Wildlife in the big city: What to do when your home becomes theirs

“Most people like to see wildlife, until it’s in their homes or under their decks.” 

By Jill Draper 

“Gurgle,” said the rain barrel as I turned its tap to fill my watering can. “Gurgle,” it repeated, as I filled a second. And then, as I turned off the tap and paused to grip the handles of the now-heavy cans, I heard a third unexpected “gurgle.” Cautiously I peered beneath the lid and shrieked. A frightened, pointy-nosed opossum was paddling furiously in the barrel of water, unable to get a grip on the slippery sides. 

My husband scooped up the exhausted animal with a flower pot and placed it beneath a bush, where it lay motionless for quite a while. Later, it was gone. That was more interaction with the natural world than I wanted!

The Red Bridge Branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library recently had its own unwanted interaction with nature. Mice chewed into the HVAC system and forced the library to shut down until repairs can be made. 

“We don’t realize how much wildlife is all around us, because a lot of animals only come out at night,” says Wendy Sangster, an expert with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “Most people like to see it, until it’s in their homes or under their decks.” 

Sangster says opossums, minks, skunks and foxes are animals commonly found in the metro area. There also are coyotes, moles, voles, woodchucks, groundhogs and occasionally bobcats, along with frequently seen deer, rabbits and squirrels. And where there’s a body of water, there may be beavers, muskrats and otters.

A family of racoons is discovered in the attic by a pest control technician. Photo courtesy Catch-it Wildlife

Steve Painter, owner of Catch-It Wildlife & Pest Control in Raytown, says he does “a tremendous amount” of beaver and muskrat trapping for homeowners who live in lakeside developments. He remembers one client who had planted a stand of expensive Colorado aspen trees in his yard, only to wake up one morning to find six of them knocked down by beavers.

The majority of his work, however, comes from squirrels, racoons and bats invading people’s attics plus moles tunneling through yards. “It’s called job security,” says Painter, who names the Waldo/Brookside area as “the bat capitol of Kansas City.” These flying mammals often enter older homes through cracks in wood siding or chinks in loose mortar between bricks.

Chance Beran of Kansas City Wildlife Removal sees the same situation. “If you live in that area and haven’t had your home professionally bat-proofed, they’re probably coming and going freely. Once they’ve found a structure, they will never leave.”

Beran says his business sometimes has a technician available 24/7 to help customers who wake up at 2 a.m. to find a bat flying around their bedroom. Racoons also are a big problem, he says. “Kansas City is severely overpopulated. People will catch them, drive down the road a bit, and let them back out. Those racoons will never get caught in another cage again.”

Racoons like to live in attics, but snakes find their way into basements and onto rooftops. The western black rat snake, a common non-venomous reptile, will slither up gutter spouts to find bird nests, Beran says. But they enter basements for a different reason.

“A lot of times you don’t have a snake issue. You have a mice issue,” he notes. “Once the food source is gone, they’ll leave.” 

Because racoons carry diseases and will most likely starve if relocated, wildlife removal companies are directed to humanely kill those captured. But snakes are transient and handle new territories well. Beran’s company typically releases them 20 miles away.

Most of the city’s wildlife removal companies also specialize in repairing homes and businesses so animals cannot return in the future. “That’s the best thing to do,” agrees Sangster, who recommends animal-proof chimney caps and hardware cloth barriers under decks.

“We have live traps to borrow,” says Sangster, who works at the Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center near the Plaza. “But the issue is what to do with them after they’re trapped. We don’t encourage relocating them.”

And how to dispose of a dead animal? “I wouldn’t put it in the trash. If you can put up with it, just leave it,” she says. “It’s going to be food for something. That’s part of the cycle. Something’s going to be very happy to find that.”

Many animals are omnivores, and eat whatever they come across, including berries and roadkill. Sometimes they eat helpful things like ticks and mosquitos. But they may also eat birdseed, garden veggies and garbage. Don’t feed them, Sangster cautions, recalling a dumpster behind a pizza restaurant that attracted dozens of racoons every night. And be careful, but don’t worry too much about small dogs, she says. “A dog is not an easy meal for foxes, coyotes, bobcats or hawks and owls. It really is rare. They’ll go for the easier prey like mice and rabbits.”

According to Sangster, “If you want to help the wildlife without creating additional problems, plant native plants. That’s what they evolved with. It really does matter.” For information about what to plant, she suggests visiting deeprootskc.org.

“Any healthy wildlife is not going to be approaching people,” she says. “But they don’t mind cohabiting with us.” After all, they were here first.


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