Around this time of the year, when the grapes are beginning to color up, my yard is besieged by raccoons on a nightly basis. They are enormously destructive to my grapevines, breaking canes and pulling off vast quantities of as yet unripened fruit and discarding the bunches – or even worse, gorging themselves on the sour unripened grapes and then excreting them, undigested, on the vineyard aisle. For years I've trapped successfully them in a non-lethal trap baited with marshmallows or dried fruit but their numbers just seem to increase. The semi-rural character of this area, with fields and woodlands broken up by old farmsteads and new house lots supports a pretty big population of raccoons – gardens, orchards, vineyards, bird feeders, chicken coops, and plenty of well-stocked garbage cans.
On occasion a non-targeted animal will manage to get caught in the trap. One of my curious cats once spent a night locked up, I released a very embarrassed fox once, and I've caught red squirrels a few times. But the one animal that I really hate to see trapped is a skunk.
The first time I caught a skunk was the worst experience. I thought I heard the trap snap shut and I got out of bed to investigate. Wearing only a t-shirt, I went outside with a flashlight and saw immediately that it was a skunk and not a raccoon. I approached the trap pretty cautiously, trying to figure out what I was going to do. I thought that, possibly, if I kept the flashlight shining in his eyes I might be able to open the trap without getting sprayed. The trap takes two hands to open though and I couldn't keep the flashlight focused on the skunk, nor could I manage to open the rear panel of the trap.
Then I thought maybe the entrance door would be easier to release and I moved to the other end of the trap only to get a full blast of skunk juice right in my face. The next morning, suited up in rain gear, and wielding a garden hose, I managed to open the trap while keeping a jet of water on the animal. I propped up the door with a stick and retreated and the wet skunk eventually shuffled away.
Not an experience I wished to repeat, I changed my bait from fishy cat food to marshmallows, thinking that skunks would be less attracted to junk food.
But animals are curious and over the next few summers I still found skunks in the trap occasionally. One thing I'd learned was to wait until daylight to deal with the problem. I'd don my rain gear and goggles, and then, relying on my experience with the garden hose, I'd fill a 2 gallon pump sprayer and approach the trap, spraying a constant stream of water on the poor animal and, if he turned his back and raised his tail, directing the stream right at the barrel of the gun, so to speak. Well, this worked pretty well but it lacked a certain elegance, and I thought I could do better.
So this is the successful technique I currently use: if I see a skunk when I check the trap in the morning I don't bother with any protective gear. I no longer wield a pump sprayer. I simply get down on my haunches and slowly, very slowly, move toward the trap, addressing the skunk in my softest, gentlest bedroom manner, "hello skunk, don't be afraid, I'm not going to hurt you, let's get you out of there" – somewhat idiotically, I know, but it's more to put me
in the right frame of mind than to communicate with the poor animal. Staying close to the ground I approach the trap from the opposite end of where the skunk is usually curled up looking at me through his beady eyes, having been awakened by the sound of my voice. And then, still speaking softly, I can open the trap using two hands and being very careful not to make any sudden moves. I prop the door open and slowly back off. The skunk, watching me the whole time, more curious than afraid, never shows me his business end. He'll usually just stay sleeping in the open trap all day long and wander off at dusk.
The cool thing about skunks is that their defense tactic gives them a sense of security which other wild animals lack. They don't immediately assume a defensive posture because, in their experience, most animals give them a wide berth. (Dumb dogs are the exception.) And as long as they don't feel threatened they won't spray. I don't mind having skunks around; they eat grubs, grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, mice, and voles and they leave my grapes and tomatoes alone.