Gwen Marshall frees a trapped skunk in Red Deer (photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).

Handle with Care: Red Deer skunk responds to soft talk

Wildlife specialist deals with another skunk complaint

They call her “the skunk whisperer.”

Sure enough, Gwen Marshall uses a calm, quiet voice to converse with the urban animals she approaches — but she doesn’t feel it takes a special talent to communicate with skunks. “They’re pretty docile.”

Marshall, a conflict animal specialist with the Medicine River Wildlife Centre, was called to Red Deer on Monday to deal with a caged skunk caught by residents of Legacy Estates in Clearview.

Marshall doesn’t like to see trapped skunks. She noted that studies have shown removing one skunk from an area triples the overall skunk population, as others move in and have more babies to fill the void.

Marshall prefers dealing with root causes that draw unwanted skunks to backyards. She teaches that organic matter, including compost and garbage, needs to be contained and not left out to entice wildlife.

But people don’t always understand, so she regularly gets called out on complaints about foxes, crows, magpies, and of course, skunks. (Wildlife centre director Carol Kelly jokingly called Marshall a “skunk whisperer,” saying she has a real way with the animals.)

The Legacy Estates skunk had caused alarm by just hanging around. But there was nothing scary about Marshall’s encounter with the female of the chordata family.

The trapped skunk didn’t mind when Marshall reached into her cage. She let Marshall slowly slip a hand underneath her to confirm she was lactating.

The skunk didn’t bite or spray — and Marshall didn’t expect her to. The Sylvan Lake resident with a zoology degree figures she’s handled about 1,000 skunks in her eight years with the centre and was only sprayed once. That time Marshall was helping a highly stressed skunk get unstuck from a chain-link fence. Marshall had to handle her from the back, and the skunk couldn’t tell if its life was being threatened.

“Skunks don’t want to spray. They only have about a tablespoon-full of liquid odour in them,” said Marshall. Once it’s gone, it takes a week to refill their glands — which leaves skunks defenceless in case a dog attacks in the interim.

She believes dogs often get sprayed because they have a tactless, in-your-face approach to investigating wildlife, while cats hang back and present less of a threat. “I’ve even seen a cat and a skunk eating out of the same bowl.”

The Legacy Estates skunk was let out of the cage to return to its den and its babies. Marshall said anyone with a skunk living under their deck should open up one end and let light in. The skunks will move out, feeling vulnerable.

The skunk problem at Legacy Estates should now be solved, since Marshall told residents to quit leaving food out for the urban rabbits.

Humans should be careful about deciding which animals they like and which they don’t, because all have roles in the ecosystem, she added. “If we got rid of all the things somebody didn’t like, soon there’d be nothing left.”

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