Raccoons can be both adorable woodland creatures and irascible home and garden pests. Killing raccoons outright is almost never the best option, but with diligent effort raccoons usually can be kept under control. And any discussion of how to get rid of raccoons has to begin with the reasons killing them is not a good idea.
The parts of North America where raccoons are most abundant have a long tradition of “coon hunting,” going out into the woods at night with lights and specially trained “coon dogs” to kill as many raccoons as possible by the shooting them. Skilled hunters often come home with their bag limit, which is typically 5 raccoons in a 24-hour period. In a few rural locations in the southeastern United States, a majority of adult males and a few women and girls hunt raccoons, but the raccoon population seems to just keep multiplying. How can this be?
Raccoons range over more territory than any homeowner could ever manage as home and garden. A city raccoon may forage as far as a mile (1600 meters) from its den in every direction. Raccoons in the northern Midwest and the prairie provinces of Canada may range as far as 10 miles (16 km) in every direction, and wildlife biologists have tracked raccoon movements in excess of 250 miles (400 km) from a starting point in search of food. Raccoons that are killed are always replaced by more.
Killing raccoons may cause unintentional harm. Shooting inside city limits is almost never legal. Raccoons are only active at night so they have to be hunted at night. Hunters are most likely to be injured or killed in night-time accidents. More than one hunter has shot himself in the foot while aiming at a raccoon, and stray shots can break water pipes, ricochet into nearby windows, and scare the neighbors.
Blunt force can kill raccoons, but it is usually also unlawful. A Toronto man was brought to charges of cruelty to an animal and possession of a deadly weapon for bludgeoning baby raccoons with a shovel in sight of neighbors after the animals invaded his garden.
Snap traps to kill raccoons may be lawful with a hunting license. Any trap large enough to kill a raccoon instantly is also large enough to kill a dog or cat instantly and may cause serious injury to human feet and legs. Raccoon “cuffs” stake to the ground are an efficient method of trapping a raccoon, but if the trap does not result in the raccoon’s death by starvation, thirst, or predation, you will have to dispatch it to its eternal reward. All cuff traps maim. In Canada, you may be required to take the trapped to raccoon to a veterinarian to have it euthanized, and few veterinarians will allow woodland animals that usually carry roundworms in the same building with family pets.
Cyanide is an ineffective way to kill raccoons but a highly effective way to kill dogs. A cyanide gun is buried into the ground and its muzzle covered by rotting meat. When a passing animal stops to eat the meat, it is shot in the mouth with a cyanide pellet. The flaw in this plan is that raccoons are omnivores that eat fresh foods, while coyotes and dogs are attracted to decaying meat odors. No one has ever been able to keep raccoons under control with poison. So if killing raccoons is not the way to get rid of raccoons, what is?
Keeping raccoons in their natural habitat almost always requires a combination of methods. The first step in any raccoon control plan is exclusion.
There is a much worse outcome that having a mother raccoon and her litter of young living in your house for easy food and shelter. Probably the most destructive raccoon invasion involves having all the raccoons in your neighborhood using your attic for a latrine.
Raccoons can climb drain pipes and chimneys. They can leap up to 5 feet (150 cm) from tree branches to your roof, and they can claw through shingles and fascia boards. Making sure that raccoons cannot enter your house, especially the attic of your house, is the highest priority in keeping raccoons under control. Once a raccoon has settled inside your home, it is almost impossible to get rid of it (and its young) without killing the animal. When the raccoon becomes commensal, that is, depending on you for food, however, most jurisdictions permit its killing by any means that does not cause injury to you or damage to your neighbor’s property. The raccoon in the attic may be the only situation that homeowners should use large snap traps—but only if they can set them without injuring themselves.
It is also important to keep raccoons away from the crawlspaces underneath pier and beam foundations, decks, or porches. A polyethylene or wire mesh with openings no more that 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch (12 to 18 mm) wide (tighter than chicken wire) strung from the top of any openings and dug at least 6 inches (15 cm) into the ground will keep raccoons out from under the house.
Raccoons are the scavengers and recyclers of the animal world. Raccoons love to find good food in the garbage. The head you lop off a fish, the cold pizza you decide to throw out, and even the half-finished bottle of wine or Diet Coke you toss into the rubbish bin may present a raccoon with a treat. The single most important thing anyone can do to keep raccoons off the property is to make sure that trash cans are securely shut at night. It is best either to use a large, Rubber Maid plastic garbage container on wheels, or to use metal trash cans with latched lids that you keep on a rack off the ground.
Raccoons can invite themselves to feed on pet food. It’s not unusual to see a raccoon and a cat feeding from the same bowl at the same time. If you have outdoor pets, you need to take their food and water indoors at night, taking it back outside the next morning. If hauling food back and forth is a bother, invest in a pet feeding station such as the Pet Goods Dynasty Double Diner Raised Feeding Station with 3 Quart Bowls. Simply pour uneaten pet food back into the closed drawer and put it back out the next day.
Raccoons often feed on fruit and tomatoes at their height of ripeness. If raccoons are just a short-term problem in your garden at harvest time, frighten them away by putting out bloodmeal, bonemeal, or fox urine crystals. Make sure you don’t leave fallen fruit or nuts on the ground to provide an easy meal to passing raccoons. Protect your prized sweet corn patch with a low-hanging electric fence, taking care to use a solar charger or a battery on a step-down transformer, never connecting the electric fence to household current. Hanging two electrified wires, one about 6 inches (15 cm) off the ground at one about a foot (30 cm) off the ground will keep raccoons away from prized fruit and vegetables with painful but harmless electric shock. Do not forget to post any warning signs that your local government may require.
American and Canadian authorities tend to have very different views of Raccoon control, trapping and relocating raccoons. Some American cities, such as Washington, D.C., require that raccoons should be trapped and relocated at least 25 miles (40 km) away. Some Canadian cities, such as Toronto, prohibit making your raccoon someone else’s problem. In most of the United States, however, there is still enough woodland that it is possible to trap and release a raccoon without transferring your pest problems to your neighbors.
The best traps for catching raccoons and keeping them healthy and alive are the 1-door Havahart traps. These enclosures are made of steel mesh that a raccoon cannot claw through. They lure the raccoon inside with bait on a bait pan, the door snapping shut behind the raccoon as soon as the bait is sampled. The traps may also be used to relocating recalcitrant house cats that do not want to make a move with the family and many other small animals.
The secret to trapping raccoons rather than other animals is the choice of bait. Raccoons tend to have the same bad dietary habits as humans. They have a sweet tooth for marshmallows, honey coated peanuts and honey coated vegetables, and pastries. Baiting the trap with a sweet food that does not appeal to pets or hard-to-handle animals such as porcupines is the best way to make sure you do not have complicating issues when you have to transport and then release the animal.
It takes considerable effort to maintain a peaceful coexistence with raccoons just off site. Humane treatment of these popular woodland animals is always the best way to keep them in control.