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Question: Wild animals have been coming around our neighborhood at night and causing a lot of trouble. We think it's raccoons, but we have not seen them. What can we do to keep them out of our yard?

Answer: Urban wildlife comes in all sorts of species and sizes. Animals that we tend to think of as only being found in rural areas or forest preserves are found in most towns. Older, more mature areas naturally have bigger trees and larger areas of plantings that feed and house wildlife.

Raccoons, skunks, rats and opossums have easily adapted to the urban life near humans because they are omnivorous and nocturnal. Omnivorous animals eat just about anything that is made from plant or animal matter, kind of like most teenagers I know. Nocturnal animals are most active at night, also kind of like teenagers.

Being omnivorous is an advantage because humans leave such varied trash. To supplement a natural diet of worms, insects and other small animals, they can eat hamburgers, pork chops and roast chicken. A natural inclination to eat ripening berries and tender shoots is easily transferred to melon rinds and garden vegetables. And they don't care whether they encounter this new exotic food supply fresh in the garden or they find it rotting in the garbage can.

Being nocturnal's biggest benefit is that they don't have too much contact with people. Also, most pets are kept indoors for the night. Having little contact with people means a much better chance of survival.

Herbivorous animals have diets almost entirely restricted to plant matter. Rabbits, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks and deer are all herbivores that live within the city limits of nearly every town in the country. They benefit by having a wider variety of foods, but the smaller ones must be careful of the increased number of predators, mostly cats. The smaller an herbivore is the likelier it is to succeed, because it requires a smaller territory (less contact with people) and can fit into hidden spaces in the urban environment.

There are four methods to stopping urban wildlife: making living conditions unsuitable, putting up barriers, setting traps and deploying poisons. Each species has its own preferences for housing and getting food and water. If large trees with hollow trunks are not available, raccoons, squirrels and opossums will live in an accessible attic or garage. Skunks, chipmunks, mice and woodchucks prefer holes in the ground or under logs but will just as easily adapt to living under a porch, in a foundation or in a basement. Mice and other small rodents can get into holes and cracks as small as a quarter-inch across, and baby rats only need a half-inch space. Make sure the animals are out of their (and your) home before sealing up any entrances. As the weather cools off, animals, especially small rodents, will be looking for a warm place to stay. A weather-tight home is also cheaper to heat and has fewer insect problems.

Barriers work well when you know what kind of animal you want to prevent and what you want to prevent the animals from getting. An 8-foot fence would be required to keep deer from a garden, but to keep out digging animals, you need to have a fence that goes 1 foot underground. For climbers, such as squirrels and raccoons, an 18-inch-tall metal wrap around the tree trunk will prevent them from climbing. It needs to start at least 3 feet above the ground for raccoons, and 6 feet is best to keep out squirrels.

Live traps can be used to move a problem animal to a new location. That will most likely be the territory of another of its species. The intruder (the released animal) will be unfamiliar with the new surroundings and will probably be driven from the area. Unfortunately, many release sites are near someone else's home. Many municipalities regulate who can trap animals or ban trapping outright, so check with local officials before setting up traps.

Poisons must be carefully chosen and used in a way that will prevent harm to people, pets and other wildlife. Other chemicals that are not poisons can be used as barriers to stop some wildlife damage. Several brands of deer and rabbit repellent are available. They need to be consistently applied to work. Do not use the home remedy of mothballs. They are poisonous to little kids and should not be used outdoors.

Email questions to Jeff Rugg at



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