Friday, March 7, 2008

Cunning plan goes awry.

Mystery bunny. Photo by J. MacQueen.

A task we failed to accomplish in our study of the local bog was to identify our wild rabbits. Occasionally we would see little brown bunnies, which quickly vaporized into the undergrowth. They could have been eastern cottontail, an introduced species, or perhaps the washingtoni race of the snowshoe hare, which is considered in BC to be a species at risk.

These two species look alike because the washingtoni race of the hare is small and un-hare like. It has relatively short ears, and is compact, rather than lanky. To tell them apart you need details of ear colouration and the relative length of the hind foot. Rarely does a digital camera focus quickly enough to capture these critical traits. We have a collection of blurry photos.

We decided to trap one. After obtaining the appropriate permit we set traps, cages with a step-plate that causes the door to drop shut. After a few weeks we had managed to trap a towhee, a ground-dwelling bird. The rabbit/hares were too cunning.

Then one day, John, the lead on the hare-hunt, phoned, "Ah, we caught something, but it might be a skunk." Apparently he was trying to hope away the obvious. I asked if it was black and white. It was. Uh oh. The traps were deep in the tunnels among the blueberry bushes. The spring-loaded doors are tricky to open, even when there isn’t an animal inside primed to emit a caustic cloud.

I met John. He was carrying a plank and an aluminum pole. Since there is no known protocol for removing a skunk from a trap in a confined space I didn't question his choice of equipment. I chose a butterfly net with a cup-hook screwed into the handle. I wore a rubber rain suit and cycling goggles. John fashioned protective gear from a City of Richmond garbage can liner. This was June, the first real heat wave of the year, and neither of our outfits breathed.

We got to the blueberry tunnel and crouched down. John hesitated, expecting a plan, but my belief is that removing an angry skunk from a trap is like carrying a sofabed down a winding staircase. If you think too much about how to do it, all the things that might go wrong will paralyze you.

We crawled, shoulder to shoulder, nearing the trap. The skunk bristled and raised its tail. Almost wordlessly, we performed a miracle. I hooked the top of the door with the handle of the butterfly net and pushed inward to lessen the tension on the spring. John snagged the lower edge with the aluminum pole and opened the trap, then deftly wedged in the plank to prop it open. The skunk sprayed, fortunately the other way.

We scurried backward and emerged onto the trail, very proud of ourselves, in rubber rain suit and garbage bag with "Richmond" printed on it, me holding a butterfly net. A man and two young children walked past warily. Nobody said anything.

Although we had not identified the rabbits, we had shown that the bog was home to skunks — not a surprise, but we hadn’t had a recent record. To date, the rabbits have not been positively identified.

No mystery here. Striped skunk.

1 comment:

pookie said...

What a hoot of a tale -- a huge uplift for me as I scurry around after my ancient, insane father, a Mr. Magoo on Speed.

In my days of volunteer TNR (trap, neuter, release) trapping feral cats in upstate New York, I never happened to trap a skunk. Raccoons were my most frequently trapped non-target animal. But I'd get the occasional phone call from people who had attempted to trap some ferals on their own, but ended up with a skunk. They *always* wanted me to drive out there and release it for them. hahahaha. I would decline but give them the phone numbers of several local licensed trappers who could handle it for them for a $50 to $75 call out fee. Or I'd do it for them in exchange for a $50 check made out to our feral/homeless cat nonprofit organization. Almost all of them would get angry with me for not assisting them "for free". No one ever took me up on my offer, so I never found out if they handled it themselves or called one of the professional trappers.