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The great skunk debunk

The HSUS answers town’s call for help

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2012

Police Lt. John Walcek had a problem on his hands, and it was a stinker.

Last summer, complaints that skunks were “overrunning” the town of Wareham, Mass., surged, with authorities receiving more than 50 calls, and it fell to Walcek to do something about it. Staff at The HSUS’s Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable hooked him up with HSUS wildlife experts Laura Simon and John Griffin, who headed to Wareham in July with an arsenal of ideas for nonlethal solutions.

Other methods hadn’t worked: The year before, the town had spent thousands of dollars to have as many as 75 skunks trapped and killed. But complaints hadn’t diminished.

Accompanied by Walcek, Griffin and Simon visited about a dozen properties where residents had complained. As their tour progressed, more and more neighbors would come outside to share their stories, too.

“We kind of felt like the Pied Piper,” Simon says.

The pair shared simple solutions such as putting garbage in proper containers rather than plastic bags, screening the spaces under elevated homes and porches to block potential den sites, securing sheds so skunks can’t dig underneath, and erecting low barriers around backyards. That evening, they gave a presentation showing that, rather than being quick to spray people and pets, skunks are actually quite difficult to provoke.

“One of the key things that I continually find … is that people are afraid of skunks because they misunderstand them,” says Simon. “A lot of the concerns are fear-based—what a skunk may do. People are worried about things that aren’t going to happen.”

As it turns out, Griffin says the skunkapalooza was likely overhyped: The spike in complaints and sightings coincided with the time of year when juvenile skunks leave their mothers in search of their own territory. And residents could also have been seeing the same skunks over and over, leading to the perception that the animals were taking over the town.

Since the visit , complaints have dropped to nearly zero. “They stemmed the tide of what … these neighbors were calling a ‘skunk invasion,’” Walcek says. “And folks that came in [to the presentation] that were originally ready to hang the skunks up by their tails … left and said, ‘You know what? I guess I understand a little better.’ ”

About the Author

Jim Baker is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.