Alan Chadwick Teaches an Apprentice How to Catch Skunks
A Memory of Alan Chadwick by Greg Haynes
Part of our job at Green Gulch was to supply the kitchen there with all the fresh foods that we could. We had the same responsibility for the Zen Center headquarters, located on Page Street in San Francisco, which had a large number of practicing monks in residence. So, after we had succeeded in getting the vegetable gardens into production, Alan turned his attention to raising poultry for eggs. Since there were a dozen or so large covered mangers left on the property from its former horse breeding days, Alan decided that three or four of these could be placed together on a hillside, enclosed with additional wooden planks, and so converted into chicken coops.
Then, one fine summer day, Alan and I set out in my old pickup truck bound for Santa Rosa, the center of an area formerly world-renowned for its poultry production. Western Farm Supply still had the reputation for being the premier place to get the necessary brooding equipment, high quality feeds, and all the other accoutrements necessary for the poultry man’s toolkit. It was there that we purchased three chicken brooders and three hundred, one-day-old, White Leghorn chicks. As Alan explained it to us, the French name of this breed is pronounced “legórn” and not “leg horn,” as many misinformed English speakers often say it.
In any case, the brooders were set up in a small shed right in front of the apprentice house, which in later times, I understand, became the Roshi’s residence. Alan duly instructed us in the proper care of young hatchlings—feeding, cleaning, maintaining warmth, providing sufficient ventilation, and much more. Every morning we opened up the brooding shed to allow fresh air to enter, and then every evening we closed it up again lest predatory animals try to catch themselves a quick snack during the night.
It didn’t take long for such critters to pick up the scent of so many chicks, and before long we could smell the distinct odor of skunks that had been lurking around in the darkness. Alan explained that these animals would have the affect of causing panic among the still very young chicks, and so we would have to trap them. This is because when a chicken is seriously frightened, being of such a delicate constitution, the fear typically transforms itself into an overall physical weakness—and the birds are prone to become sick and die.
That very morning, Alan sent me into Mill Valley to purchase a live trap from the local hardware store. When I returned, he proceeded to explain how to catch a skunk without getting drenched in the animal’s odor. It is a fact, as I later learned, that being sprayed by a skunk often results in a person never ever being able to completely remove the odor from his or her body. Although I did not fully appreciate that danger at the time, I was still quite interested in what Alan had to say on the subject. This is what he told me:
Take a live trap (one which does not kill the trapped animal) and bait it with a small can of cat food. Just remove the lid and set the can at the far end of the trap so that the skunk has to walk over the trip panel on his way to eat. Set the trap in the evening and place it not too far from the animal’s center of interest—in this case, the brooder house. You want to use gloves so as to avoid leaving your human scent on the trap and thus spooking the skunk.
The following morning, with a little luck, you will see that the skunk is hunkering inside the trap and cannot escape. He will be testy and ready to spray at the slightest provocation, so beware. From a fair distance away, say fifty feet at least, hurl a good-sized dirt clod at the trap with the intention of inducing the skunk to panic and thus to spray his entire accumulated odor in one desperate gush.
Alan explained that, once this happens, the skunk cannot spray again until he has had time to rebuild his supply of foul-smelling secretions, and this could take over a half an hour. In the meantime, get some old tarp that is not needed for anything else and hold it up in front of yourself as you approach the trapped animal. This will prevent any minor squirts from hitting you as you get close, and will also deflect any remaining clouds of scent that might be still surrounding the cage. When you get close enough, drape the tarp over the top of the trap, allowing it to fall over both sides and both ends, thereby completely enclosing the skunk inside the cage. Then pull the tarp around and underneath, securing it with a piece of twine. You now have the skunk completely enclosed and ready for his journey in the back of a pickup truck to his new home someplace far away from your poultry yard.
This new home should be many miles away from your farm, or else the skunk will eventually find his way back, being now much wiser in the way of traps and therefore uncatchable a second time. Lift the trap very gently from out of your truck and set it on a flat spot of ground some distance away. Undo the twine and pull the tarp back until it only blocks the trap from being directly exposed to the air on the top and on the side where you are standing. Again, from a safe distance, toss a hefty dirt clod at the cage and frighten the skunk into spraying a second time. Once this occurs, wait a while until the stench blows away. Then re-approach the trap, undo the latch, and high-tail-it out of reach until the skunk realizes he is free and waddles away into the brush.*
Over the years, I have caught a dozen skunks or more using this method and have never been sprayed. They are gentle and generally harmless creatures, so tolerate them in your gardens if you can. Part of their diet consists of small rodents, so this will help keep the population of rats, mice, voles, gophers, and moles down to manageable levels. They only really spray if seriously threatened, so there is no need to worry too much about that. During my apprenticeship days in Santa Cruz, when sleeping in the redwood forest outside the garden, I was several times awakened by curious skunks just a few inches from my nose. They always obeyed my softly spoken commands to go back home, and never caused me any problems.
*Note: Professional trappers do not recommend such catch-and-release methods. They claim that an animal out of its original habitat has very little chance of surviving in its new environment. It will not know where to find water, food, shelter, or the social structure it needs to be happy, healthy, and protected. These professionals recommend―as the least cruel solution to the problem―killing the animal when first trapped, usually by drowning it within the trap inside a 55 gallon barrel of water. The reader is referred to the book, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, by Wendy Johnson, reviewed on this website, for a thoughtful discussion of the difficult problem related to farming and gardening without taking life.