Bats in the attic, raccoons in the tub: What to do when animals get in

As residential development becomes more sprawling, homeowner run-ins with four-legged trespassers are becoming more common. Here’s how to evict them humanely.

( Illustration by Spencer Ashley for The Washington Post)
7 min

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

“I knew nothing about wildlife,” says Bjorkman, who keeps the cabin as a getaway place. He thought he could solve the problem himself by taking a chain saw to the tree he believed gave the squirrel a ramp into his home. If he’d only had one standard-issue squirrel, the tactic may have worked. But what he failed to realize was that he’d actually been infiltrated by flying squirrels — 58 of them.

The tree ended up falling on the cabin. And the squirrels were still inside. “I just started seeing more and more,” Bjorkman says.

Though 58 interlopers is a bit extreme, humans are generally quite good at creating welcoming environments for all manner of creatures — and not just in the West Virginia wilderness. As residential development becomes more sprawling, wildlife experts say we’re inadvertently providing conditions that make run-ins with four-legged squatters — including raccoons, foxes, possums, skunks and coyotes — likelier than ever. (Maybe you recall the black bear that went viral earlier this year for hibernating under a deck in Connecticut.)

“As we … bridge between rural areas and the city with more and more suburbs, you’re just creating a path for [animals] to move in and out,” says Jessica Armstrong, manager with Scram, the animal removal arm of the Ohio Wildlife Center.

So, what exactly is a homeowner to do when a wild animal gets inside? For starters, put down the chain saw. After his “Looney Tunes”-style run-in with the squirrels, Bjorkman did what he should have done from the start: call a humane wildlife removal expert who safely trapped the whole lot of them, then sealed up the hole they’d chewed to get in. Although the precise definition of “humane” removal can vary from one company or jurisdiction to the next, the gist of it is “anything that doesn’t cause the animal more suffering,” Armstrong says. Reputable wildlife experts agree that humane removal is in everyone’s best interest: the animal’s, the human’s and the ecosystem’s.

A proper eviction typically 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 figure out what’s going on. Where are they getting in? What animal is it? And importantly, why are they getting in?”

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

See, the raccoon had been in the attic, but she had been using a corner as a latrine, and the weight of her droppings wore a hole right through the ceiling. (Cute!) The raccoon fell through to the lower floor, then ran into the bathroom, all in the middle of the night.

The homeowner called Skedaddle Humane Wildlife Control, recounts the company’s CEO, Bill Dowd. By the time the crew arrived in the morning, the raccoon had set up shop in the tub and — surprise! — given birth to five kits.

Situations like these must be handled especially delicately. Separating parents from babies will only cause more angst for everyone: The young will starve while their mom gnaws more holes in your roof to get back to her family.

Dowd’s team got the raccoon family out by gathering them into a “baby reunion box”: a wooden container with a heating pad on the floor. Then, he says, “we animal-proof the home,” which involves patching up openings and fortifying vulnerable spots, and “we put the baby box outside, at nighttime.” The mother then takes the babies, one by one, to an alternate den. All urban wildlife, Dowd reports, have “anywhere from seven to 10 den sites within a two-block radius.”

It wasn’t so long ago that people’s first or only resorts for dealing with a furry trespasser were snap-traps, poison and other such assaults. Depending on where you are in the country, that still may be the case, but the pros say they’re sensing a shift. “I think people are realizing that compassion towards wildlife is a way that we need to move, because we’re going to be living with them all the time anyway,” Armstrong says. The Humane Society’s Griffin agrees: “In general, there’s a rising trend of people wanting more humane solutions available to them.”

Still, even the biggest animal lovers are usually eager to get rid of their uninvited guests. Woodland creatures, after all, 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,” says Brandon Simering, owner of District Wildlife Solutions, a humane trapping service in D.C. and Maryland. He estimates that squirrels cause thousands of fires a year and says that his team finds chewed wires when responding to roughly 7 out of 10 squirrel calls.

To prevent animals from breaking in to begin with, Simering and other experts advise giving your house a once-over as if you were, say, a squirrel seeking shelter.

Virtually all homes have vulnerabilities. Raccoons, Simering says, can climb the downspout or the side of the house like Spider-Man, because they have thumbs. “Sometimes they’ll just rip a hole straight through the roof,” he says, and cozy up in the insulation. “If they go down the chimney, they’ll just live in there, loving life.” Installing chimney caps and gable vent screens can help keep some critters out, as can sealing your eaves with metal.

If you already have an animal in your home, you may have to brace yourself for a longer haul, says Natasha Garcia Anderson, fish and wildlife biologist at D.C.’s Department of Energy & Environment. For example, bats are protected in many states; they provide what scientists call “ecosystem services,” namely, eating lots of insects. This means that if you find a maternity colony in your attic, you’ll probably have to leave it there until the babies can fly and forage on their own. “It sounds kind of crazy,” Anderson concedes. “I just tell people: They’ve been up there this long. It’s just another month.” (Tell that to the homeowner who wound up with a litter of raccoons in the tub.)

When the time is right, the humane removal model is known as “eviction-exclusion.” A professional will assess the scene — i.e., answer the what, why and how — and operate from there. Many methods involve coaxing animals out through one-way doors, which should make reentry impossible. If they do chew a new way in, Simering says, “we’ll do a live trapping [in] a cage that locks” and release the animal in a designated area.

But why would a critter who’s discovered the five-star hotel that is your chimney ever leave? In many cases, the key is using a scent that it doesn’t like. Foxes, for instance, who love to hang out under decks and steps, can be shooed away with coyote urine. For raccoons, a potion that contains or mimics the male hormone will do the trick. “The mama raccoon will not have her babies with a male raccoon [nearby], because the daddy will eat the babies,” Simering explains. Her distrust of males is so intense that if she smells a dude, she will take her kits and run.

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

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