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Bats in the attic, raccoons in the tub: what to do if animals get in

As residential development becomes more sprawling, homeowners with four-legged intruders are becoming more common. Here’s how to humanely expel them.

(Illustration by Spencer Ashley for The Washington Post)


Bill Bjorkman was relaxing in the living room of his West Virginia cabin when he looked up and saw a squirrel peeking out of the ceiling.

“I knew nothing about wildlife,” says Bjorkman, who uses the cabin as a refuge. He thought he could solve the problem himself by taking a chainsaw to the tree he thought gave the squirrel a ramp to his house. If he’d only had one stock squirrel, the tactic might have worked. But what he didn’t realize was that he had actually been infiltrated by flying squirrels – 58 of them.

The tree eventually fell over on the cabin. And the squirrels were still inside. “I started to see more and more,” says Bjorkman.

While 58 Invaders is a bit extreme, humans are generally quite good at creating hospitable environments for all kinds of creatures — and not just in the West Virginia wilderness. As residential development continues to expand, wildlife experts say we’re inadvertently creating conditions that make encounters with four-legged squatters — including raccoons, foxes, possums, skunks and coyotes — more likely than ever. (You may remember the black bear that went viral earlier this year for hibernating under a deck in suburban Connecticut.)

“As we… bridge the countryside and the city with more and more suburbs, you just create a path for [animals] to go in and out,” said Jessica Armstrong, manager at SCRAM!, the Ohio Wildlife Center’s animal removal division.

So, what exactly should a homeowner do if a wild animal enters? To begin with, put the chainsaw down. After his Looney Tunes-style encounter with the squirrels, Bjorkman did what he should have done from the start: Call a humane wildlife removal expert who safely trapped them all, then plugged the hole they’d been chewing for. in. While the precise definition of “humane” disposal may vary from one company or jurisdiction to another, the gist of it is “anything that doesn’t cause the animal more suffering,” Armstrong explains. Renowned wildlife experts agree that humane removal is in everyone’s best interest: that of the animal, humans and the ecosystem.

A good evacuation usually focuses on “the root cause of the problem,” says John Griffin, senior director of urban wildlife programs at the Humane Society of the United States. “You have to find out what is going on. Where do they come in? What animal is it? And more importantly, why are they coming in?”

In the warmer months, a common answer to that last question—much to the dismay of many homeowners—is that the animal wants a cozy place to have its babies. This led to a call last spring about a raccoon in a bathtub in Toronto.

Look, the raccoon had been in the attic, but she’d used a corner as a latrine and the weight of her excrement had punched a hole right through the ceiling (cute!). The raccoon fell through to the lower floor and then ran into the bathroom, all in the middle of the night.

The homeowner called Skedaddle Humane Wildlife Control, company CEO Bill Dowd said. By the time the crew arrived in the morning, the raccoon had taken up residence in the tub and—surprise! – gave birth to five kittens.

Such situations must be approached with particular caution. Separating parents from babies will only create more anxiety for everyone: the young will starve while their mother gnaws more holes in your roof to get back to her family.

Dowd’s team got the raccoon family out by putting them together in a “baby reunion box”: a wooden container with a heating pad on the floor. Then, he says, “we make the house cruelty-free,” meaning we seal gaps and reinforce vulnerable areas, and “we put the playpen outside at night.” The mother then takes the babies one by one to another burrow. All of the city’s wildlife, Dowd reports, have “seven to 10 dens within a two-block radius.”

It wasn’t that long ago that people’s first or only resort to dealing with a furry offender was traps and poison and other similar attacks. Depending on where you are in the country, that may still be the case, but the pros say they feel a shift. “I think people are realizing that compassion for wildlife is one way we need to move because we’re going to be living with them all the time anyway,” says Armstrong. Echoes of the Humane Society’s Griffin: “Overall, there is an increasing trend for people to want more humane solutions available to them.”

Still, even the biggest animal lovers are usually eager to get rid of their uninvited guests. After all, forest creatures are dangerous housemates. Take squirrels: they chew constantly (their teeth never stop growing) and can gnaw through wires. “They can literally burn your house down,” said Brandon Simering, owner of District Wildlife Solutions, a DC and Maryland humane trapping service. He estimates that squirrels start thousands of fires a year, and says his team finds chewed wires when they respond to about seven out of 10 squirrel calls.

To prevent animals from entering at all, Simering and other experts advise to take care of your house as if you were a squirrel looking for shelter, for example.

Almost all homes have vulnerabilities. Raccoons, says Simering, can climb up the drainpipe or side of the house just like Spider-Man because they have thumbs. ‘Sometimes they just punch a hole right through the roof,’ he says, sitting comfortably in the insulation. “If they go down the chimney, they’ll just live there and love life.” Installing chimney caps and screens for your gable vents can help keep out some critters, as can sealing your eaves with metal.

If you already have an animal in your home, you may need to brace yourself for a longer distance, says Natasha Garcia Anderson, a fish and wildlife biologist with DC’s Department of Energy and Environment. Bats, for example, are protected in many states — they provide what scientists call “ecosystem services,” which is to feed on many insects. This means that if you find a nursery colony in your attic, you should probably leave it there until the babies are able to fly and forage on their own. “It sounds kind of crazy,” Anderson admits. “I just tell people: they have been there for so long. It’s only a month away.” (Tell that to the homeowner who ended up in the tub with a litter of raccoons.)

When the time is right, the humane removal model is known as “eviction-exclusion.” A professional assesses the situation – i.e. answers the what, why and how – and acts from there. Many methods entice animals out through one-way doors, which should make return impossible. If they do chew in a new way, says Simering, “we’ll fall live.” [in] a cage that locks” and release the animal in a designated area.

But why would a beast that has discovered the five-star hotel that is your chimney ever leave? In many cases, the key is using a scent he doesn’t like. Foxes, for example, who like to hang out under decks and stairs, can be scared away with coyote urine. For raccoons, a potion that contains or mimics the male hormone is sufficient. “The mama raccoon will not have her babies with a male raccoon [nearby], because the daddy will eat the babies’, explains Simering. Her distrust of men is so intense that if she smells a dude, she grabs her kits and runs.

If you find yourself in need of an animal removal specialist, local wildlife organizations and rehabilitators can often recommend someone who works humanely. And don’t assume this is the only time you need to call, says Simering: “These animals live in our communities and they will continue to live in our communities no matter what we do. … There is plenty of habitat and opportunities.”

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