If your backyard is looking like a wildlife sanctuary, don't panic
An encounter with wildlife may be both cool and also a bit concerning, particularly when it involves wild animals on your property. But it's not always necessarily cause for alarm.
Marion E. Larson, chief of information and education for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, confirmed that skunks, raccoons and bats are among the critters most commonly reported taking up residency on homeowner's property or inside the home itself.
But, she said, "You don't have to call someone saying there's a skunk in your yard. There are always going to be skunks in residential areas around here. But there are ways to live with them and ways to make your yard less attractive for them."
Larson said skunks, raccoons and bats are "quite commonly found in residential areas, but their presence doesn't constitute an immediate threat," that is, unless the animal or animals appear to be sick and/or injured.
Otherwise, they're most likely just looking for a better quality of life.
"We provide things they need, like food, in the form of trash, suet and food in bird feeders and open compost heaps. For raccoons and skunks, these are a huge food source," Larson said.
She said the space beneath decks, within sheds, porches and open, uncapped chimneys all serve as a more attractive shelter than, say, a log in the woods, for raising young or just catching a nap in the shade. For this reason, Larson said their are more wild animals like squirrels and skunks per capita in residential areas versus neighboring wooded areas.
"The residential areas are terrific habitats for them," she said. "It's like the difference between a tent, a campsite or a wooden shack."
Because of this, the state DFW offers fact sheets on living with various critters to help keep both humans and animals safe, and keep their interactions minimal and lawful.
In this region, the striped skunk is the most common species to be found. During the summer months, skunks typically sleep in retreats above ground; shaded areas in tall grass, under shrubs, in thickets, or under decks and buildings.
Raccoons will often den in tree cavities, abandoned underground burrows, barns, chimneys, attics, or other structures.
Both animals are very adaptable, and while they tend to have nocturnal habits, it's not unheard of for the animals to forage for food during the daytime; daytime activity of skunks and raccoons doesn't necessarily mean the animals are diseased.
What it does mean is that around the clock, humans should be mindful to reduce the likelihood of the animals taking up residency by removing food sources, including the food of pets that may be outdoors, taking in leftovers from a cookout and securing food in airtight containers and coolers at a campsite. It also means checking decks, attics and other parts of a property for openings that these critters might try to enter.
Larson also noted that food sources for birds are more readily available in the wild, so it's unnecessary to keep birdfeeders stocked with seeds and other tasty treats in the spring and summer. Otherwise, you run the risk of attracting other unwanted guests to feed there, from squirrels to black bears.
Bats are somewhat of a different story, in that they're not attracted to homes for food, but more so for shelter and safety. According to the state DFW, attics are the most common portion of a house in which bats roost and raise their young. But after a few very hot, humid summer days, an attic may become too warm for the bats, forcing them out and sometimes into people's living quarters as they search for cooler places to roost. Inexperienced young bats may fall down a chimney, fly in open windows or down attic stairs.
Larson said typically when people encounter a bat flying or flopping around a living area, they're not on they attack but rather trying to get their bearings in a space and looking for a way to fly back to their roost.
Still, it's unnerving for humans to share their living spaces, indoors and outside with wild animals. But when you're looking to remove a critter or colony of animals, it's important to do it properly, safely, and with minimal disturbance and stress for all parties involved.
"Don't panic," advises naturalist and educator Thom Smith of Berkshire County, Mass., who also writes a weekly "Nature Watch" column.
Both he and Larson say that healthy animals seen outside on a property will most likely leave on their own.
If the animal is trapped in a hole or other structure, placing a board or making a pathway to allow it to lead itself out is helpful. In the case of a bat in the house, opening a window often does the trick.
State laws vary when it comes to dealing with wild animals. For example, in Massachusetts, it's illegal to move a wild animal. So, if the animal is in your home, you can catch and release it outdoors on the parameters of your property, but it's illegal to transport the animal to an off-property place and release it there, due to safety, health and humane issues. In Vermont, only licensed professionals are allowed to take an animal into captivity for treatment of injuries.
If the animals you find on your property are stubborn or sick, it's time to call in a licensed professional. In Massachusetts, the state calls these certified experts, Problem Animal Control (PAC) agents. In Vermont, they're known as nuisance wildlife trappers, licensed by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. They can work independently or commercially and are permitted to charge fees for their services.
These agents are different than your municipal animal control officer, because they're trained to understand state laws on capturing and relocating wild animals, and also have experience, often with dealing with certain species, and know the nuances of addressing certain animals on a case-by-case circumstance.
Brian Fenner of Lee, Mass., has served as a PAC agent, and said he often gets called about skunks and raccoons, among other critters.
"With any wildlife, you've got to take the precaution. You never want to corner wild animals, and you're better off giving it a little time move along," he said.
These agents, versus others listed as pest control services, also are trained to educate homeowners about the wild animals they've encountered; work to get the animal out of the home without exterminating it; and can walk people through how preventing the critters from coming back. If they animal is injured, they're also often aware of wildlife rehabilitators in the region and can make sure the animal gets proper care and safe relocation.
If the animal is sick or possibly rabid, it becomes a matter of public health and responding agents can help homeowners follow proper procedure, which often involves local and state boards of public health and wildlife. Using poisons or killing the animal yourself is considered dangerous, and may also be illegal outside of the realm of self-defense from an attacking animal.
Larson stressed that although a wild animal in or around your living space might catch you by surprise, it's important to treat it like you would any other living being, by patiently helping it with the respect to the circumstances it's in.
"But just the presence of an animal — there's no legal rationale for killing it," she said.
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