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July 22, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, July 22, 2005

The critter conundrum The critter conundrum (July 22, 2005)

What do you do when uninvited wildlife turns up in your home?

By Patricia Bass

Strange noises were coming from the toilet bowl one day. When Palo Alto residents Erica and Craig Jurney opened the lid to investigate, they came face-to-face with a dying rat. Their plumbing company referred them to an exterminator; their exterminator referred them to a plumber. Eventually, they negotiated for the aid of an exterminator with a 10-foot grappling hook.

In situations like this, tracking down someone to remove an unwanted animal from the home can be just as horrifying as the animal itself.

During the warmer months, raccoons, squirrels and skunks aiming to breed or raise their young move into whatever comfortable, guarded space they can find -- which is often indoors, to the chagrin of homeowners.

"Right now we see a lot of early baby skunks," said Steve Hebert of Swat Pest Control in Milpitas. "Some of them drown in swimming pools or get sick and die. Baby tree squirrels also tend to get hurt and fall down chimneys, but what we get most often around now is snakes."

Hebert, whose job often makes him a modern-day trapper, has seen pests ranging from coyotes to raccoons plague the Bay Area.

"Every once in a while, I come across something like a man who found a 10-foot-long boa constrictor in his apartment," Hebert said. "The previous owner had lost it and then not reported it -- an irresponsible owner, as usual."

Animals can be a danger to themselves and to humans when they show up in any human habitat. Wildlife Rescue, a nonprofit in Palo Alto that accepts injured or orphaned wildlife, recently had to deal with baby starlings that had nested in an airplane engine at the Palo Alto Airport.

"We had a volunteer go in with a basket and literally hand-pick the starlings from the engine of the plane," said Terry Keible, co-president of Wildlife Rescue. "It is a common myth that you can't touch baby birds or return them to their nests because their parents will smell you on them. Birds don't even have a sense of smell."

Birds, raccoons and other wild animals commonly show up as pests under decks and in attics. Luckily, there are several places to turn, depending on the type of animal and the situation.

The city will send an animal control officer to pick up any dead, injured or unwanted animal weighing up to 100 pounds. If the dead animal is too unwieldy and on private property, San Jose Tallow Works will pick it up for a fee.

If an animal is alive, it is probably best to either remove it yourself or with help from a private pest-control company, and then deliver it to Wildlife Rescue, according to Wildlife Rescue animal care coordinator Jennifer MacLean, whose group serves not just Palo Alto but Mountain View and other nearby cities.

"People bring in all sorts of animals that end up in their homes or yards," MacLean said. "And we do receive calls from people who want pest control. We advise them on how to get animals out of the house most effectively, and then pest control can patch up the holes so the animals can't return."

For squirrels, it's legal to use a humane trap found in most hardware stores and release them into a nearby public park, said animal control Officer William Warrior.

Often animals get caught in the chimney, and people are counseled to lower a rope so that the animal can climb back out the way they came.

"This is a very common but misguided bit of advice," Hebert said. "I have never once seen the rope trick work."

Instead, if the stuck animal is a squirrel, human hair (collectible from barber shops) should repel it. If you leave the fireplace open, and a clear path to the front door, any irritant, be it ammonia, human hair or music, should prompt the animal to leave the chimney and exit the house.

Once the animals are out, authorities advise that you place a radio with loud music, dishes of ammonia-soaked rags, or a piece of clothing with your scent near that entrance to discourage the animal from re-entering.

And if they're too young or sick to survive in the wild, Wildlife Rescue will care for them, taking any animal up to possum size. That means they'll accept raccoon babies, but no adult raccoons, which they advise to release back into the wild.

They also offer advice for removing most types of wild animals from a variety of home situations -- be it a squirrel in a chimney or a skunk in the crawl space.
Experts for hire

Many people are averse to direct contact with wild animals, or are not able to remove them themselves. In this case, private pest control companies are usually the best bet. Companies specialize in almost any area of wild animal pest control, from the safe trapping of moles and gophers, to rodent exclusion (closing up holes with one-way rodent doors), to termite and pigeon control.

And no matter how you control pests today, pest prevention for future problems is a must, experts say.

"If you have a rat problem, don't just exterminate them," Hebert said. "You need to get your place sealed up for good. I have had many repeat customers, and paying for pest control twice should not be necessary."

The best way to avert these visitors is to seal up the chimney and the crawl space under a house, Hebert said. Other tips include trimming tree branches and ivy that provide a connection between the roof and trees, checking screens over crawl-spaces and chimneys, and keeping pet doors closed at night.
Patricia Bass writes for the Palo Alto Weekly, the Voice's sister paper. She can be reached at [email protected]

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