The Beast in your Backyard

The battle against nuisance critters gets personal

LET ME IN! The snarling, garbage-fattened raccoon has attached itself to your screen door with the claws of all four legs and is attempting to shake it loose from the hinges. She and her family have already spent weeks terrorizing your cat, pillaging the dog food from your porch, rifling your trash cans, and peering at you and your spouse in the privacy of your bedroom. Now this fearless urban marauder is interrupting your summer dinner party and alarming your guests. She's big, she's mean, she's chattering like a banshee, and she has evil red glowing eyes like embers from Hell.

What to do?

That's the dilemma Seattle-area residents increasingly face as the boundary between wilderness and populace becomes blurred.

Now that we've started putting Canada geese to death—3,500 killed this summer alone—for the crime of pooping on lawns, the question becomes: What about the many other nuisance species afflicting our comfortable urban lives? When are they going to get what's coming to them?

Surely you can recall your last unwanted encounter with our local urban wildlife: The lugubrious possum frozen in your headlights, hissing and gaping its toothy snout. The foot-long rat scurrying behind the dryer in your basement. The neighbor's pet ferret that's somehow entered your apartment and nested in your sock drawer. The frenzied, hyperactive squirrels screeching from your attic. The bats in your executive gubernatorial mansion. The pigeons shitting on the freshly detailed paint job of your new A4. The crows swooping down to dive-bomb your child's stroller at Green Lake. The coyote dashing across your lawn with the family cat in its mouth.

Resurgent wild critters are learning to live—and live well—in our manicured yards and bountiful neighborhoods. The greenbelt is their avenue of transport, the tipped-over garbage can their preferred place of repast.

Longtime Seattle residents remember when shooting and trapping squirrels and other varmints was commonplace. In the Depression era '30s, such backyard hunting was both for sport and food. These days, frontier mores have given way to a more squeamish attitude. Our liberal biases against guns, and for animals, mean we don't want to see armed men mowing down Bambi on the Olmsted boulevards or witness hunting dogs treeing bears in Seward Park.

But what sort of protection do these meddlesome hairy pests have, and what are your rights as a property owner to address the problem when these unruly beasts get out of line?

Overprotected species

The laws governing urban animals are a patchwork of jurisdictional territory. The feds were in charge of the Canada goose dilemma because those waterfowl are—at least theoretically—a migratory species, crossing state and international boundaries. (Though, lately, these birds can hardly be roused to cross Eastlake Avenue—hence the problem.)

Most other wildlife issues fall under the purview of the state. Cities and counties are generally charged with keeping track of dogs, cats, and bunnies. Newer, alternative pets, such as ferrets, snakes, pigs and reptiles, also fall into the latter category, and, notwithstanding applicable city codes, should not be allowed out of your Capitol Hill apartment under any circumstance.

It should come as no surprise that in a state where ranching and farming have historically taken up a good part of the land mass, our laws are pretty lenient when it comes to defending against four-legged intruders damaging your crops or other property. According to state codes, the property owner and the owner's immediate family, tenants, or employees are all free to trap or kill wild animals and birds that are scarfing your cherries, menacing dogs, or wolfing down chickens. "People can control mammals" that are damaging property, says Steve Dauma, enforcement officer at the State Department of Fish and Wildlife, "so long as the animal isn't protected or endangered, and as long as it isn't a big-game species like a bear, a cougar, a moose."

How do these rules translate to the raccoon family chewing up the crawl space in your Wallingford Craftsman? There's little doubt that the furry masked bandits can be a health hazard and typically cause considerable property damage. "They defecate and urinate all over the place," says Wayne Switzer, a local specialist in nuisance wildlife control, who grew up trapping bobcats and coyotes in Eastern Oregon. "And they carry roundworm. People don't realize—it gets into the air system, all the insulation has to be taken out under biohazard conditions." Two years ago, Switzer hauled four raccoons out of a Bellevue crawlspace. Total clean-up cost for the home: $4,500.

Shooting the critter outright is definitely not an option. Seattle municipal code prohibits discharging a firearm anywhere there's "a reasonable likelihood that humans, domestic animals, or property will be jeopardized."

However, as a practical matter, backyard snipers may plink away at annoying squirrels, possums, crows, and rats with their BB guns. The city isn't likely to impound your Crossman, although neighbors may shun you, your spouse might divorce you, and children may mock your safari attire and pith helmet—and your karma may plummet.

A more effective option is trapping. Here again, stickling city codes give you pause. City of Seattle regulations forbid you to "injure, kill, or physically mistreat any animal," to say nothing of the prohibitions against animal cruelty. You also are not permitted to "set any bait or trap, except for rats or mice" without first seeking permission.

However, when your property or person are being endangered, "state law probably supercedes city law on this," says Donald Jordan, Seattle's director of animal control.

The state strongly recommends that individuals not take on the trapping task themselves, but instead call one of the state- licensed operators, like Switzer, to do the job. "Don't try to trap the animal alive in a 'humane trap' with the idea that you will release it in another location," advises state urban wildlife biologist Russell Link. Once in its new home, the raccoon will probably die anyway, from hunger, stress, or territorial battles, he claims.

Raccoons can't just be randomly trapped either. As a fur-bearing animal, they have a season, and trappers must have a license. Thanks to a winter distemper that ran through the local population two years ago, raccoon complaints are actually down lately, according to Wayne Switzer. "I think I've had six raccoon calls all summer," he says.

Also, as a cautionary footnote, if you should capture a raccoon, do not attempt to domesticate the creature and keep it as a pet. Even if you can teach the highly intelligent, ring-tailed mammal to retrieve a Frisbee, untold hours will be wasted as it systematically washes the disk in a stream after every throw before returning it to you.

Fair game

Rats and mice are another story. "For the past five years there's been a steady increase," says Carl Douglas, of Redi-Net Pest Eliminators on Aurora. "The rats have just exploded," agrees Switzer. "It's because we're having such mild winters."

A couple summers ago, for instance, the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant in the Totem Lake area of Kirkland was being overrun at night with hundreds of rats, Switzer recalls, crawling up and around cars as customers were picking up their food. The restaurant was close to some blackberry bushes, a favorite rat habitat.

"A rat urinates over 3,000 times over a twenty-four hour period," says Switzer. "So you can imagine the smell."

The common Norwegian and roof varieties of rat have no bureaucratic protection whatever and may be trapped or killed at will under state law. Moles and other small burrowing lawn-destroying creatures also occupy this nether area.

A host of varmints are similarly fair game since they are nonnative species and are not considered wildlife: These include rabbits (the Eastern cottontail variety), Eastern gray squirrels (the kind you most commonly encounter in urban areas), and that most loathed member of God's creation—opossums.

Possums were around during the age of the dinosaurs, and "like rats, they're going to be here till the end of time," declares Wayne Switzer. "Even coyotes will wait till it's the last thing around before they'll eat a run-over possum. It's a disgusting animal," he says of the rat-tailed nocturnal creature, brought here by settlers.

Further up the food chain, the level of protection naturally increases. "You can't shoot a deer because he's eating your rose bush," notes Steve Dauma of Fish and Wildlife. If the suburban safety of you or your family is being genuinely threatened by a bear or a cougar, you can have at them, but not "just because they're around," Dauma says. These are game animals, with a hunting season, and a license is required before taking any action—unless it's an emergency. Two years ago, for example, a man in Enumclaw blew away a 90-pound black bear who had admitted himself through a sliding glass door and was just steps away from the children's bedrooms.

Cougars are also turning up more often, especially around schoolyards, Switzer says. The kids "are small game to them."

And what about the neighbor's adorable tabby repeatedly pissing on your front door or the beagle digging up your garden? Here, city regulations apply and more self-control may be in order. Do not, repeat, do not, follow the example of Seattle Times publisher and Mercer Island resident Frank Blethen Jr., who was charged with an animal cruelty misdemeanor two years ago after allegedly firing a pellet gun at a yellow Labrador puppy—that's right, folks, a puppy!--who had apparently come rooting around in Blethen's shrubbery one too many times. (Blethen ultimately got the charge dismissed after performing community service.)

Animal Control Director Donald Jordan says the city of Seattle will issue humane traps for trouble-making Buddys and Fluffys, but it's a short-term solution, since the city will generally return the pet to its owner.

At this point, the frustrated home owner may ask, "What means of defense do I have left to me then?" Happily, there are no statutes against psychologically terrorizing, verbally abusing, and otherwise taunting and belittling animals. (At least Judy Nicastro hasn't introduced any yet.)

The land of plenty

Ironically, at a time when nuisance wildlife poses perhaps the gravest threat yet to our attics, flower beds, and precious bodily fluids, the most commonly used tool for controlling them may soon be outlawed. The backers of a new anti-trapping citizens' initiative have gathered enough signatures to put I-713 on the ballot this fall. It would ban use of the kind of animal killing (and maiming) traps that professionals like Switzer most commonly use. The traps would be allowed only after nonlethal methods were tried and with special approval from the director of Fish and Wildlife.

"This requirement will cause delays in agency response to damage complaints," says a Fish and Wildlife statement (though the agency is technically taking no position on the measure). If I-713 passes, Switzer warns, we'll see the same kind of massive proliferation of possums and moles as we saw with the Canada geese.

Then again, just as the Canada geese settled permanently in our area largely because of the delightful chemically enhanced waterfront lawns we offered and the Wonder bread crumbs our young children generously scattered, the rise of the urban wildlife pests is pretty much a problem of our own making.

"We have to look at what we're doing to cause this," notes the city's Donald Jordan. "People often leave food on the back porch for their dog or cat," for example, he says. "When there's food, animals will come." Ditto for overflowing or loosely lidded garbage cans. "We have to see if our activities are creating problems, rather than just saying, 'We need to trap this thing,'" says the state's Steve Dauma.

Wildlife biologist Russell Link is presently putting together a series of concise guides to the 35 species of animal most commonly encountered by homeowners and how best to resolve, or avoid, trouble with them. His tip sheet on raccoons, for instance, suggests that if a raccoon has taken residence in your chimney, you should "place a large bowl of white vinegar and a loud radio in the fireplace." (We recommend tuning the dial to 107.7 The End for maximum small-mammal discomfort.) To avoid attracting the animal, he also recommends sprinkling cayenne pepper on recently sodded lawns. For those so inclined, the Humane Society also publishes a comprehensive book entitled Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife.

"Possums, skunks and raccoons have adapted very well to living in town. They're not going to go away, and they're probably going to increase," says Dauma, whose department spent somewhere around 4,000 labor hours on nuisance wildlife concerns last year.

Of course, the other, much larger reason for the proliferation of pests is that we are simply chewing up more and more of their predators' turf. "We're decimating 200 acres of habitat a day in Washington, paving it under for housing," says Wayne Switzer. "Those are huge numbers. As we do this, we're going to have huge problems."

"Homes are being built in territory that cougars have considered their own," notes Vicki Schmitz, Animal Control director for King County. As we continue laying down dozens of new Streets of Dreams in areas that were formerly wilderness, cougars and bears will naturally keep turning up at our backyard barbeques—that is, before they're driven out entirely.

Meanwhile, naive homebuyers continue to embrace natural beauty, until they discover the consequences. Switzer tells a story about a new housing development that went up along a lake shore north of the county. "Everybody thought the beavers were so cute. Next thing you know, people are calling me because the beaver's eating their $500 rose bushes."

To learn more about the Initiative I-713, visit the advocate's site.

And check out the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife's fact sheet, too.

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