Being a homeowner was supposed to be about taking the mortgage interest tax deduction and painting my kitchen carrot-orange. It wasn't supposed to be about trapping live animals in my backyard. But now, I've done the deduction, painting and trapping, too.
It all started with the unofficial litter box, which I later learned is called a latrine. Day after day, when I went out into my backyard, I found a wet stinking mess of animal droppings in a gravel-covered area planted with cacti. One or more animals, species unknown, had claimed the area as a communal toilet.
The problem had to be dealt with
At first, I hoped the animals would go way, but after a week, I realized the problem was serious and had to be dealt with unless I wanted to spend 30 minutes every morning cleaning up animal waste.
Online research suggested the animals could be raccoons or opossums, neither of which I'd known to be residents of urban Los Angeles. Raccoons were territorial and wouldn't be scared off by lights, noises or wolf urine sprayed from a bottle. Worse yet, the droppings I'd been cleaning up could cause disease.
The Los Angeles Animal Services department told me that if I wanted to trap a cat, I had to have a city permit. Since I didn't know what type of animal I was dealing with, I didn't know whether I needed a permit. This conundrum was not satisfactorily resolved.
Read: Help! I have critters in my home!
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife told me raccoons weren't threatened or endangered and that it was legal to trap them if the trapper had a state license and followed state regulations.
Neither the city nor state would remove the animals, so no help there.
In desperation, I did more research and found out that I could hire an animal trapping service. I'd never heard of such companies and knew of no one who'd used one. Before I called, I prepared a list of questions:
- What are my options to get rid of these animals?
- Where is your company located?
- Would you come out yourself or send an employee or subcontractor?
- How long have you, or the person who would come out, been trapping animals in this area?
- What's your background for this type of work?
- Do you have a state license?
- How much notice do you need to come out? Same-day? Next day? A week?
- What does the service include? What should I expect?
- How much will it cost?
Finding a trapper was difficult
The first person I spoke with seemed competent, but wasn't state-licensed.
The second person told me the company's trappers were licensed and removal of the animals would cost $160 to set up two traps, plus $80 to remove each animal caught. The traps would stay two weeks. There was no guarantee, but they usually caught something. This person was so pushy I had to assume he was being paid a bonus for every appointment he made.
The third service I called was out of business.
The fourth and fifth after that didn't return my messages.
I returned to the Internet and, using the Beverly Hills ZIP code instead of my Los Angeles ZIP code, I found another website that was simple, professional and didn't have any hot-shot photographs of trappers with caged animals.
The owner returned my call personally. The company was licensed, but smaller and its fees were potentially higher:
- $110 to set up two traps
- $95 per animal
The animals were likely raccoons, attracted to my fig tree, said the owner. A skunk I would have smelled. Cats wouldn't have left the size, consistency or quantity of droppings I described. Trapped animals would be picked up within 24 hours, seven days a week. There was no sales pressure. In fact, the owner even admitted that trapped raccoons might chirp or chatter and that this could be disturbing.
The next day, I hired the company. The trapper came out to my house and set up two metal cages, baited with cat food. The animal goes in to get the food, the door shuts. The animal isn't physically injured, but it cannot get out.
I am distressed and terrified at having these traps in my backyard. But I see no other way to put a stop to the latrine.
The waiting begins…
Part 2: The dark side of homeownership
Five hours after the two traps were set and baited with cat food, I discovered a frantic squirrel trying to escape from one of them. I decided to have the squirrel picked up and pay another $95 for the next animal because if I let the squirrel loose it could have repeatedly tripped the trap.
The trapper suggested I throw a towel over the cage to calm the squirrel. I was terrified, but I did it and it worked.
The next morning, the trapper picked up the squirrel, and I cleaned up another wet, stinking pile of animal waste, which had attracted a number of flies.
The next morning, I found no animals or waste, just the two empty cages. It would be crazy, weird and upsetting if I spent $210 and caught nothing but a squirrel. It was the worst sort of waiting for something I wanted and dreaded.
Two small raccoons
The next morning, I awoke to a low cooing sound coming from the backyard. I shined out a flashlight, but there's no clear sight line and I was too terrified to explore further. The cooing was distressing. I reminded myself that a capture was the goal, but it was awful.
An hour later, it's light enough to look. There was a small raccoon in each cage. I'm totally traumatized. I grab the towel, take a few steps toward the cooing 'coon and see a third raccoon, much larger, near the hedge. It has to be the mother. I'm heartsick.
I called the trapper then went to the mall, a place I normally avoid, but the only spot I could think of that would let me plug in my laptop. The irony was inescapable: I had wildlife trapped in my backyard and I'd fled to the most sterile unnatural environment on the planet. I felt sick, like I'd been to a funeral.
And then another
When I returned home, I stepped outside to see whether there were any droppings. I found anther caged raccoon. I had to sleep that night with the trapped animal outside. It didn't coo, but I knew it was there and I slept badly.
The next morning, the raccoon was trying desperately to get out. I hoped it would be the last capture. So far, I'd spent $490 to remove four animals.
After the trapper left, I ventured out to inspect for animal waste. The stench of droppings, cat food and scared animals was so foul that I went back into the house and threw up.
This is truly the dark side of homeownership.
The fourth raccoon
Two days later, I found another pile of droppings and another caged raccoon, a big one. It's crazy how something so horrible can come to seem routine, though I'm no less sickened by the experience.
The next day, no raccoon.
A few days later, one of the traps had been raided. No capture, no droppings, but the cat food was gone. The trapper told me the culprit could be a rat or mice. A BIG yuck.
The fifth raccoon
A few more days passed, then I found another trapped raccoon. It was very unhappy, pressing repeatedly on the spring mechanism and butting its head and back against the trap. Panic set in: was I going to have to trap every raccoon in the city?
A week later, the cages are empty, but there are raccoon droppings in the latrine. My imagination runs wild.
Another week and still no capture. After a conversation with the trapper, I re-baited one of the traps with peanut butter spread on a paper plate.
In the morning, the trap had been sprung, but there was no capture. Raccoon? Squirrel? Rat? I didn't know. I re-baited the trap with a fresh scoop of peanut butter and an apple core and peelings. If there's another raccoon, I want to catch it now.
Two days later, I find a trapped opossum, a small one.
The trapper picked up the opossum and cages, and I cleaned up the last of the odiferous droppings. The ordeal was over, but I, weeks later, still suspect the backyard will never feel clean and I'll never walk out there without seeing those caged animals and worrying about when the next pile of animal waste will appear.
Truly the dark side of homeownership.
Marcie Geffner is an award-winning freelance reporter, writer, editor and blogger whose work has been published by MSNBC, CNBC, Yahoo! Finance, Fox Business, Bankrate.com, AOL Real Estate, ThirdAge.com, Fidelity.com, Inman News and dozens of major U.S. newspapers. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from UCLA and MBA from Pepperdine University. You can follow Marcie on Twitter: @marciegeff.