Skunks are smelly but helpful neighbours

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Skunks may sometimes create an unpleasant smell, but according to Jackie Annis, wildlife rehabilitator with the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation (AIWC), these nocturnal creatures can actually be quite helpful neighbours.

Last spring, during breeding season, Annis said AIWC raised more than 80 orphaned baby skunks – primarily because the mothers were killed when pest control was brought in to deal with what many people believe is a problem.

“It’s a lot of work for us, and it’s not what’s best for them – it’s better for baby skunks to be raised in the wild,” Annis said. “We’re happy to help them, but we want to prevent them from coming in wherever we can.”

Skunks become more active in the late winter and early spring and tend to spray more often. However, Annis said this behaviour is associated with breeding activity – skunks are generally spraying each other, not humans.

Skunks have a limited amount of spray that can be produced at one time, she added. Once they’ve used up the spray they have available, it can take up to 10 days before a skunk can spray again.

In fact, Annis said spraying is generally a “last resort” defense mechanism, and will only happen after the animal has attempted to remove a potential threat by stomping, hissing or lifting its tail.

“By then, it should be obvious that they’re threatened, and you really just have to leave them alone,” Annis said.

“They’re quite easy-going animals, they’re not aggressive.”

They can even be good neighbours, she added.

“Skunks eat a lot of pest animals. We feed them things like mice and stuff, but they’ll also eat wasps – they’re pretty cool in that way,” Annis said. “But, like any other wild animals, they do tend to get into stuff in ways people don’t want.”

However, according to Annis, there are ways to live in harmony with skunks, instead of turning to pest control to have the problem eliminated. Even relocating animals isn’t always an effective solution, she said, since usually another animal will just move right into its place.

“We recommend trying to deter animals, so you have to think about how you can make your property less comfortable if you want them to leave,” she said.

“Food is the biggest thing – pull your garbage cans inside at night, and clean up any fruit or fallen trees.”

While Annis said many people believe skunks will make dens in their yards, skunks would rather not build their own shelters. Instead, she said, they will move into shelters that have been left abandoned by other animals or will find holes or burrows to call home. She recommends blocking off any spaces where skunks wouldn’t be welcome.

But the best advice Annis can offer, she said, is for people to give skunks a chance.

“Honestly, if you’re worried about them, go look them up and see how cool they really are,” she said.

“I really encourage people to change their perspective about them – the smell is hard, but it’s also an interesting defense mechanism. And if you think about it, they’re pretty good to have around.”

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