Legalizing pet skunks a black-and-white issue

State vet says animals are `reservoir of rabies'

official calls them `loving'

January 24, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

The casual observer might imagine that almost everyone has the same impression of skunks: sweet-looking, stinky if provoked. But impassioned testimony yesterday on a bill to legalize domesticated skunks was proof that one man's loving pet is another's "terrestrial reservoir of rabies."

The bill, sponsored by Del. George W. Owings III, calls for adding domestic skunks to the list of animals - which includes dogs, cats and ferrets - that Marylanders are allowed to keep as pets.

Initially, Owings, a Calvert Democrat, introduced the bill with a "by request" alongside his name, a sign that a lawmaker is trying to distance himself from doomed or slightly embarrassing legislation put in at a constituent's behest.

Yesterday, however, he told the House Environmental Matters Committee that he had made a mistake, and he championed the skunk bill. He might even want one after his dog dies, he said.

"The more I got into it," he said, "the more convinced I became that this is, in fact, the right thing to do."

Owings argued that legislators, fearing rabies, had once been reluctant to allow restaurants to serve deer meat, or to allow ferrets as pets. "I'm telling you to think of this in the same vein. A skunk is loving. It is potty-trained," he said.

Asked by a committee member how he knew the love of a skunk, Owings replied that he wouldn't unless the bill passed - which is unlikely, considering the Health Department's opposition.

The hearing, tucked between discussions of electric power plants and boat regulations, elicited sniggering and jokes.

But representatives from the state departments of Health and Mental Hygiene and Natural Resources were not amused.

Mike Slattery of Natural Resources said the bill would encourage "Bambi syndrome," the tendency to try to domesticate wild animals. "We did hear Flower referred to today," he said, speaking of Bambi's fictive skunk friend.

State health officials said the bill was alarmingly flawed, since the federal government has not approved a rabies vaccine for skunks. The bill would require such vaccinations.

"There could be a very disastrous situation between skunks and children," said Tracy DuVernoy, assistant state public health veterinarian, who repeatedly called the creatures "terrestrial reservoirs of rabies."

Skunk advocates dismissed those concerns. Since 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have documented one case of a human getting rabies from a skunk; it was wild and in Oklahoma. Besides, they said, the ferret rabies vaccine can be used on skunks.

Vicky Turner, an Owings constituent who requested the bill, noted that 23 states allow domestic skunks, which generally have their scent mechanism removed when they are 4 weeks old.

"Is that what they call `stinkers?'" asked Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat.

"Scent glands," Turner shot back.

"He's from the city," explained committee Chairman Ron Guns, a Cecil Democrat. "They have rats."

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