Read an Excerpt
When Raccoons Fall through Your Ceiling
The Handbook for Coexisting with Wildlife
By Andrea Dawn Lopez
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2002 Andrea Dawn Lopez
All rights reserved.
When Raccoons Fall through Your Ceiling
The sanctuary was a place where hundreds of species of animals and a handful of human caretakers lived in harmony, aside from the occasional incident where our two worlds overlapped in a far from graceful manner. I would have never guessed a weak ceiling in the old farm house would be to blame for one of those incidents.
The two-level wooden farm house was the heart of the sanctuary. It sat on 21 acres of Texas hill country with a little green pond out back. The entire place was enclosed by a 12-foot-high fence. A dirt road took you from the front gate, through thick cedar trees and brush, about a half mile to the house. It served as an office, nursery, critical care unit, and, at one time, employee sleeping quarters.
Driving down the dusty driveway was an adventure. It was like driving through a mini-safari. In the spring, white-tailed fawns frolicked in the fields to the left, while wild rabbits and javelinas foraged for food together in an enclosure to the right. If I looked closely through fencing that enclosed thick oak and cedar trees, I could see great horned owls perched on branches there, blending in with the landscape. White-winged doves pecked at seed in brown wooden cages along the way, recuperating before their release back into the wild.
Eventually that road widened into a massive dirt parking lot. Primate enclosures bordered the left side of it, holding caramel-colored Japanese macaques, crab-eating macaques, and lemurs. A gray brick food-preparation building called the nutrition center sat to the right. Staff would come and go with wheelbarrows of feed tubs filled with cat food, dog food, raw chicken, vegetables, and fruit—meals for many of the animals.
Straight ahead, a narrow sidewalk led the way to the house through two large, chicken-wire aviaries. They were full of all kinds of doves, herons, egrets, colorful parrots, even an exotic bird or two like a black Asian starling or myna bird. The myna bird was once someone's pet. Even though that was a part of his past and he was living in a spacious enclosure as just a bird, he still greeted every passerby with a "hello" in perfect English. His English, blended with the songs of all the birds, was a choir that could be quite deafening.
All these creatures helped to paint our picture of harmony. From the old, squinty-eyed gray tomcat who claimed his place on the front porch and the brown spiders crouched in their webs all around the screen door, to the families of raccoons that clumsily tromped through the attic of the house, the picture showed that all creatures could live together.
While it was a wonderful and often surprising experience to open a closet in my bedroom at the sanctuary and find a raccoon sitting there, or to wake up in the morning and find a flock of geese peering through my window at me, living amongst wild creatures wasn't always a pleasant experience.
The house that served as our rehabilitation center was aging, and sections of the ceiling were beginning to weaken. One day, as some of us worked in the office answering numerous phone calls from people with wildlife problems, we heard what sounded like a piece of heavy furniture being thrown down stairs.
We ran into the nursery area, which was now filled with puffs of dust and pieces of plaster. One of those weak sections of ceiling had finally given way to seven full-grown raccoons who must have weighed about 30 pounds each. Dazed, confused, and covered in pieces of ceiling, they scattered throughout the nursery, desperate to find a way out of this new and unfamiliar place they had fallen into.
A jagged gaping hole about three feet in diameter exposed one of the luckier raccoons who didn't fall through with the others. He remained perched on the edge, curiously watching all the excitement below.
We spent at least a half hour trying to herd all the raccoons toward open doors. Finally, we were successful and watched as the last one loped out the door and into the cover of some nearby oak trees.
At Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, Inc., we followed our own advice. We did all that we could to live peacefully amongst wild animals. But the above example shows that there will be an occasion or two when your path will cross with that of a wild animal—or several wild animals—and that junction won't always be a smooth one.
You may have already crossed paths with a wild animal. Many home owners have. People living in suburban areas aren't the only ones who live there. Urban wildlife or wild animals have either chosen or been forced to live amongst us. They're all around our neighborhoods and homes.
These wild animals find their homes in the nooks and crannies of our homes and buildings, which provide safe havens for them. At any given time you could find a family of skunks living under your house, or a family of raccoons nesting in your chimney. Hanging plants are a popular choice for bird nests, and flower beds and gardens are often delicious buffets for deer.
For some people, the wild animals aren't bothersome. But for other people, living with wildlife is a difficult and sometimes scary experience. Fortunately, there are things that you can do to try and resolve your problems, solutions that will let you—and the wild animals—live in peace. After all, you both live here. If wild animals are to be preserved for the future you have to find a peaceful solution.
You may wonder how raccoons and skunks and foxes wound up living in your neighborhood in the first place. The truth is, they have been there all along. You see, your house is sitting on the ground that was once their home. Now, you both live in that place.
Urban sprawl has forced wild animals to make a choice. They can either follow the shrinking wilderness, or try to find new shelter in our neighborhoods. Many choose to stay in the territory they've always known. Besides, they find our chimneys, gardens, sheds, attics, and other little places around our homes quite suitable. They also like our homes because our garbage, gardens, and pet food offer them gourmet meals every day. People who feed their pets outside may not realize that they're inviting wild animals like skunks, raccoons, and foxes in for a snack.
Taking away these free meals is a good way to start discouraging wild animals from coming around. Almost every wild animal loves to eat cat and dog food. You may attract anything from magpies to skunks. Don't invite them back. Bring it all inside. Also bring in water dishes, especially at night. Animals that are nocturnal, like raccoons and skunks, will begin looking for "breakfast" as the sun starts to go down. These animals are also thirsty and will come in search of water.
You may think your pet's food and water are safe in your garage. But if you have a pet door in that garage, expect some uninvited guests for dinner. Wild animals are getting quite accustomed to our ways of life, and some aren't bashful when it comes to walking right into your home for a free meal.
If your dog or cat uses a pet door to get into the garage—or even your kitchen—you may want to invest in a door that is triggered by an electronic signal from your pet's collar. You could also try keeping the door locked at night when many wild animals are out and about.
It may be too late for all this prevention advice. You may have already discovered a raccoon or a skunk in your garage or a opossum in your kitchen, munching away on your food!
This is exactly what happened to a San Antonio man one night when he returned home from dinner. He said he walked into his kitchen, set his keys on the table, and then stopped short when he heard "crunching noises."
The man couldn't figure out where the noises were coming from. He sat and listened awhile before he realized the crunching was coming from inside his pantry! He opened the door and found a opossum sitting inside a box of crackers "munching away."
The man had called our wildlife hotline for advice. We told him to put on gloves and just take the entire box of crackers—opossum and all—outside and let the little guy go away on his own. He followed our instructions and the opossum did go on his way, fat and happy after a free and easy dinner!
The fact that the opossum was already inside a cracker box made that man's situation easy to solve. Other situations may take a bit more work. If you ever come home and find a wild animal in your garage, the first thing to do is to open the garage door and turn on the light. The animal will head toward the darkest area, which at night will be outside.
If this doesn't happen right away, try turning on a radio. Turn up the volume to make it noisy. This will help encourage the animal to leave. You can also put household ammonia to work for you. Soak some old rags in it and toss them near the animal. The smell will help drive him away.
If you do use ammonia, respect the fact that this product wasn't made for repelling animals. It was made for household cleaning. The Food and Drug Administration does have labeling that specifically says this. If for some reason the product is irritating your skin or eyes, don't use it anymore!
As you're working to get the wild animal out of your garage, remember never to corner that animal or pick him up. Wild animals don't understand us, as we don't entirely understand them. They will become defensive when they feel threatened. Their only means of defense is to scratch and bite, especially against someone more than ten times their size! Gently encourage an animal to leave, giving him an obvious escape route. That's the best way for both of you to avoid confrontation. Most of the time the animal will be as eager to get away from you as you are for him to go.
When wild animals aren't trying to eat food inside your garage, they may be trying to eat food outside of your garage. By this I mean your trash. Remember, your trash could be a wild animal's treasure. Many small mammals are omnivorous, meaning they will eat basically everything: fruits, vegetables, and meat scraps. Even coyotes are attracted to fruit like melons. You never know what species of wildlife will be rummaging through your trash bags and trash cans to find any goodies you've thrown away.
Wild animals are drawn to these leftovers in the trash by their sense of smell. Take some of that smell away by rinsing all of your cans and cartons with soapy water or a bleach solution before you put them out for recycling or throw them in the trash. If you leave your trash cans outside overnight, make sure they have lock down lids. You can also secure the lids with chains or bungee cords, but make sure that they are strong enough for even the most clever raccoon. If you live in a heavily wooded area or an area that has bears, purchase a steel bear-proof trash can. Usually your local state wildlife agency will have information on how to get one.
If you think you're alone in your struggles to find the best bungee cords and locking lids for your trash cans, you're not. People in suburbs across North America are struggling with the same wild animal conflicts, and it doesn't stop there. In fact, one of Colorado's most popular tourist attractions has struggled with the very same problem, and employees had to learn the hard way that it needed some very special trash cans.
The Royal Gorge draws in more than 500,000 visitors each year. They come to see the highest suspension bridge in the United States, spanning 1,053 feet over the Arkansas River below.
The visitors at the Royal Gorge have quite a hike when they come visit. The bridge is long and some of the best vantage points are at the tops of rocky, steep hills that'll have you huffing and puffing in no time. Hence, there's plenty of food and drink at the park as well, anything from hamburgers and hot dogs, to funnel cakes and ice cream.
Some of those visitors, however, didn't come to see the magnificent bridge, but rather all that greasy food. Those visitors tended to get a little rowdy and destructive when they didn't get what they wanted. Those visitors were black bears, frequenting the park for half-eaten burgers and hot dogs in the trash cans, greasy grills, and even fresh food stored in coolers.
It didn't take employees long to figure out that they had a problem. The bears tipped over, tossed around, and destroyed nearly 20 trash cans, pushed over fences, and knocked down outdoor coolers. It was just part of their routine for getting dinner each night. After replacing all those trash cans at a few hundred dollars a piece, the bridge company's employees realized they had to do something to fix the problem. They contacted the Division of Wildlife for help.
After some consultation, the employees were on a mission, a mission to get one message to the bears: they were going to have to find their evening snacks elsewhere!
Employees started picking up all the trash at the end of the day after all the food vendors closed. They put up an eight-foot chain-link fence around its trash storage site—a fence with concrete reinforcement on the bottom and barbed wire across the top. They bolted all the coolers down, as well as the grease traps from the cooks' kitchens, and they started spraying down their walk-in freezers with bleach to get rid of any food smells.
The final step was installing several bear-proof trash cans in the picnic areas. The cans are configured for humans only. You have to slip your hand underneath a lip to release a lever to open the lids. It's a space that's too small for a big bear paw. If those spaces weren't that small, the bears may actually be able to figure out how to open those trash cans!
The entire project took many hours of hard work, but it was successful. Some officers from the Colorado Division of Wildlife like to point out this incident as one that homeowners can learn from. It offers good guidelines that they can follow for their own homes.
The Division took that example a step farther in September 2001, stating that homeowners and businesses that continually leave trash and other attractants within reach of bears will be fined. This was an emergency regulation that the Colorado Wildlife Commission approved at the request of wildlife officers. Officers said that people were continually ignoring their requests to keep trash, food, bird seed, and pet food out of reach of bears. The tickets are mainly for repeat violators, as well as people who purposely put food outside so they can watch the bears come around and eat. The Division is also trying to encourage local cities and counties to adopt ordinances that require bear-proof trash cans. These are a good way to help end this conflict.
Bears might be a problem at your house, and you may be surprised to know that it might not be trash and pet food that are drawing them in, but rather, bird food.
If you're a bird lover in bear territory, chances are you're inviting bears in as well. Sound crazy? Bears absolutely love bird seed and hummingbird food. Just ask anyone at the Bear Creek Nature Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The center wasn't named after all the bears in the area, but the name took on an entirely new meaning once some area bears figured out that it was a perfect place for some of their favorite delicacies.
These bears weren't shy. In fact, they'd come strolling down the sidewalk in the middle of the day and walk right up to any one of the many bird feeders at the nature center. The bird feeders sat on metal poles. The bears bent all of those poles, toppling the feeders over before they began cleaning up all the seed like vacuum cleaners. They also tackled the hummingbird feeders to get at the sweet sugary liquid inside.
Of course, the bears didn't stop there. They also knocked over all the trash cans, scattering trash throughout the parking lot. For awhile, the bears became as much of an attraction as the nice hiking trails and assortment of wild birds.
One group of hikers was absolutely startled one day as they walked around their parked car to the sidewalk. They stopped dead in their tracks when they saw a big black bear lying on the sidewalk between them and their favorite hiking trail. The bear was sunning himself and drying off after taking a stroll through the stream at the bottom of the hill. Eventually he got up and walked away, leaving a big, wet, bear butt print on the sidewalk.
The bears never hurt anyone. In fact, they were glad to go on their way and avoid a confrontation with humans whenever they could. The nature center personnel, however, had to completely change the way they did things. Volunteers now bring in all of the hummingbird and bird feeders at night. They store their bird food in metal trash containers with locking lids. They've also built new trash cans that are enclosed in wooden boxes with locking lids—trash cans that can't be tipped over.
It sounds like a great deal of work, and it is, but nature center staff and volunteers are glad to do it. One volunteer told me that if we want to live in this beautiful country, we have to live with the animals that also make it their home. She said if you get rid of all the animals, taking them out of the habitat, it destroys the entire habitat. She said what affects and destroys the habitat will eventually affect and destroy us too. It will come full circle. In order to better live with these animals, however, many of us need to learn more about their behavior and how to cohabit.
Excerpted from When Raccoons Fall through Your Ceiling by Andrea Dawn Lopez. Copyright © 2002 Andrea Dawn Lopez. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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