After years of helping residents rid their back yards, gardens and trash cans of pesky squirrels, raccoons and other uninvited wild guests, Fairfax County is undergoing a change of heart.

"The animals were there first, and we're trying to now convince people to leave them alone," said Dennis Reed, chief animal warden.

It used to be that a resident could just call the Department of Animal Control, complain about a raccoon rattling around in the garbage cans or a skunk family setting up house under a porch, and borrow a trap. Last year, the county animal shelter took in about 100 live animals from residents each month, including squirrels, chipmunks, opposum, raccoons, foxes and skunks.

The county then released most of these unwanted creatures in the diminishing wilds of Fairfax County.

But a recent study by the National Park Service has shown that unregulated use of traps has led to indiscriminate and often needless trapping and has contributed to a high mortality rate among captured animals. Only about half the relocated animals survive in the new surroundings, conservationists say.

"All this relocating of wildlife, especially in winter months, is detrimental to wildlife," Reed said. "Most of the time, they don't survive because they are thrown into a situation where they don't have a home set up . . . and there are other animals already there."

Late autumn and winter months are particularly difficult times for relocating animals because they are seldom able to find enough food.

So county animal control officials are embarking on a new mission: people control.

Starting this month, two-legged county residents will have to exhaust other means of discouraging four-legged county residents from damaging their property, such as setting up fences or sealing garbage cans, before the county will help to trap and relocate the animals.

The exceptions will be injured or sick animals, animals that have bitten residents and animals that have entered buildings.

According to Reed, the most common wildlife complaints are also the easiest to handle without a trap.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people have a very low tolerance for wild animals. If they see one in their back yard . . . they call us and say, 'I have a raccoon in my back yard. What are you going to do about it?' " Reed said.

To get rid of an animal that is living in a crawl space under a porch or deck, Reed recommends spreading flour on the ground outside the opening, waiting until paw prints appear leading out of the hole, then blocking the entry with heavy rocks.

To keep raccoons out of garbage cans, Reed recommends strapping shut garbage cans with bungee cords, which are commonly available at automotive stores.

When all else fails, animal control officials will loan residents "humane capture traps," which are wire traps with doors that shut automatically after an animal crawls inside for food used as bait.

The county will then relocate the animals, except raccoons, skunks and foxes, which the county automatically exterminates because of the danger of rabies.

Above all, Reed recommends that residents build up more tolerance of their wild neighbors. While the most common animals in the rapidly developing county are squirrels and raccoons, the county also has a lot of deer.

Occasionally, the county will also get a surprise visit from an out-of-town visitor.

"Usually in the spring, we'll get a bear or a bear and a cub from the mountains," he said. "People will call and they'll either be upset or excited. And then, after about a month, {the bears} will go back to the mountains, and that's the last you see of them."