As a life-long fisherman and hunter I’ve accumulated a bit of knowledge about wild animals and nature, or so I thought. Busy working on our old house, when my long “to do” list said it was time to fix the side porch before winter, I proceeded without regard to weather or location.
A job like that isn’t done in a day, due to my retiree age, rainy days, tired days, minor crises and interests in other things. I removed the anti-critter barrier from two open sides of the porch, forgetting that it had prevented wildlife from exploring not only the crawl space beneath it, but also the crawl space under three rooms of the house. The month of October flew by along with the first killing frost and a weeklong cold spell. Then one night, my wife, Barb, woke me to say that she had heard scratching sounds that seemed to be coming from somewhere in our first-floor bedroom. As the ever intrepid outdoorsman, I assured her that it was probably mice or, God forbid, a rat. In either case, I’d set traps and that would solve the problem. The next day I bought three rattraps, but caught nothing.
With temperatures dropping rapidly, I hastened the job of reinstalling the barrier and in a few days was able to close off the porch and relax. That evening my wife wanted to know what was causing the smell in the rear room adjacent to the porch. I sniffed around and announced, still confident in my outdoorsman skills, that in all probability a tomcat had marked his territory around the house.
Later, Barb heard a noise in the cellarway and called me in alarm. “See there next to the heating duct? See that hole? I saw an animal’s nose sticking out.”
Sure enough, the insulation surrounding the duct where it passed through an old window opening in the foundation was torn open, but no animal nose was visible. By morning, the earth immediately adjacent to the new porch barrier had been dug up and the half rotted plywood of the old barrier adjacent to my new work had a new, six-inch hole. I closed the hole with a piece of treated plywood. That, I thought, takes care of that.
That evening, Barb again heard a noise in the cellarway and called me. I listened at the cellar door, heard nothing, quietly opened the door and, reaching in, switched on the light. Eight feet away, perched on the waste pipe three feet from the insulation, now torn open, was what appeared to be the largest skunk in the world. He faced away from me, in pre-spray position and didn’t move. I turned off the light and slowly closed and latched the door.
That night, there was a heavy rain, high winds, and a power outage for about four hours. We went to bed in the dark knowing the sump pump in the basement would not work without power, there was a skunk in the basement and there was nothing I could do about either issue. In the morning, with power returned, the basement was wet, but drained of standing water with the skunk nowhere to be seen. Then I discovered another hole – this one dug under the well-worn skirting opposite the hole I had sealed. There followed a rapid series of phone calls: County Agent, State Wildlife Office and Town Hall. The advice given varied: “Buy a live trap.” “Hire a trapper.” “Wait until it leaves at night, then close up its entry.” “Oh, a skunk. They make nice pets!” I had to admit the limits of my outdoorsman’s knowledge had now been exceeded, so contacting a trapper had the most appeal. Who to call? The state wildlife officer gave me several names, and I chose one.
Late that afternoon, the trapper set his trap at the backside of the house near the newly dug hole. By 8 o’clock that evening, there was a skunk in it. I plugged up the hole with rocks, and the trapper set another trap at the first hole. That night, a second skunk was trapped. The next morning there was a third skunk in the trap. I began to wonder how we’d know when there were no longer any more under the house. The next morning the trap was again sprung, and I could see movement and a bit of black-and-white fur under the black plastic covering the trap. When the trapper arrived, he carefully lifted a corner of the black plastic. Inside was a very angry black-and-white cat that streaked away as soon as the cage was opened.
Further resets yielded no more skunks, although the bait was gone and the trap sprung. According to the trapper, the skunks were gone, but something else was eating the bait. The assumption was either a raccoon or a squirrel. Two repeat tries at trapping produced nothing so we proceeded, confidently and without the trapper, to rid ourselves of whatever was still under the house. I purchased a live-trap, squirrel size, baited it with a piece of apple and some peanut butter and set it at the hole. The next morning, the trap was sprung, and as I slowly approached it, I saw the telltale black-and-white fur. I looked closely to make certain we hadn’t caught the cat again.
No such luck. It was a skunk, and I was now the trapper. Now what to do? I reviewed what I had seen the trapper do and it seemed simple enough: split a black plastic garbage bag down one side, approach the trap slowly while talking calmly to the animal and carefully drop the plastic over the cage. I decided to try it.
It went well. The trap jiggled as the animal moved around and then was still. I held my breath. I gently tucked the plastic around the sides and reached for the handle on top of the trap. I lifted the trap as I had seen the trapper do, all the time fearing I was about to be surprised. Nothing happened. I placed the trap on the roof rack of the station wagon and quietly snubbed it down with bungee cords. Now if I could get the animal out of the trap as easily as it had gotten in, I’d be in great shape. Barb said she wouldn’t miss the next part if her life depended on it, so I grabbed two thin 8-foot sticks, put them in the wagon, and we set out to find a suitable spot, at least 10 miles away, to make the release. By the time we found a spot in a small clearing beside the road, I had arrived at a procedure.
Gently, I removed the bungee cords while talking softly to the animal. It never stirred. I lifted the trap and set it gently on the ground well away from the car, cautiously removed the plastic and stepped back. The skunk turned its head and looked at me. I retrieved the sticks from the car, and placing one end against the lever that set the trap and held the doors on either end open, I pressed down. It worked. With a click, both doors opened, and there we stood, eight feet apart, the skunk in the cage looking at me, and me standing very still, looking at the skunk.
Ten or 15 minutes passed, and the skunk made no move to leave the trap. Occasionally he’d stamp his front feet, which I knew to be a warning signal, but then he’d quiet down again. He clearly had no intention of leaving. I, on the other hand, was impatient.
I took the other stick and told my wife, who was watching the drama with great amusement from inside the car, that I was going to push him out.
“You’re crazy!” she called out.
I walked to the end of the trap that the animal faced and very gently introduced the 8-foot pole into the trap until I could feel it make contact with the skunk. It slowly backed up halfway out of the trap. Encouraged, I pushed a little more until the skunk was three quarters of the way out. I eased the pole out of the trap, and the skunk went right back into the trap. Ready for another try, I again slowly pushed the skunk out of the trap, this time all the way. He reluctantly backed out and turned at right angles to the trap.
With the stick, I twisted the trap onto its side and the doors snapped shut. Now I was eight feet away from a freed skunk. Slowly I backed up, wondering just how far away was safe from a spray. I glanced toward the car at my wife who was chortling at my predicament. I retreated to the other side of the car as the skunk stood there facing me. It turned away from me with its tail straight up in the air, looked back over its shoulder at me, and for a few moments we exchanged macho glares. I held my breath for what seemed a long time. Then it turned around, tail still upright, and waddled off.
I heaved a sigh of relief. The skunk had been caged, transported on the car roof, prodded twice with a stick and maintained its cool, apparently secure in the knowledge that it could not lose the contest. I, less confident of the outcome, felt that I had nevertheless restored my fractured outdoorsmanship – at least to some degree – and had also been introduced to the animal’s gentle and affable nature. As I watched the skunk disappear into the woods, I reflected on how, if I hadn’t waited until the frosty days of October to repair the porch, the entire episode could have been avoided. I should have known better, but then again, I know more about skunks now than I ever intended to learn.
A lifelong lover of the outdoors, Norbert Nathanson has enjoyed a varied career as an artist, college professor and writer/director for public broadcasting. Now retired, he gardens, writes, and, with his wife, enjoys a quiet life in a rural hamlet in Maine.