Critter Alert: Wild Animals in the Attic

"She said, 'I want you to get rid of whatever's in this attic. I want you to get a gun and shoot it. And when you shoot it. I want to see it to make sure it's dead,'" Rottler said. "We typically tried to trap, but in this situation, that wasn't going to be good enough for her."

Rottler recalled his brother reluctantly went upstairs with a .22-caliber gun and shot dead the culprit — a raccoon.

Such drastic measures may not be legal everywhere, or may require special permits.

Greg Baumann, the NPMA's technical director, recalls a Maryland house whose owners heard scratching in the walls. The mystery ended during a noisy New Year's Eve party, when panicked flying squirrels popped out and started ricocheting around the house, as the host and guests chased them with fireplace tongs.

Baumann, who got the call the next day, said driving out the flying squirrels was tricky. They were locally protected, making it illegal to trap or kill them.

Snake Tolerance

Some people have more tolerance for creatures in their midst than the angry nun or the tong-waving partygoers.

A man in a wooded area of Missouri didn't seek help despite regularly seeing venomous copperhead snakes in his yard — until one day a baby copperhead started doing laps with the man's wife in an indoor swimming pool. Rottler found snakes nesting nearby under the house's patio.

A woman in a swampy part of southern New Jersey knew she had a black rat snake or two living in her basement for seven or eight years, but figured they were not dangerous to people and killed other pests. It was only when one slithered from under a living-room hutch during a cocktail party that she grew embarrassed and decided to act.

"We ended up removing 33 snakes," said David Fisher of the company J.C. Ehrlich. "I've been in the business for 20 years and the most I've run into in a house was six or eight."

"Everybody's tolerance level for any pest is different," Fisher added. "I would have called when I saw the first snake in the basement. I would not have waited until my guests saw it."

Few people would. Panicked homeowners typically confuse harmless snakes with rarer venomous ones, and carry out bloody executions before exterminators even arrive, professionals say.

"The thing I would probably fear in my house more than anything else would probably be a wasp," said Craig Tufts, chief naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Va., adding it is rare for most larger animals in homes to attack unprovoked.

Home Away from Home

Still, there can be dangers besides stingers or venom to having outdoor animals in homes. Some can bring disease, noise, odor, parasites, or harm to infrastructure, property or pets.

Experts say homeowners can take measures to critter-proof their house by plugging even small holes in attics and foundations, screening over exhaust vents and chimneys, and obstructing areas that could shelter birds or bats. Some suggest dehumidifying basements to keep snakes and insects out, or putting mothballs in attics to repel flying squirrels and other unwanted guests.

"If your house is providing those really good habitats for those critters, they're going to take advantage of it because they're opportunists," Tufts said.

Tufts, an adviser for the NWF's Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program, suggests creating or restoring outdoor animal habitats in residential neighborhoods so pests are less tempted to break into our warm, cozy homes.

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