If you are ever the victim of a home invasion, here’s some advice: don’t kill the intruder unless he or she is a human being. If the intruder is an animal — in particular an animal with more than two but fewer than six legs — odds are that anything you do to protect your family and property will be against the law.
That is the best this writer has been able to figure out while trying to rid a suburban home of some squatters from the natural world.
The skein of local, state, and federal laws governing removal and disposal of wild creatures is, like most legal code, beyond the grasp of the non-specialist. And my little patch of heaven in the Washington Beltway is a way station for a variety of snakes, deer, opossums, and other critters with an apparent instinct for working the law to their own advantage. Most importantly, it’s a pit stop for a great number of raccoons, those furry Hamburglar lookalikes celebrated in stories, songs, and hats.
Like a squirrel visitation, or the onset of satanic possession, a raccoon family’s residence in the home begins with scratching and thumping sounds coming from the attic. We heard something up there one night. By the following night no children wanted to sleep in the bedroom under the noises. And the next night my wife surprised a mother raccoon looking plaintively up at our back door.
Seemed like a simple problem to solve. After climbing up to the attic, I spotted the mother poking her head out of the insulation and greeting me with a belligerent raccoon growl. I could hear the chi-chi-chi sounds of the young. The mama had ripped a nice big hole in our roof and delivered a litter of kits.
The clear solution was to buy a cage from Home Depot, trap the mother, pick out the kits by (heavily gloved) hand, drive the whole family across the Potomac to Maryland, and set them all loose in the wild, with sincere best wishes for the future. But a few years in the D.C. area, where nothing is legal, have made me think twice about doing anything myself when the government is there to help.
So we called Alexandria’s animal control professionals. They travel the city in a cool van, but they will do nothing unless the animals are in a “living space” of the house — described to us as the kitchen or a bedroom — and pose an immediate threat to life and limb. The attic didn’t count.
The city did give us some useful tips, however. Under Virginia law, you are not allowed to trap the animal: you need a permit for that. Also, if by any chance we did trap it, we were not to dispose of it other than by euthanizing it. Yet at the same time, we were told repeatedly that whatever means we used, we would have “to make animal safety a main concern.” Also, it’s illegal to poison mammals other than rats.
So what did they suggest? That we wait until the young were grown up — about four to six weeks — at which point they might move out on their own.
We opted instead to bring in a specialist and pay him several hundred dollars to carry out my initial plan. The service was excellent. The specialist — a young guy with a master’s degree in wildlife biology — knew trapping tricks I wouldn’t have imagined. (Who knew the scent of skunk urine was to a raccoon what the smell of a pre-dawn bakery is to us?) The entire family was removed to a farm — an apparent Procyon Paradise — run by an eccentric raccoon lady in rural Virginia. (For reasons I wasn’t able to make out, licensed pros can get an exemption from the Malmedy rule governing raccoon prisoners.)
We got off lucky, however. Usually animal removal isn’t so simple. A friend in Colorado hired a professional wildlife handler but still got hung up by regulations that prevent the removal of lactating squirrels. Deer encounters on urban lots are becoming more frequent and deer-attack videos are proliferating, but the rules around taking down these big animals on your own property are even stricter than they were in Elmer J. Fudd’s time. Coyotes too are rapidly becoming de facto urban dwellers, yet in most states you can only use force during regular hunting times — which may or may not be the time that you’re being menaced by a coyote in your yard.
Got bats in your belfry? Tough luck for you. It’s not just illegal to kill bats. You can’t even trap them. The only approved method for getting rid of bats is a one-door-room contraption — a sort of reverse Roach Motel that allows the Children of the Night to flutter out and then bars them from returning the same way. But even licensed wildlife handlers can’t catch a bat and take it away. They can only set it loose, to fly into your neighbor’s house, or eventually back into yours.
It’s easy to understand the sentiment people feel for furry critters and their squeamishness about potentially harsh or bloody handling of animal intruders. Americans lead lives of once-unimaginable luxury, and the idea that nature is red in tooth and claw can seem remote to people sharing viral videos of funny black bears moseying around suburban backyards.
It’s worth remembering that that sentiment is not requited. When the squealing raccoon kits were brought down from our attic, we all oohed and cooed over their shut-eyed adorableness. But you know who isn’t bowled over by the cuteness of baby raccoons? Their own father, who will eat them if he is given a chance. (Protection from adult males is one of the reasons raccoon mothers need to build defensible nests in the houses of Homo sapiens sapiens.) Nor will the cuteness of the creature diminish the pain of the rabies shot should you happen to be looking for your old baseball card collection in the attic when the mother raccoon is feeling especially protective.
The one constant in nature is conflict. You’ve got a need to protect your home and family, an animal has the same need, and somebody has to win. Animals know the score. Do we?
I suspect not, and I think for many of us the impetus to avoid cruelty has bloated into a kind of self-identification, a latter-day St. Francis complex that people will cling to as proof of their own decency even as spiders are literally falling out of the sky.
As noted above, our wildlife professional provided excellent service, and he kept his trap out for several days after removing the creatures from our attic. That turned out to be useful. Every morning for nearly a week, I rose to find that yet another raccoon had been trapped. What had looked in daylight to be an ordinary if indifferently manicured neighborhood was in fact Raccoon Woodstock.
This seemed like information the neighbors would want to know about, and I dutifully posted a few photos to a neighborhood Facebook group, along with a description of our furry adventures and the specialist’s number. I noted that he removed the animals humanely — and that point seemed to be the only one anybody cared about.
“As long as they are not killed!” came the almost immediate reply. People liked that reply. I hope the raccoons appreciate that thought.
This article originally appeared in Rare.