Pittsburgh Wildlife Strategy & Urban Residents: Q&A with Scrap the Trap

In the past week, we’ve seen a groundhog in our yard, a raccoon on our back porch, and our regular opossum visitor. None of this is new. But it is early and as we are in the process of trapping, neutering/spaying & releasing feral cats, so this creates some challenges. Some of our neighbors have virtual farming homesteads and others trap any animal they see at the drop of a hat.

This is a (long) blog post that began as a simple Q&A and quickly expanded into a robust resource on wildlife issues in urban areas, focusing on Pittsburgh. I asked my neighbor and friend, Rebecca Reid of Scrap the Trap Pittsburgh, to help me communicate with readers about these important issues.

Your name: Rebecca Reid

Your pronouns: She

Your affiliation(s): Scrap the Trap Pittsburgh

We live in Manchester, an urban neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s Northside. Along with the humans, there is a variety of wildlife that also call Manchester home, everything from raccoons to possum to groundhogs. Some people say this is normal, others do not want to share their backyard with wildlife. Do you think this is normal?

Well, what is “normal”? Before being able to address this, first you have to understand Pittsburgh’s specific situation and history with wildlife, and also grasp a few of the fundamentals of wildlife biology.

First off: this is a city of parks, green spaces, woods and rivers. There are areas of Pittsburgh that feel almost rural. Therefore, wildlife are an inevitable, “normal” part of the urban landscape. There is no changing that. You cannot trap, shoot or chase all wildlife out of the local environment, you cannot build a wall to keep them out… That’s the geography part.

The history part: for many years now (no one seems to know when this started), Pittsburgh has been offering a free (to individual residents, but not to taxpayers who foot the bill through city taxes) wildlife trap pick-up service. City Animal Control loans out/picks up traps and also picks up/drops off residents’ own traps at an estimated cost of about $55 per trip. The animals trapped are then killed by AC in the case of raccoons, groundhogs and skunks, or “relocated” in the case of squirrels and opossums. For squirrels in particular, relocation usually means a slow death, since their territorial nature (highly dependent on knowledge of local food, water and shelter sources) makes them a very bad fit for an unexpected move. Studies have shown that very few “relocated” squirrels survive.

Wildlife biology: Key term “Carrying capacity”. Carrying capacity (let’s call it CC from now on) refers to the food and shelter available to an animal population within a given area. To take an extreme example, a 50 x 50 lot containing nothing but bare earth will not sustain any animal population, so its CC is basically 0. A 50 x 50 lot full of unfenced vegetable plots, overflowing trash cans, with a broken down shed offering housing space underneath, can potentially support a healthy population of several dozen animals: groundhogs, raccoons, skunks, opossums… In other words, strictly speaking, there is never an “overpopulation” of a given species. The population there is the population the environment can support through food and shelter. So you have to view “normal” from that perspective too. 

Digital Camera capture some visitors to a Manchester backyard.

Second wildlife biology fact: trapping animals doesn’t reduce numbers. Studies have repeatedly shown that wildlife populations not only bounce back very quickly from trapping, but they also tend to bounce back bigger, stronger and smarter. Why, because the temporary reduction in population means more food and bigger litters of surviving babies for the remaining animals.  Consider also the fact that diseased animals (who are not attracted to bait) are infinitely less likely to get trapped than healthy ones, so you’re not going to trap rabid animals, for example. In fact, the very opposite is true: with raccoons, you are more likely to trap the estimated 20% who are already naturally immune to rabies and the additional percentage (up to 40% according to some estimates) of raccoons who have been vaccinated against rabies as part of Allegheny County’s vaccination program. So first you lose the “buffer” they form between people and diseased animals, and second, that investment made in a successful vaccination program is being countered by trapping… And it just gets worse as social media encourages people to go the trapping route.

Now that we’ve mastered some of the technical stuff, we can look at the rest…

How do we as residents achieve a balance between urban living and the ecology around us?

Bearing in mind the “CC” notion explained above, we first need to accept that wildlife exist among us and that we as residents are responsible for how many of them there are and whether their presence generates conflict or not.

There are some wildlife who we may wish to encourage in our environment: birds, bees, butterflies… We can feed the birds in winter (it’s really not necessary in the warm months if the environment is healthy), provide bee houses, monarch butterfly stations.

For the wildlife often deemed to be a “nuisance”, remember that they’re never going to disappear, so the key lies in not attracting conflict. How do we do that? The first and key step is, we don’t feed them. It doesn’t matter how cute you think they are and whether you don’t mind them being around, your neighbor may not feel the same way. Do not feed them deliberately or accidentally (pet food out at night, open trash, unfenced vegetable gardens, free-roaming chickens or a badly-built coop…).

What value do these critters bring to our lives in the City?

Digital Camera captures Opossum in Manchester backyard

Well, some people will tell you none at all…  However, raccoons, skunks and opossums are in fact a great free source of rodent control. Opossums are nature’s own little Lyme disease weapon, eating thousands of ticks a week. And groundhogs, believe it or not, are actually good for the soil (when it’s not the soil of your vegetable plot) and do a great job of soil conditioning, aerating and naturally composting the earth around their burrows.

Some people are concerned about animals getting into trash cans/recycling, others want to keep them out of their gardens. Others still simply are afraid of wildlife. Are these the types of concerns wildlife advocates hear?

Yes, these are the main concerns and they are mostly quite easily preventable. The most problematic situations we come across are homes with multiple wildlife access points where the homeowner does not have the financial resources to correctly evict animals and repair the access point.  Trapping in situations like these is a little like trying to treat a gaping wound with a Band-aid. This is why we believe that a responsible wildlife policy would involve the City seeking funding to assist homeowners who are confronted with this type of issue. Considerable amounts of taxpayer money can be saved by no longer having to make repeated trips to the gardens of people who can afford to prevent wildlife conflict with a little effort, and we believe that money could be better used to assist those who need real structural help.

What are some options to ‘proof’ our yards and properties to reduce the attraction to these critters?

Let’s start with creating effective fences around vegetable plots. Where groundhogs are concerned, this means using a specific type of fencing around the edge of the plot (that hard plastic garden fencing, or hardware cloth) and keeping it “wobbly”. Do not use chicken wire, not ever, as a means to keep wildlife out, raccoons and groundhogs can both bite right through chicken wire. Sometimes a fence will suffice. More determined groundhogs may attempt to burrow under, in which case an L-footer or just a broad strip of buried hardware cloth (doesn’t have to be buried deep) around the edge of the plot will prevent that.  A low-voltage electric wire placed just above the ground can be helpful with the occasional super-groundhog who resists all other attempts at exclusion. Compost bins: use closed containers like the ones provided by the PA Resource Council; open compost attracts all types of wildlife. Trash: keep your trash bags inside closed trash cans all the time until pick-up day arrives. I’ve heard all the excuses about how raccoons get into garbage cans anyway. If you’re doing it right, they can’t get in and it doesn’t have to cost a lot. Trash cans where the lid slides down over the base are good and are inexpensive and easy to find, for example. Housing issues: if you have an unwanted groundhog or skunk under a porch or shed, first make sure the animal and any babies are not under there; if small babies are still with their mother, please consider leaving them there until they get bigger before evicting. Then seal up the gap with hardware cloth. The same applies to access points into a house. If you are sure there are no animals left inside, holes can be temporarily covered with hardware cloth pending permanent repair.

Can you expand on what you meant earlier by “open trash”?

Well that applies on two levels. The fact that the city wants residents to put plastic garbage bags out on the sidewalk before pick-up is the first. That in itself causes wildlife issues to varying degrees, from one neighborhood to another.  Compare to other municipalities in the US and abroad that provide residents with sturdy garbage cans on wheels (so easy to move around too) with a lockable lid. That “garbage bag” solution is a problem on the city level.

Then there’s the individual level: people who put garbage out all week in cans with no lid or directly on the ground. This is probably the number one wildlife attractant in Pittsburgh, and definitely for raccoons. A neighborhood with lots of open trash will be a neighborhood where residents are constantly calling Animal Control.

(We proposed a solution to fund providing trash/recycling bins to every City resident – Sue )

Are there organizations who can help a neighbor having a problem with wildlife? What kind of help is available?

Humane Animal Rescue Wildlife Center is developing a Humane Harassment project and they are very willing to help residents with their issues. However… please be patient. Baby season – now roughly April through October – means their staff and volunteers can be extremely busy and not always available to provide an immediate phone response. We at Scrap the Trap always like a challenge too, and we have advised residents with some pretty strange situations.

For more complex issues requiring professional help, we have started to work with a nuisance wildlife control company that wants to start using humane, no-kill methods. These methods are ultimately beneficial because they resolve the problem while keeping the original animals in the area, thus maintaining a stable, disease-free population, while not separating mothers from orphaned babies, who will otherwise die a long, slow death from dehydration and maggot infestation.

According to state law, if Animal Care & Control traps any animal on my property (or lends me a trap to do it), they MUST euthanize it, correct? There’s not a farm somewhere where they take the raccoons and groundhogs. They take them to be euthanized. How many animals does the City of Pittsburgh kill each year?

That is correct for “RVS” (rabies vector species): in the case of City AC, these are raccoons, groundhogs and skunks, all of whom are systematically euthanized. Opossums and squirrels are relocated, but this is ultimately likely to be a death sentence too, especially for squirrels, as explained earlier. In previous years, the City has killed around 2,500-3,000 animals a year. We have been told that those numbers have gone up due to increased demand through social media buzz, but the response to our latest request for Right-to-Know documentation was extremely incomplete and did not include those figures, which a Scrap the Trap member had requested.

We have a groundhog burrow in our yard and a different groundhog each year. A previous neighbor would trap and release it privately because we feared it getting into a fight with our dogs. The neighbor moved. And I know that as long as the burrow is there, some groundhog will occupy it. Am I right to be worried about my little dog? The groundhog mostly hangs out in our tree, sometimes the yard and dashes around.

No one is going to tell you that no groundhog (or other animal) will ever hurt your dog, especially when baby wildlife are around and momma groundhog/raccoon/skunk may suddenly take herself for Momma Bear if her offspring are threatened… What we can tell you is that most groundhogs won’t attack a small dog. Where small dogs are concerned, large hawks – there have been several cases recently – and coyotes are a much bigger concern, and even in the City of Pittsburgh, you can’t be sure that a coyote population doesn’t exist, just because you don’t see them. In other words, you could evict a series of groundhogs and still not have any assurance that a small dog is safe being left to itself outside. Our recommendation is that small dogs only be let outside when monitored. Your other ultimate option is to evict your groundhog by making the burrow unappealing. Generally, co-existence with an animal who has not created any problems is preferable, however.

If I see an animal acting oddly, does that mean rabies? What are some other possible explanations? How would I figure out if the animal is rabid versus something else going on? Will Animal Control help me do that?

Each species acts differently and each disease is different.

Let’s start with the most obvious urban myth: “a raccoon outside in daylight has rabies.” Not true, and especially not true in breeding season when nursing mothers can be out and about all day looking for food. If the animal is behaving “normally” (sniffing around, exploring, walking the way it usually would…), there is probably no reason for concern.

Another false flag: a drooling opossum swaying and showing all his many teeth being interpreted as rabid. That’s an opossum’s way of trying to intimidate you away from his comfort zone. Because of their low body temperature, it is virtually impossible for an opossum to contract rabies. In fact, the last time an opossum tested positive for rabies in Pennsylvania was in the 1980s and that was an unusual little “cluster” of cases.

What you should be disturbed about: an animal staggering, looking drunk, dragging its hind legs, “gloopy” eyes, unusually unafraid and/or aggressive… Very occasionally, “drunk” behavior can be just that, due to eating fermented fruit in the Fall. But in cases like these, it’s better to play safe and call for assistance, unless you actually observed the animal consuming fermented fruit on the ground. Note that it can be almost impossible to distinguish rabies symptoms from distemper without testing.

If we reduced the number of calls to Animal Control about wildlife eating our gardens and sitting in our yard looking ‘odd’ – what other types of activities could they focus on that would serve the public and the taypayers?

We would love to see AC spending more time educating the public of all ages on wildlife and domestic animal best practices, and dealing with true emergencies. By freeing up the estimated 75% of their time spent on wildlife trap pick-ups right now, they would be able to spend more time on important issues like dog bite prevention, better ordinance enforcement (dogs running loose, dogs without adequate shelter, vaccines, licenses, etc.). Dog bite statistics in Allegheny County were the lowest on record during a period in 2015 where a previous AC Supervisor had significantly cut back on wildlife trapping. Interestingly, the same applied to reported wildlife bites during that period; a lot of wildlife bites occur when handling a trap with an animal inside it. Unattended traps with an animal inside can attract curious children, among others.

Last year, I heard my neighbors chasing a raccoon around our block. I called you. You came to assess the situation, asked us to try to keep it contained in the stairwell where it was hiding and ran home to get your car. You came back and used a net to catch the critter, put him in a cat carrier, and took him to the Wildlife Center the next day. Eventually, he was released (not in Manchester.) What went right in this situation? What do people do who don’t have a neighbor involved in wildlife rescue that they can call? 

The little guy safely trapped and on his way to a rescue.

It’s hard to say in this situation precisely because we suspect the animal had been hit on the head by someone, so this situation was not normal for that reason.  We know it was not suffering from any disease, since it eventually recovered and was released with other juvenile raccoons. We don’t know what prompted the neighbor to chase the raccoon in the first place. It was a youngster, so there’s a good chance that it had lost its family and was “wandering aimlessly” for that reason. Ideally, there would be a phone hotline for these situations, so people can describe what they’re seeing and try and determine whether something is “normal” or not. Pending that (don’t hold your breath just yet), common sense and clear heads should prevail. If the animal is showing the signs of illness listed in the previous question, then it would be advisable to call for help, especially if the animal is acting aggressive without provocation – that is an emergency. If it is merely making its way through the area or “out in the daytime,” with no signs of illness, there is generally no cause for concern.

Raccoon at wildlife center

And what could we have done better?

It’s hard to say again for that case, because if the raccoon was a lost youngster, he might have needed help anyway. What he definitely didn’t need was a thump on the head…

These animals have always been here, long before highways and houses and cars and any human resident. They seem willing to adapt to sharing the space. Why are humans so adverse to sharing our spaces?

That’s a good question and one we’re working to resolve. In our experience with Scrap the Trap, when people don’t want wildlife around, it’s mostly due to often irrational fears of “disease” or being “attacked”. Once you explain that wildlife are normal, bona fide “members” of a community, and that your existing healthy population are good to have around because they serve as a barrier between you and diseased animals, not to mention providing free rodent control, they often come around. They may not love raccoons, but they may accept them better…

It gets more complicated when people are dealing with specific and unacceptable issues due to the behavior of other residents. Top of the list here comes those people leaving open trash outside on their own property or on public land, and not just on pick-up day. This can lead to raccoons gathering there, for instance, even large numbers of raccoons, which is obviously intimidating if you have to walk past those raccoons to get home at night. So what is the smart solution here? A/ Clean up the trash problem or B/ Trap the raccoons? Clue: one will permanently resolve the issue, the other is just a temporary fix. The same applies to abandoned houses that aren’t boarded up and attract colonies of animals. When this is combined with abundant trash as a food source, it can be a recipe for disaster that needs to be addressed by something other than just doling out a few traps.

Please list organizations that can support urban residents confronted with wildlife challenges.

Humane Animal Rescue Wildlife Center:

Scrap the Trap Pittsburgh  (And find them on social media, too)

HSUS Wild Neighbors website

How do we support these organizations in turn?

Donate and donate locally! The HAR Wildlife Center takes in an ever-increasing number of animals every year, with a small staff largely dependent on volunteer help. Donations of money and supplies are absolutely vital. And help spread the word about smart co-existence with wildlife too. If this topic really interests you, consider becoming a sort of wildlife ambassador for your neighborhood. Learn the facts and help encourage a more sustainable attitude towards wildlife in the City. Everyone benefits in the end…

What would you like to see the City do to help residents with wildlife issues?

First off, phase out all non-emergency trapping over time, with a period of proactive education by the City and its “wildlife partners” (Wildlife Center, Game Commission, etc.). By emergency we mean an animal in a living area of the home or a sick or injured animal. Trapping isn’t a sustainable or safe solution in non-emergencies, and is often compared to trying to empty a lake with a teacup. Second, we would like to see some creative thinking go into helping residents who require particular assistance in relation to wildlife. Top of the list here: people on low incomes who are trying to grow healthy food. Provide assistance with building the right type of fencing to keep groundhogs out, for example. Then there are residents with issues relating to housing with wildlife entering through access points in the structure: house repairs are expensive, we all know that… not everyone has the means to just “get it fixed”. We’d like to see the city seeking grants, allocating some of the funds previously spent on trapping, working with urban ag and housing advocacy groups to provide lasting solutions for residents. Communities can also play a role here in wildlife-problem-solving sustainably among neighbors.

What about the person who just doesn’t care about wildlife and has no qualms about trapping them, or about the fate of orphaned offspring, etc.? 

It’s not just litter. This is how some people store their trash week to week. Photo image DignityOakland.

Having a sensible wildlife strategy isn’t just an animal welfare issue. In fact, more than anything, it’s a people and community issue that relates to everything, from safety issues to fiscal responsibility. Constant trapping creates a costly “cycle” of animals coming into a given area, with animals being pulled out and new ones quickly replacing them to take advantage of the food and shelter sources freed up. This inevitably increases the disease risk and the likelihood of a sick animal eventually entering that area. Pittsburgh does have a large population of certain animals at the moment, and that is due to an alarming “CC” rate (open trash out all week, the spike in unfenced vegetable gardens, unboarded abandoned houses), and a long history of city-sponsored trapping on an unfettered scale that has exacerbated the situation in every way. It’s time to stop, think, engage with community partners, and turn the situation around. Ultimately, fix the attractants and you will fix the issue, because that’s how the biology works. That will be beneficial to everyone, regardless of what they think of wildlife.

Thank you, Rebecca.

So if you want some help managing wildlife, there are local resources. The data (and science) show that trapping (or just killing) critters does not work as a policy to reduce the population of critters in your yard or neighborhood. A smart planning strategy and some creative deterrants can resolve your actual problem. So save the link for Scrap the Trap and be sure to follow them on social media so you can reach out if a problem arises. Or ask them ahead of time if you anticipate a problem – perhaps if you are prepping your garden now, you can get in touch to determine the best fencing to dig into the ground when it softens. Or sign up for a PA Resources Council composting class to get the best composter.

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