The Animal Rescue League of Boston got a call last week about a skunk wearing strange headgear. Encasing its neck, like some sort of plastic Victorian collar, was the kind of lid that’s usually found atop a slushy frozen beverage.
It wasn’t hard to deduce that the skunk had probably been enticed by the sugary residue in the cup the lid was attached to, poked its head through the small hole for a lick, then found itself stuck. Rescuers were able to toss a blanket over the animal and cut off its trap — without getting sprayed, luckily — and send the skunk to freedom, league spokesman Mike DeFina said.
It wasn’t the organization’s first time freeing an animal from some human’s garbage. This happens several times a year, DeFina said. Just last fall, rescuers had to scale a tree and use a catch pole to liberate a raccoon whose head was trapped in a peanut butter jar.
“It was essentially like a ringtoss game,” DeFina said. The rescue agent “had to get it into position and tighten the snare, and gently pull it off without scaring the raccoon and have some sudden movement and fall off the tree.”
The Boston skunk and raccoon are members of a comic-looking but mostly tragic fraternity of animals you might call “trash-heads” — and they’re representatives of a problem that wildlife rescuers say deserves more attention. The yogurt containers and bulk-size pretzel tubs that we absent-mindedly toss out can serve as both tasty treats and possible death traps for animals.
“It happens all the time, and most of the time we don’t even know about it, because the animals die,” said Greg Grimm, a volunteer and board member for Gold Country Wildlife Rescue in Auburn, Calif., which earlier this year managed to save a young coyote whose head had been lodged in a plastic jug for at least 10 days.
Just this spring, survivors of this sort of predicament have included a New Jersey buck stuck in a glass globe light and dubbed “Buzz LightDeer”; a Kansas squirrel trapped in a plastic blue Easter egg; and a Wisconsin cat wedged into an empty can of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti & Meatballs. Skunks have been saved from yogurt containers in Honolulu, Peekskill, N.Y., and Salem, Mass. Raccoons have been freed from jars in Toronto and on Long Island.
A decade ago, Brits were losing so many of their beloved hedgehogs to McDonald’s McFlurry cups that activists succeeded in getting the fast food giant to change the container’s shape. In 2015, KFC pledged to alter the lids on the Krushems milkshakes it sells in the United Kingdom — also for the sake of hedgehogs. Such campaigns have not gained much traction on this side of the Atlantic.
Environmental and wildlife advocates have urged consumers for decades to cut up six-pack rings to prevent them from strangling birds and sea animals. But because one man’s greasy trash is another critter’s delicious snack, they say people should also give more thought to animals when disposing of containers. These should be rinsed and — if they might serve as traps — tightly lidded, crushed or cut apart, then placed in secured recycling or garbage bins.
“A lot of people go, ‘If they got their head in, how come they can’t get it out?'” Grimm said. “Once they get in it … they don’t have hands to move it around.”
Gold Country Wildlife Rescue kept the large plastic jug that imprisoned the female coyote and uses it as an educational display, Grimm said.
By the time Gold Country and another wildlife group managed to capture the coyote in early February, she had been seen roaming the hills outside Auburn, northeast of Sacramento, for at least 10 days. Search and rescue teams fanned out, and at one point, someone saw her submerge her head in a stream, probably to get some water into her temporary helmet for drinking. But it was clear she was unable to eat, Grimm said.
Eventually, a rescuer was able to grab the coyote by the back legs when it was in a stream. She weighed just 15 pounds and was extremely dehydrated when she was found, Gold Country said. After four weeks of rehabilitation, which began with a high-protein liquid formula and progressed to road-killed squirrels, she was released back into the wild on March 3. By then, “Jarhead Coyote,” as the organization called her, weighed 21 pounds.
“We handle, like, 3,500 animals a year,” Grimm said — including, recently, a mink stuck in a small plastic irrigation cover. “But there’s a few that are special, and the coyote was one of them.”