Do you believe in fate? Deborah Cipriani of North Ridgeville, Ohio, certainly does. How else could you explain living in a home with dozens of pet skunks? They sure don’t show up at your door knocking — well, unless you are the Skunk Lady.
Cipriani had skunks knocking at life’s door ever since she was a little girl when he parents gifted her with a large, plush skunk toy that she came to adore. During the ’80s, she came across her first wild skunks. Or did they come across her? She was camping with some friends in a remote area in Colorado when she heard a pitter-patter behind the tent early one morning. She unzipped the tent to investigate what was making the curious sounds. She thought it might be rats, but instead she found a family of skunks.
Ecstatic over the endearing creatures, she called for her friends to come out and see. They were not so impressed and retreated into the tents fearfully holding their noses. But not Cipriani. She was enchanted by the animals and felt an immediate connection. The rest of the morning she sat on the picnic table and talked to her newfound friends.
Skunks appeared yet again later in her life. “I came to Ohio due to a job move in 1989 and saw brown skunks running in a pet store and thought, ‘How cool is that?’” Evidently very cool, because when she suffered the loss of her mother in 2000, she immediately thought of those wonderful pet skunks and how they filled her heart.
© Courtesy Skunk Haven
Daisy the skunk’s health problems became the impetus for Deborah Cipriani to start Skunk Haven.
Her first skunk, Daisy, helped Cipriani try to fill the void she felt after her mother passed. Cipriani warmly remembers Daisy. “She was a mama’s girl and trained me very well. She loved her mama and did not like other skunks or people.”
Before a year passed, however, Cipriani was faced with another sad challenge. Daisy developed terrible seizures that occurred every night. “It was then I also realized there was not much out there that was documented by a vet,” Cipriani said. She said that she and her veterinarian, Dr. Frank Krupka at the Avon Lake Animal Clinic, helped set standards with blood normals for skunks. Together, they also changed the temperature normal. “It was thought that the body temperature is 102, when it’s really around 96,” she said. “We are written up in the exotic vet manual.” Ironically, if Daisy had been a healthy skunk, none of “this” would have happened.
“This” would be Skunk Haven, a USDA- and state-licensed, 501(c)3 nonprofit, no-kill shelter for domestic skunks. Cipriani and her boyfriend, Kevin, couldn’t bear the thought of other pet skunks suffering and other pet owners going through the same thing all alone like they did when Daisy fell ill. They started on a venture with their vet, Dr. Krupka. Because there seemed to be no health care data for domestic skunks, Cipriani started to pay him to collect data in order to help other skunks.
“In time we even got blood normals published in the vet magazines,” Cipriani said. “Did the first skunk blood transfer to try and save another skunk, measured a heart to save another skunk. Did studies on what’s in skunk’s noses, mouths and even got the temperature study published.” In addition she started alterative healing.
Shortly after it became a legal nonprofit organization, Skunk Haven quickly got bogged down with so many phone calls, emails, bookings, and rescues that they added more representatives in several states. Skunk Haven even has fans in the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands. “Skunk Haven Group is now made up of many people,” Cipriani said. “We all work as one to help any skunk out there.”
One of the many valuable things Skunk Haven has given to the pet world is an excellent website where people can go to get information for free. The next step was to embark on rescues. “I networked to establish working relations with other facilities, such as the state of Ohio Animal Diagnostic Labs,” Cipriani said. “In a short time we obtained our permits that would allow us to educate the public with our skunks. After that we obtained our wildlife rehab for wild orphan skunks.” However, as of 2014 they could no longer rehab wild skunks due to law changes. “I had to make the choice to save domestic pet skunks or wild ones. I chose domestic.”
One of the people crucial to Skunk Haven’ success is Senior Vice President, Renee Pearlstein. She currently owns skunks she adopted from the center. “My role at Skunk Haven is to help with as many things as I can so Deb can try to work the health and healing aspect of our organization,” Pearlstein said. “I do educational programs, rescues, fostering, adoptions, events, fundraising, and any other ways we can find that I can help the organization and skunks.” She also occasionally does online auctions and co-edits the Skunk News.
Cathy Dalgleish and Nancy Greene are two other volunteers of note. “Nancy helps with educational programs and with the Skunk Fest. She has been with me the second longest,” Cipriani said. “Cathy has been there since the start.”
Among many other members is Dennis Peck, a representative for Skunk Haven. He came to the rescue seven years ago when he needed help learning how to care for his new pet skunk. He has a very hands-on role with the animals. “I help Debbie with whatever she needs like feeding or going on a domestic rescue or setting up a cage,” he said.
Peck said he fell in love with skunks because they are different from any other animal. In fact, skunks have wildly different personalities. So what does he like best about them? “They can be very affectionate,” he said. “They like to cuddle and can be very playful and entertaining.”
Everyone pitches in for Skunk Fest, an annual public gathering of skunk lovers from all over the country and abroad, so they can share fun and celebrate skunks. The event is held on the second Saturday in September and includes games, a DJ, raffles, vendors, speakers, other animals, food and contests, such as a skunk costume contest. This event goes a long way toward helping skunks through education, public awareness, fundraising for the shelter and more.
Cipriani is currently working on something very exciting. She is raising funds so that she and Dr. Krupka can help skunks with a common health issue, vitamin D3 deficiency. “We would like to establish vitamin D3 normal for skunks,” Cipriani said. “Low D3 can cause many cancers, bone problems and heart issues to name a few.”
The hope is that with normal D3 values established, a blood sample could be sent off and tested at the Michigan State University Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health, the only facility that performs Vitamin D testing in animals. Skunks with the deficiency would be diagnosed and given a very simple, but life-saving treatment.
People who wish to can help Skunk Haven in many ways. Obviously, one way is through monetary donation. “Any type of donation helps the skunks in one way or another,” Cipriani said. “It may be one at the shelter, one in a holding spot or even people’s skunks we do not even know. All of this costs money; it does not come for free! None of us get paid,”
Pearlstein said they are always looking for volunteers and items to be donated as well. “We also have a Sponsor A Skunk program for people who want to help specific skunks in the shelter,” she said. “We have skunks that can’t be adopted out and will live the rest of their lives there. To some people, this is their way of feeling like they have a skunk when they can’t actually own one.”
Cipriani’s devotion and passion for pet skunks runs deep. Caring for upwards of 50 skunks is quite an undertaking. She and Kevin both work, so she has to wake up early every day to care for the skunks. They are the first thing she sees, and the last thing she sees each day.