Skunks and Social Media: Campaign Over Yogurt Containers Gains Steam

Skunks at play without yogurt containers | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A wildlife issue that we here at ReWild first heard about in the late 1970s is gaining some traction, thanks to a Northern California wildlife rehabilitation group.

Almost since Yoplait yogurt's inverted conical containers first appeared on supermarket shelves in 1978, wildlife rescue people have been warning that the product's distinctive plastic cups seem to pose a particular threat to a range of wildlife species, especially skunks.

People involved in caring for injured wildlife have been asking Yoplait's owner, General Mills, to change the container design for decades, to little avail. When Bay Area wildlife rehabilitator Rebecca Dmytryk rescued a Yoplait-trapped skunk in the Santa Cruz Mountains in January, she decided to urge the company to make some changes, and her campaign is getting some serious traction.

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The problem happens when small animals who find a discarded Yoplait container decide to lick out a bit of leftover yogurt. They stick their heads all the way into discarded containers, but an inward-pointing plastic flange prevents them from prying the container back off again. With the Yoplait container in place, the animal can neither eat, drink, nor see potential approaching threats.

Animals vulnerable to entrapment in Yoplait cups include opossums and small raccoons, as well as foxes, squirrels, and other small mammals. But it seems to be skunks that have the biggest problem with the containers, possibly due to their prevalence, their generally fearless nature, and their relatively small skulls. In January, after Dmytryk rescued a trapped skunk that a resident reported to her organization Wildlife Emergency Services (WES), she decided to try to work to keep other animals from falling victim to the same problem.

In this happy-ending video, Dmytryk attends to the trapped skunk and then oversees its release after providing it with a night's observation and a free meal:

Within days of the encounter, Dmytryk and WES had set up an online petition to General Mills urging them to redesign the container, which has received more than 100,000 signatures since.

This isn't the first time General Mills has felt heat over its Yoplait container design: a campaign in the 1990s resulted in the company adding a printed warning to the cups urging consumers to "crush the cup" before discarding it. And for its part, the company maintains that animals are vulnerable to entrapment in all kinds of discarded packaging, an assertion that offers us an excuse to remind you to chop up your plastic six-pack rings before discarding them.

The company is blunt about its reasons for refusing to make adjustments to its Yoplait package design: its response to similar suggestions in 1998 was that the package design was "a key lure for customers, and changing it could harm sales." That's despite the company already selling Yoplait in more conventional wide-mouth containers at a few big-box retailers.

Previous campaigns may not have made much of an impact on the company other than getting that printed label warning, but those campaigns took place before the advent of social media. And this campaign took on new prominence when David Sikes, former bass player for the band Boston, noticed one of his old band's songs being used to advertise Yoplait. He'd just signed Dmytryk's petition a few days before, and the juxtaposition prompted him to speak out to the local press:

Since that news spot aired in February, Dmytryk's petition has gone from 33,000 signatures to close to 120,000. It's a testament to the power of how social media and the old-fashioned kind can work together to spread the word on making the world safer for wildlife.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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