Varmints!

April 24, 2009

How to avoid inviting a home and garden’s most unwelcome guests

Meg McConahey

If you thought flood, fire and mold were the largest threats to your house, you probably have yet to face the menace of a pregnant raccoon.

Santa Rosa Pest Control Specialist John Pape is all too familiar with the havoc one little masked invader can wreak. He remembers one call where a raccoon, seeking a safe, warm den in which to have her babies, gained entry to an attic through a slim little intersection in the roof boards. A home inspector had caught three such openings and sealed them. Never underestimate the determination of a mother in labor.

The coon found the overlooked opening, slithered in and birthed her litter right above the beautiful vaulted ceiling in the living room. The problem, however, was not just the pitter patter of little paws. Accumulated urine and feces began seeping through, creating a gross brown spot around the chandelier.

Even after a spring-loaded one-way door was installed, the cunning coon figured out how to pry it open. Eventually a crane lift was brought in and a hole punched in the tile roof to extricate the coon family. The repair bill was in the five figures.

You would think that the neat sidewalks, asphalt streets, paved patios and screaming tots would dissuade most all critters from venturing into a subdivision. But as urban development encroaches ever deeper into scarce wildlands, the likelihood of an encounter with an undomesticated animal — and damage to your home or garden — increases.

Between 1986 and 2000 the urbanized area of Sonoma County increased by 14,800 acres; between 1988 and 2000 3,300 acres of forests were converted to agriculture and 480 acres developed for housing, according to a 2004 report by the Greenbelt Alliance and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

“You don’t want an animal in your house — period,” said Pape, of Armed Force Pest Control, which does humane removal services. “They can cause serious structural damage. This is your house. The single most important investment in most of our lives.”

Deer, gophers, moles, voles and rabbits can decimate a landscape with their burrows and bingeing. They can gnaw the bark off fruit trees or completely girdle a tree and kill it. Even feral cats can ruin your garden with their persistent digging and defecating.

Critters like raccoons, opossums, squirrels, skunks, coyotes, foxes, bats and rats can potentially cause thousands of dollars of damage to a home, from your ductwork to your insulation and Sheetrock.

Sightings of large wild animals like mountain lions and black bears are rare, but not unheard of. And since Mother Nature is one big food chain, if you live in a wildlife corridor or near a greenbelt and you already have a deer problem, your chances of encountering mountain lions — who feed on deer — increase, said Doug Updike, a wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Having things that are attractive to rats, mice and rabbits, like lots of shrubby cover and things to eat, or if you have chickens, you may also draw larger predators like coyotes.

Feral pigs on the North Coast are destroying native habitats and are a serious nuisance to farmers and others who own large tracts of land. And wild turkeys that look so quaint at Thanksgiving can ruin gardens, scratch the paint on your car and litter your deck and patio with droppings, according to a report compiled by the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.

Raccoons, bats, possums and other mammals are coming indoors because the logs, tree hollows and heavy brush where they normally shelter and burrow are no longer there.

Your best defense is prevention, experts say.

That might include trimming back overgrowth that provides cover. Bears and coyotes will forage through garbage, so cover and control it. Even pet food left outside at night can attract raccoons and other varmints. Allowing fallen fruit to remain on the ground will attract wildlife. Trimming branches that hang over your roof will thwart raccoons — notorious tree climbers — from gaining entry through your roof.

Discourage deer with tactics like motion sensitive lighting and deer-resistant landscaping. If the problem is severe, you may want to resort to high fencing, or at least fencing off the plants they go for.

One of the most important things you can do is seal off any potential entryways, with one of the most common being vent screens in the foundation, said Lowell Miller, who is the director of the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue’s “Exclusion” service.

Before undertaking any sealing program, you want to make sure that nothing is alive inside, because trapped animals become dead animals.

But that is easier said than done. Critters have an uncanny ability, Miller said, to squeeze themselves into impossibly tight spaces. Once inside they can hide in insulation, inner walls, ducts and in the attic. It’s best, he said, to call an expert like Wildlife Rescue, to lure out the animals with one-way doors and other professional methods before sealing off points of entry.

“When we get a call for dead animal removal it’s not like you just open the hatch to the crawlspace and there it is. You have to do some pretty thorough searching and it can be pretty ugly,” said Miller, who enters with full protective gear and a ventilator.

Because of the stench, and the resulting flies and fleas from dead animals, some experts strongly recommend against using poison. Miller said he suspects one skunk that he pulled out of the ductwork in someone’s home died after getting into rat poison.

Pape counsels homeowners to be proactive at the first sign of infestation. More importantly, don’t put out a welcome mat. He recalls one Santa Rosa homeowner who went on vacation with a fruit basket on the kitchen counter. While he was away dozens of rats gorged on fruit and proceeded to destroy the house.

“They ate a hole in the dishwasher line and flooded the house for two weeks,” Pape said. “The Sheetrock had to be replaced and the floor. The heating system was completely gone. The whole thing cost more than $30,000 to fix.”

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