Hamilton

Quick-thinking teen saves 2 skunks with heads stuck in fast-food cups

Most people run away at the sight of a skunk, but not Sophie Wilson. In the past week, she's not only run toward the black-and-white striped mammals, she's helped save two of them.

Fast-food lids can cause 'serious damage' and even be fatal, says wildlife rehabilitator

This Burlington teen rescued two skunks in one week

5 months ago
Duration 1:34
Sophie Wilson braved the risk of being bitten or sprayed to free two skunks with their heads stuck in fast food cups. 1:34

Most people run away at the sight of a skunk, but not Sophie Wilson.

In the past week, she's not only run toward the black-and-white striped mammals, she's braved the risk of scratches and spray to help save two of them.

"I've always loved animals, so when I see one that's hurt … I just feel like I need to do something about it," said the 16-year-old.

The teen took part in her first skunk rescue one evening last week at Burlington, Ont.'s Norton Park.

She was hanging out with her friends near the playground when they saw a skunk digging through some garbage. It came out with its head stuck in a fast-food cup, and Wilson said she snapped into action.

"I just knew that I had to do something," she said, adding the animal couldn't see or walk well. She managed to pull off the bottom of the cup — thankfully, without being sprayed — but the lid was stuck tight around the skunk's head and neck.

The skunk ran off into some bushes and Wilson said she searched for about an hour, but couldn't find it.

Upset, she went home and talked to her parents, who agreed to help her track the skunk down the first chance they had. 

The next night, armed with a fishing net and a towel — her dad's idea — they returned to the park. They found the skunk still stuck in the lid and cut it free, using the net to keep it from running away in the process. Luckily again, the skunk didn't spray. 

There were some tense moments during the first rescue where the skunk raised its tail and appeared ready to spray. (Sophie Maxwell Wilson/YouTube)

It was all part of a day's work for a teen who also happens to be an aspiring veterinarian.

"She's wanted to be a vet for a lot of years and she basically loves animals and always wants to help and save them," said Wilson's dad, Scott.

He said the teen is taking part in a special high school program this fall to help her prepare for a career caring for animals.

"I feel like it was good hands-on experience for her to be able to help."

2nd skunk saved just days later

The rescues didn't stop there.

A few days later, Wilson was with some friends near a Shoppers Drug Mart when she found another skunk that was stuck in a cup with a similar lid.

"We couldn't believe it," said Scott.

A video taken by Wilson's friends shows her pulling the cup off, then raising her arms in celebration as it runs away.

This time, the rescue came with a trade-off. "I smelled really bad and I hated it, but as long as I got the stuff off I didn't mind it," Wilson said.

Stink aside, Scott said he believes both rescues show the importance of people properly disposing of their litter.

"It's a really dangerous thing I think, not only for skunks but any animals that are trying to feed by poking their heads into people's litter."

Always wear gloves, says expert

Chantal Theijn has seen plenty of those cups and lids through her work at Hobbitstee Wildlife Refuge in Jarvis, Ont.

She estimates she frees at least two dozen skunks and squirrels from them each year, if not more.

They can do "serious damage," she said and, in some cases be fatal.

"It prevents them from eating and drinking, but also, if the animal is younger and then grows, we've seen a lot of these that have actually grown into the flesh," she said.

Animals stick their head into the cups, following the smell of food, and when they try to pull back out, the lid comes with them and they have no way to get it off, said Theijn.

The refuge is part of a push for all fast-food wrappers to be rapidly biodegradable, she added.

Sophie Wilson shows the type of cup and lid that trapped the second skunk she rescued. (Sophie Maxwell Wilson/YouTube)

Laurel Beechy, the self-proclaimed "Skunk Lady" behind Skunk Haven, a rescue outfit in Tillsonburg, Ont., said it's important to know that the animals can't see well past one metre.

If someone sees a skunk in trouble, they should stop and move toward it slowly while speaking calmly and softly, she said.

Skunks spray when they're startled, she said, so when a person gets really close they should move in "ultra-slow motion," gently grab the jar or cup and let the animal pull its head out.

Theijn also had a few tips for the next rescue.

Skunks can carry rabies, so anyone handling them should always be wearing gloves, according to the animal rehabilitator.

The type of lid that Wilson wrestled off the animals can also cause a lot of damage, so in future it might be best to capture them, then contact the SPCA or a wildlife refuge.

Trained staff can put skunks under anesthesia, remove lids with less stress and then evaluate or stitch up any wounds.

That said, Theijn said it didn't appear the animals Wilson aided were injured. 

As for the risk of getting sprayed, even baby skunks have the ability to unload on you said Theijn, but getting caught by some friendly fire has its benefits.

"It's great to go grocery shopping after you've been sprayed by a skunk," she joked. "Social distancing is no problem."

Overall, she complimented Wilson. 

"It's excellent," she added. "I'm sure lots of people looked at that skunk and did nothing, so I absolutely commend it for somebody to assist."

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