10/27/2009 at 05:27 PM EDT
Some of us are dog people. Some of us like cats, horses, birds -- even pigs. Deborah Cipriani, 51, loves skunks. Yes, skunks
-- as in black and white, Pepé Le Pew, back-off-or-I'm-going-to-spray-you-with-fumes-so-noxious-it'll-make-your-head-spin skunks. But Cipriani will tell you that skunks come in a wide array of colors, not just black and white, and that keeping them as pets is no different than having a cat or dog to love.
Every morning, Cipriani rises at 6 a.m. to feed her pet skunks before leaving for work. "I have an office job that supports my skunk habit," she jokes. Cipriani politely declines to reveal exactly how many skunks she currently has, but will say that she has 40 to 50 litter boxes strewn around her house that she cleans twice a day. It takes close to an hour to feed each of her skunks a breakfast of 1/3 to 1/4 cup of frozen vegetables and their supplements. At night she feeds them holistic dog food mixed with an array of fresh vegetables, fruit, chicken, yogurt, cottage cheese or cereal. "Between the food and the supplements, it costs about $600 a month," Cipriani tells PEOPLEPets.com. "You have to feed skunks the right diet, including calcium, or else they'll lose bone density and start crawling." A Fascination with Skunks
"When I was a kid, I got a huge stuffed skunk, which I loved," Cipriani says by way of explanation. While on a camping trip in her twenties, Cipriani recalls being enchanted by a family of skunks who surrounded her picnic table. "I started talking to them," she says.
In 2000, Cipriani bought her first skunk after seeing a few running around a pet store. "They were so cute," she says. Some states make it illegal to keep skunks as pets, but the practice is allowed in Ohio, where Cipriani lives. "You have to buy the skunk from a legally licensed breeder who will de-scent them at 3 to 4 weeks of age," she explains. "And the skunk owner has to get a permit."
Cipriani named her first skunk Daisy. "Skunks are nice and they'll really bond to you," she says. In 2002, Cipriani went to a breeder and bought 10 more skunks. "I was like a kid in a candy store," she recalls. "There were so many different colored skunks." In addition to the classic black and white color scheme, skunks also come in a variety of hues, including apricot, champagne, smoke, lavender, mahogany and albino. Educating Others
When Daisy fell ill, Cipriani realized that little was known about caring for skunks --- even by veterinarians. Cipriani began working with a local vet to establish normal parameters for a skunk's blood levels, body temperature, heart rate, and to study the bacteria inside of a skunk's nose. When a pet skunk died, Cipriani sent it to a pathologist at a state diagnostic lab to have a necropsy performed. "We wanted to know why the skunk died, so that we could help others while they were living," she says.
Cipriani established Skunk Haven
, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing and adopting pet skunks, as well as educating the public about skunk care. "I got bombarded with calls from skunk owners across the country," says Cipriani.
Isn't Cipriani worried about rabies? "No," she says. "Domestic skunks are born and bred in captivity and don't have rabies. It's more likely for a cat or dog to get bitten by an animal with rabies because my skunks rarely go outside." She does take some of her skunks to an annual "Skunk Fest" fundraiser she organizes to celebrate the famously stinky critters. "We have judges and skunk owners come from all over," Cipriani says. "We have a contest judging skunks on their overall conformation, fur, eyes and teeth, and crown a king and queen skunk."
This year's Skunk Fest in September was the biggest ever, with judges flying in from Holland and the United Kingdom. "It was huge," Cipriani says. "We had skunks on leashes, but there were other animals there too, like dogs, cats, reptiles, birds, ferrets and tortoises. Forty animal rescue groups came." Skunks Aren't for Everyone
While the notion of keeping a pet skunk may seem quirky and cute, Cipriani warns that it is not for everyone. "Skunks are not a novelty -- that's the wrong reason to get one," she says. "You should have a veterinarian who is willing to work with you, and you should live in a state that allows pet skunks." In addition, Cipriani cautions that skunks can be temperamental. "They are food-oriented, so if you have food on your fingers, they might try to bite," she says. "Nobody with kids should get a pet skunk. They don't like when their tails are pulled." Not all of Cipriani's skunks get along. "I have barriers and separate the skunks into different rooms."
In addition to potential medical problems, skunks must be neutered and spayed, lest they go into heat during mating season and pee all over the house. You can expect a skunk to live for 6 to 10 years.
Currently, Cipriani is fostering several skunks until she finds good homes for them. "A lot of people are contacting me to give up their skunks because of the economy and people losing their homes," she says. Her most recent rescue is Honey, a 9-year-old skunk that Cipriani spotted for sale at an animal auction in Ohio. "An animal auction is not a nice place," explains Cipriani, "People come try to buy animals for a cheap price, whether it's zebras, bears, monkeys, possums, armadillos or camels." Honey had no teeth and her eyes had gone completely white. "She had been used as a breeder skunk," says Cipriani. "I'm glad she's here with me now." See more unusual pets on PEOPLE Pets:Crazy Pets: Anteaters Who Raid the Fridge!Tiger Cub and German Shepherd Play Like Romper Room Pals