Wildlife Among Us: Dealing With Neighborhood Wildlife Furbearers
Many residents across the Commonwealth enjoy seeing wildlife in their back yards. Bird feeding and bird watching are popular activities, while others enjoy watching squirrels, deer, or other animals. Not everyone is accustomed to seeing wildlife on their property, however, and the unexpected presence of certain animals can cause concern or even alarm. As the human population continues to grow in Virginia, so too does the number of houses and buildings we need to live. Increased urbanization of areas that were previously undeveloped puts more people in closer contact with wild animals and increases opportunities for human-wildlife conflicts. In other cases, movement of particular species into a new area can push other animals out. For instance, the expansion of coyote populations across the state has likely caused an increase in the number of foxes in urban and suburban areas. Coyotes do not tolerate foxes and often exclude them from traditional rural habitats, forcing them to live in closer proximity to humans.
Education and information access are important tools for resolving many issues Virginians have with urban wildlife. Concerned citizens who call local police or animal control are often referred to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). To resolve these wildlife-human conflicts, it's important for the public to understand real versus perceived risks, know what actions can be taken, and be aware of resources they can utilize for support. Many of the inquiries VDGIF receives about urban wildlife involve a group of animals collectively called furbearers, which are the focus of this document. This group includes fox, raccoon, coyote, bobcat, skunk, opossum, beaver, weasel, mink, nutria, and muskrat.
Seeing Furbearers on Your Property and Have Concerns?
- The mere presence of a fox, raccoon, coyote, or bobcat on your property is not necessarily a cause for alarm. These animals are not predatory toward humans and rarely pose a threat to pets.
- Foxes, raccoons, and coyotes can be seen during daylight hours, and daytime activity does not necessarily imply they are rabid, sick, or acting aggressively. Animals that are generally nocturnal can be active during the day, especially during the breeding season when they have to hunt longer to feed their young. Males looking for mates can also be more active during this period and travel longer distances.
- The months of March through July are the pup-rearing season, when foxes and coyotes raise their young. We often get phone calls this time of year with reports of "aggressive" individual animals standing their ground, growling, or hissing. This behavior indicates that a female is protecting her den and is letting you know to go away. The best thing to do is leave her alone and to notify others to keep a distance. Teach children to not approach, feed, or try to pet wildlife. Reinforce that these are wild animals and that they should remain that way. If at all possible, attempt to keep pets from chasing or harassing wildlife, as any wild animal in the act of defending itself could potentially cause harm.
- Often foxes and raccoons are unintentionally attracted to houses and properties due to unsecured trash cans, dumpsters, pet food left outside, fruit trees, and barbeque grills. These animals have keen senses of smell, and anything that smells like a potential food source could be an attractant, even across very long distances. It is the responsibility of the homeowner to assure that they are not attracting wildlife to their yard. Waste birdseed below feeders can attract squirrels and small rodents, which, in turn, can attract foxes or coyotes.
- Like humans and pets, wild animals can have a variety of naturally-occurring diseases. Sometimes the VDGIF tracks these diseases and responds, but in most cases, we do not. Many diseases are endemic (established within an area), and we know they exist, so no new information or benefit is gained by testing the animals. If you see a sick or injured animal, you can report it to the VDGIF to determine what actions may be warranted.
- Rabies is endemic to Virginia and is transmissible only between mammals. Although a very serious disease, it is important to note that modern-day treatment allows for up to 2-weeks after exposure to seek medical treatment that is 99.99% effective in preventing onset of the disease. Since 1995, there have been 43 human fatalities from rabies nationwide, almost all of which were associated with bat exposure. Only one case involved a fox and one case involved a raccoon. However, it is very important that any exposure of humans or pets to a potentially rabid animal should be immediately reported to the Virginia Department of Health. For more information please see the CDC's Rabies website and the Virginia Department of Health's Rabies website.
- It is important to note that, in Virginia, wildlife belongs to all citizens of the Commonwealth equally. It is not the property of the city, county, state government, or the VDGIF. When nuisance wildlife problems arise and removal is desired, it is up to the homeowner to seek help and fund removal of the problem animal(s).
- Local animal control agencies are authorized to handle nuisance wildlife calls, but do so at the discretion of local government. Most animal control departments only have adequate personnel to deal with domestic animal issues (i.e. dogs and cats). Please check with your local animal control office to determine its ability to assist you.
- Most wildlife nuisance technical assistance provided by the VDGIF is via telephone conversations or e-mail correspondence. When nuisance animal issues arise, we rely on liberal regulations that allow citizens in towns and cities to address problems themselves. If a person is unable to handle the situation, a network of licensed nuisance animal trappers exists within the Commonwealth and can be contacted by homeowners to assist with wildlife removal. For a list of licensed private trappers in your area, please consult the Nuisance Wildlife Trappers list. There are also numerous commercial animal trapping services throughout the Commonwealth. Please consult your phone directory to locate one.
What Happens to Trapped Wildlife?
Unfortunately, nuisance wildlife trapped by homeowners or licensed nuisance animal trappers must be euthanized and not relocated. The reasons for this are many:
- the welfare of relocated animals is often poor and survival is low;
- relocated animals usually don't stay at a release site and could become a problem for others;
- moving animals is unlawful because of the potential for disease transmission (moving mammals could add to the spread of rabies, distemper, parvovirus, and sarcoptic mange to mention a few); and
- there are already healthy populations of these species across the state and few suitable locations for release.
Simply put, you would be giving your problem to someone else. If everybody dropped off their trapped wildlife in the city parks or just outside of town there would be an unnatural concentration of animals in these areas that further increases disease risks for wildlife.
We hope this information will be useful to you. If you desire additional information or would like technical assistance from a biologist, please call your appropriate regional office.