been thrilling enough to me to become one of the big themes of my semester so far.”

Alison Kim ’23 noted that she saw a skunk “three feet away” from her when passing Ruth J. Simmons Quad, “just staring” at her. “It was not scared of me at all,” she said.

“I didn’t even know skunks were a problem at Brown. I didn’t even know skunks were really a problem anywhere!,” Kim added. Before this fall, Kim “never had an encounter with a skunk.”

“I used to see them a lot around Providence … not really on campus,” said Adelaide Stuart Jenkins ’23.

While eating dinner with a friend on the Main Green, Stuart Jenkins saw a skunk “galloping toward (her) ... definitely on a mission,” she noted. “But then it took a look at us and veered off the other way so we were safe. We didn’t feel very threatened, but I was just sort of surprised by the boldness of this skunk.”

According to Jeanne Loewenstein, academic program manager at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, skunk sightings on campus were equally prominent during the summer semester this year. Loewenstein, who works at the Urban Environmental Lab, said that a family of four baby skunks spent the summer nights sleeping in the lab’s compost box and, in the daytime, could be seen romping around the lab’s community garden, munching on the grubs.

“Most people thought they were pretty cute, especially when they’re babies,” she said, though some community members were worried that they might unintentionally scare a skunk while in the garden and get sprayed in response.

At one point, Loewenstein even had to rescue one of the baby skunks after it fell into a UEL well, lifting the animal out of the well. After the extended stay in the well, the skunk was too dehydrated to spray. Loewenstein recommended that students avoid coming as close as she did to any skunks on campus, since she only proceeded to touch it given that it was clearly incapacitated.

While the skunks that had been living in the UEL are now gone, Loewenstein noted the critters are still abundant elsewhere on campus. “I think they’re too smart to get caught, because they’re still around,” Loewenstein said. “So, I don’t think trapping’s going to do anything.”

“I think it’s just because they’ve had so much time to themselves with not a lot of people on campus, and now they just think that they own the place,” Stuart Jenkins said. “Honestly, I just think it’s kind of funny, but hopefully it doesn’t get any more serious than that.”

“I didn’t really have a problem with (the skunks), so I didn’t report (them) to anyone,” said Jack Stein ’24, who has seen multiple skunks outside of his dorm, Buxton, this semester. “The way I see it, I feel like we’re kind of encroaching on their space in the first place. I just kind of avoided (them) and tried not to stress out too much.”

But the presence of skunks on College Hill is not new, and neither is it entirely different from the rest of Providence. Corey Wood ’24 explained in an email to The Herald that, when arriving at the University in fall 2019, his family rented a car at Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport to drive to campus. The next morning, they woke up and found “some sort of excrement” on the car’s floor, but overlooked it until later that day when they found the culprit: a skunk who had snuck in the car and wandered under the gas pedal while his whole family was inside the vehicle.

Wood’s father had accidentally stepped on the skunk when pressing the accelerator, but his family was “quite relieved” that the skunk did not spray inside the car in response, he noted.

“Skunks are very suburban and urban animals. They’re one of the few animals ... that do well around people, because they’re very optimistic,” Scott Ruhren, senior director of conservation at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, said. “For example, skunks will eat garbage if it’s accessible (and) pet food if it’s left outside. So, they’re very attracted to people.”

Ruhren suggested that increased trash across campus from move-in for the fall semester and, more notably, the Sept. 13 switch to takeout-only dining have likely attracted more skunks to campus. College Hill is “probably going to see more possums and raccoon sightings, too,” he added.

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“I think that Brown has to deal with the issue of all the food that’s around, with the ban of indoor dining,” Kim added. “I know I saw a skunk before they did the ban, but still, obviously that doesn’t help the situation with all those boxes of food in the dumpsters.”

Brown recently announced it would reopen in-person dining beginning Sept. 24, with Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, executive vice president for planning and policy, noting in an interview with The Herald Wednesday that increased trash and food waste caused by takeout-only dining methods was one impetus for the transition back to in-person options.

In terms of diminishing the presence of skunks on Brown’s campus, Ruhren noted that, aside from minimizing publicly-available food and trash, there were few humane methods for removal. According to Ruhren, the primary form of removing skunks is through extermination, adding that he doesn’t “think nowadays anyone does trap and relocation; you can imagine how messy that is, to trap skunks alive.”

Some students were emphatic that they did not want to see the University exterminate the skunks who call its campus, and its trash, home.

“If they start to really be a lot more prevalent, I think a University response would be in order,” Stuart Jenkins said. “But I wouldn’t advocate for an extermination tactic ... yet or, like, at all.”

Stein also emphasized that he does not want to see the skunks harmed, advocating for the skunks to be relocated “as a last resort” if they become an issue for the campus community and opposing any sort of extermination of the skunks.

Representatives from the Department of Facilities did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Ruhren noted that, aside from their ability to spray, skunks do not pose a very significant threat to community members. “Most wild animals do have the chance of carrying rabies, but I don’t think the rates are very high in the Providence-Cranston urban area of Rhode Island,” he noted.

To those on campus for the fall semester, Ruhren emphasized one piece of advice: Give skunks their space.

“You don’t want to scare them, because they’re scared of us. They’re going to run away, but if they’re cornered they’re going to defend themselves,” he said. “If you see a skunk, you want to back away. You don’t want to scare them.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that skunks ate plants from the Urban Environmental Lab's community garden. In fact, skunks eat grubs from the garden. The Herald regrets the error.



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