Alarmed Red Deer residents are raising a needless stink about skunks, said Carol Kelly, executive-director of the Medicine River Wildlife Centre.
At the peak of skunk activity in July, the centre reports fielding a daily average of six complaint calls from this city. Skunks caused, by far, the most concern, followed by squirrels, voles, gophers, pigeons and bats.
“Most of our complaints come from Red Deer,” said Kelly, followed by Stettler and Lacombe.
Whenever a local homeowner calls the centre in a panic about the squat little omnivore with smelly anal scent glands, animal conflict specialist, Gwen Marshall is sent out to investigate. She nearly always finds a people-caused problem.
Kelly said complainants usually have household garbage stored in bags instead of bins. They have open compost heaps in their yards, or chicken feed scattered for their urban hens.
“We tell them they just put out a buffet for skunks,” added Kelly, as easy food sources are what lure the mammals out of their wooded habitat and into people’s yards.
She predicted much of the dilemma will be solved once the City of Red Deer introduces residential garbage bins to hold the bags. “Cochrane has the garbage bins and there’s no skunk problem there.”
Skunks are most visible in July when they bring their babies out of their dens, but skunk-related calls have actually come in to the centre every month of the past year. Kelly believes this is because of the mild winter. While skunks don’t hibernate they tend to sleep more if it’s colder out.
The distinctive black and white mammals tend to generate far more fear than is warranted.
“One man called us at 4:30 a.m, saying ‘I can’t get out of my car because there’s a skunk in my driveway,’” she recalled. The man was terrified he’d get sprayed, but Kelly told him skunks don’t spray on a whim. “They don’t aggressively come running after you.”
The guy was instructed to unroll his car window and calmly say “hey, skunk” in a normal tone of voice. He did, and the animal just ambled away, recalled Kelly.
Skunks only spray if they think their lives are in danger. Otherwise, they are habituated to co-exist with people, much as urban rabbits are. “If somebody screams ‘Aaaah! A skunk!’ They will think they are being attacked and spray,” said Kelly. “But if you approach them in a quiet manner and talk to them gently, they’re easy-going animals.”
Kelly feels skunks are beneficial because they eat a lot of insects and mice. While people fear they carry rabies, she noted Alberta’s last rabies-infected skunk was found in 1994.
But if homeowners — quite understandably — don’t want a skunk family living under their shed or deck, volunteers with the Spruce View-based centre will come and remove the skunks to the nearest wooded area. Property owners will have to rid their yard of food sources and install metal mesh under the deck or shed to keep skunks out in future.
Kelly doesn’t advise taking skunks entirely out of an area since studies show that removing one male skunk from a region will lead as many as five younger males to move in. Skunk litters also increase when there are too few skunks and abundant food sources.
If a skunk is found in a feral cat trap, Kelly advises slowly approaching the trapped skunk, while talking calmly to it. Once the trap door is opened, the skunk will almost always walk away.
Hopefully, household dogs won’t go after it.
If anyone does get sprayed, she advises making a shampoo from four cups of hydrogen peroxide, a quarter cup of baking soda and a teaspoon of dish soap. “It completely takes the smell away.”