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Skunks

Introduction

The existence of wildlife in urban areas enriches our environment, bringing a little bit of nature to the bustle of the city. Abundant food and shelter and the absence of natural predators have allowed many wild animals to successfully adapt to urban life. We can hardly blame them for helping themselves to food that is readily accessible in garbage pails, gardens, composters and sheds.

If there is ample food and a place to live, removing the resident animal will just create a vacant territory for another one to move into. Preventive measures have proven to be less costly and less stressful for both wildlife and the homeowner in the long term.

Although human-wildlife conflicts can occur, a little understanding of the animals’ characteristics and needs will help us take a humane approach leading to a peaceful coexistence. Humane treatment of an animal involves compassion and respect, precludes cruelty and avoids pain, suffering or injury.

Wild animals should be treated with respect and understanding. Never corner or attempt to pick up any wild animal. They may bite when they feel threatened and they may have parasites or diseases that could be passed on to you or your pets. With a little understanding and patience, you will soon be enjoying the wild animals in your backyard!

Skunk Characteristics

These unmistakable black and white animals are found in most urban environments in Canada. Of the four species in North America, the striped skunk and the spotted skunk are found in Canada. The most prevalent species, the striped skunk, is about the size of a cat with white stripes down its back meeting on the head. The spotted skunk is about half the size of the striped skunk and has white spots instead of stripes. Skunks have small heads and eyes, pointed snouts and short legs that make their movements slow and rather cumbersome.

Skunks are burrowing animals that choose to make their dens under porches, decks, sheds, in wood or rock piles and are capable of digging a den a foot underground. They are nocturnal omnivores, feeding on plants, insects, small mammals, bird eggs and fallen fruits. They do not hibernate and several females may den together over the winter.

Skunks are rarely aggressive unless cornered or defending their young. If approached or threatened and unable to flee, a skunk will usually fluff its fur, lift its tail, stamp the ground with its front feet, and growl. If these actions are not effective in discouraging the intruder, it will lift its tail up over its head and spray. The chemical skunks spray is a sulphur compound that is ejected from two small openings near the rectum. The glands that produce the chemical hold enough for five or six full-powered sprays that can be accurate up to 4 ½ metres. Skunks seldom spray without warning or cause.

Skunks have adapted to urban habitats and have become proficient city dwellers. This often brings them into conflict with homeowners as the animals seek food and shelter.

Skunks and the Seasons

Winter
Skunks do not hibernate in the winter but they may stay in their dens for several weeks during harsh weather, sometimes with several females sharing the same den. They mate in late winter. Removal attempts should not be made at this time because access to alternative den sites is limited due to the snow and ice. Also the frozen ground makes animal-proofing difficult.

Spring
No attempts should be made to remove animals in the spring because babies may be abandoned. Not only is this cruel, but mothers may do considerable damage trying to get to their young. If the mother is removed and relocated, the babies will die an agonizing death and the rotting carcasses will be very offensive for a long time and costly to have removed.

Skunks mate in late winter with four to seven babies born usually in the month of May. The young are born blind and with sparse hair. When they are weaned at six to seven weeks old they have developed their scent, but they are not accurate when they spray. It may take up to eight weeks before the babies are mobile and can be seen walking single file with the mother. Like most animals, the mother is very protective of her young. If startled, she will snarl, stomp her feet and chatter her teeth. If these warning signs are not heeded, the skunk will lift its tail over its head and spray.

Summer
Once the babies are seen outside with the mother, attempts at removal can begin. The importance of making sure that all the animals are out of the den cannot be overemphasized. It may take the runt of the litter several days longer than its siblings to gain the strength to leave the den with the rest of the family.

Fall
During the fall, skunk families will disband. They may be more likely to spray at this time of year as they are defending their den site. They may damage lawns as they dig for grubs until the ground freezes.

Prevention

Window wells should be covered because if a skunk falls in it will die if not rescued. To rescue a skunk from a window well, place a plank of wood on a gradual sloping angle into the window well. To help the skunk climb out, nail lattice pieces across the board every eight to ten cm. Extreme caution should be taken when placing the board into the window well. Stay out of the skunk’s sight and, if possible, have a second person observe the animal to monitor for any defensive behaviour that may indicate it will spray. Once the board is in place, keep people and domestic animals away until after dark when the skunk can leave safely.

Decks should be closed in so that animals cannot get underneath (see problem solving) and garage doors should be securely closed. Skunks may be attracted inside a garage if the door has been left open and there is garbage inside. If this happens, enter the garage speaking in a low, soothing voice to make the skunk aware of your presence without startling it. Remove the garbage and sprinkle flour across the opening. Wait until dusk and check for footprints leaving the garage. Garbage cans, composters and bird feeders must be animal-proof.

Insects and grubs are a significant food source for skunks and the presence of them in your lawn may cause skunks to come digging. To avoid this problem, use a non-toxic animal repellent in the fall to discourage animal activity. An electrical fence with no more than a nine volt charge can also be used as a deterrent that will not harm the animals. The fence should be set up for at least four weeks to give the lawn a chance to recover and to change the animals’ pattern of foraging in your yard.

Problem Solving

Skunks are not good climbers so they cannot get into attics and chimneys. Instead they burrow under foundations of buildings or under decking. Skunks are usually smelled before they are seen. A persistent, faint skunk odour likely indicates that a skunk has taken up residence nearby. Look for a hole 10 to 25 cm in diameter under a building, deck or woodpile. To find out if this is an active den, cover the hole with loose dirt and allow three to four days to see if the dirt is dug out, unless it is winter when the animals may stay inside for several weeks. Attempts should not be made to remove animals in the winter or spring.

Once you have determined where the skunks are getting in, and it is not winter or spring, dig a trench 15 to 20 cm deep and 20 cm wide in the soil around the perimeter of the deck or shed. Place galvanized 1” by 1” wire mesh into the trench, bending it outward in an ‘L’ configuration at the bottom, and fill in the trench. (Do not use chicken wire as it can stretch and an animal could get its head caught in it.) Be sure to leave an opening large enough to allow the animals to exit. Once the wire mesh is secured, place a large ball of newspaper in the exit hole or fill it with soil to allow you to monitor when the animals leave. Monitor the opening daily after sunset to see if the barrier is removed. Flour can also be sprinkled around the opening to check for footprints.

Before closing the entry hole permanently you must ensure that all the animals have gone. To do this, place a bit of food, such as fish or peanut butter, inside the hole so that only an animal inside could get it. Cover the hole with galvanized steel screening in such a way that it can be removed to check the food or if an animal is locked inside. Check the hole every day and if it remains untouched for several days (except in winter or spring when removal should not be attempted), you have been successful. If the food is gone, indicating that an animal is still inside, open the entrance hole, allow time for it to leave and conduct the test again. It is important that someone is available for several days to check the food inside, monitor for digging, and listen for noises that may indicate an animal trapped inside. If an animal is trapped inside you will have to open up the hole and start again.

Typically skunks will attempt to return to their previous den so be sure it is firmly sealed. If an animal is seen frantically pacing and digging at the den area, especially during daylight hours, assume that babies are inside and open the entry hole immediately. Wait until the babies have been seen exiting with the mother before attempting to seal the hole and conducting the food test again.

Skunk Odour

If skunk odour has penetrated your house, air it out thoroughly using fans. You may have to place fans under the house as that is usually where the odour originates. Spraying an acidic solution like diluted vinegar can help counteract the smell. Chlorine bleach, ammonia or products containing neutroleum alpha can be used to clean inanimate objects. Protective eye wear and a mask should be used when cleaning skunk-sprayed items.

An unfortunate person who is sprayed by a skunk should wash their skin as soon as possible with carbolic soap, tomato juice or vinegar. If sprayed in the eyes, temporary blindness may result, as well as extreme irritation, but there should be no permanent damage. Clothes may have to be discarded, although in less severe cases they may be salvaged by repeatedly washing in vinegar water and hanging outside for about a month before dry-cleaning.

For pets who encounter a skunk’s best defensive mechanism, immediate action is the key to removing or at least relieving the smell. The pet should be washed as soon as possible with tomato juice, diluted vinegar, toothpaste or a commercial product sold for this purpose, being careful to keep the substance away from the eyes. Leave the product on for several minutes before rinsing.

Live Trapping

Although live trapping and relocation has been widely used as a method of wildlife control, it is not a long-term solution. It can be inhumane as the animals may suffer severe injury and sometimes death in their attempts to escape. Most wild animals are territorial, so relocating them somewhere else not only fails to solve local problems, but often creates new problems at the release site by upsetting the natural balance of existing populations. Animals relocated often do not survive. Relocation also facilitates the spread of disease from one area to another.

In addition to the target animal, a baited trap may attract other animals including domestic animals to the area. Trapping causes stress to the animals and often separates mothers from babies resulting in the agonizing death of dependent offspring. Even when an entire family is captured and relocated, the mother may abandon her young at the new site due to pressure to find food and care for her young.

Instead of removing them with traps, animals should be encouraged to leave on their own using the methods described in this factsheet. By using these passive methods the disturbance to the animals is minimized and unnecessary stress and suffering is avoided.

Wildlife Rehabilitation Centres

Wildlife rehabilitation centres provide care for injured and orphaned wildlife until the animals can be released back to the wild. They may also offer advice on addressing human-wildlife conflicts. These centres are generally non-profit or charitable organizations dedicated to helping wild animals in need.

Ask the local humane society or SPCA to recommend a wildlife rehabilitation centre in your area. Some provinces require wildlife rehabilitation centres to obtain permits, but in most areas they are unregulated, so care should be taken to ensure their credibility.

Commercial Wildlife Removal Companies

The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies urges you to employ the methods described in this factsheet to help solve conflicts with wildlife. If, however, you have thoroughly pursued the options with patience but have failed and you feel you need to enlist the services of a commercial wildlife removal company, do some research first. Most companies advertise the humane removal of wildlife, but the wildlife removal industry in Canada is largely unregulated, so you should ask for previous work references and check with the local humane society or SPCA and the Better Business Bureau regarding their credibility. Ask specific questions about the methods of removal to ensure the animals will be treated humanely. Make sure you have a firm agreement with the company about the methods used to remove the animals and a written guarantee on their work. You should pay only when you are satisfied with the work, not before.

Do not use companies that plan to trap and relocate the animals, as significant suffering can result if animals are relocated to another environment or if traps are left unattended. Also avoid companies that use poisons, gases or chemicals. Instead seek companies that have experience and are committed to removing the animals humanely and simply letting them go on site. Ensure the company’s employees are professional and knowledgeable about the animals’ habits and behaviours.

Seek companies that offer repair work (or can recommend someone) as well as preventive maintenance as part of their service. This will keep your costs down and help prevent future conflicts with wildlife. Also look for a guarantee on the entire serviced area, rather than just the entry hole.

In Conclusion

Prevention of skunk problems through good property maintenance and management is the only permanent solution. The removal of individual animals, without taking steps to eliminate access to denning sites and food sources, will just leave a vacant territory for another skunk to inhabit. Skunks and other animals in our cities can be entertaining to watch and give us a glimpse of nature at our doorstep. Please be respectful and patient with these animals when conflicts arise. Do not disturb them when they have young, and employ only the passive methods described in this factsheet to address problems.

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