Family

The ‘Unbearable’ Neighbors You Don’t Want

Keeping our families safe from the wildlife that lives around us

Black bears have been spotted in New Jersey towns. Foxes are frolicking in Kansas City and Washington, D.C. And coyotes have caught the attention of busy New Yorkers heading to and from work.

It’s we humans who have encroached on the animals’ territory — so while it’s fair that we learn to coexist, we also need to stay safe.

It’s not unusual that a family of foxes takes up residence under the porch of a private home in Kansas City. Foxes live in North America and tend to flee from us rather than face an encounter. If you see a fox on your property and have small children or pets, keep your loved ones inside.

The same goes for skunks, snakes, raccoons and other mostly harmless animals. In most cases, wild animals want no part of us. However, if a small child or pet gets too close, the wild animal may defend itself.

Recently, in my small New Jersey town about 20 miles outside of New York City, I spotted a well-fed raccoon a few feet from my house. As I was getting out of my car, he looked up at me and went about his business. I just admired him from afar.

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And last spring, my husband and I found a skunk walking on the path to my front door. His fur glistened as if someone had just brushed him. I let out an, “Oh, he’s so beautiful,” as my husband firmly took my hand and said, “It’s not a cat.”

We stopped in our tracks to let him pass, which is exactly what David Mizejekwski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, said was the right thing to do.

“Skunks want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them,” he said. “They’ll give you ample warning before they’re about to spray.”

If you see a skunk stomping its feet, hissing, snarling or standing up on hind legs, slowly move away.

“It’s rare that people get sprayed,” he said. “Dogs, however, are the most common recipients of skunk spray. They see something moving and want to chase it.”

In addition to the raccoon and skunk, I’ve spotted deer, opossum and even two bats around our house.

We’re building homes closer to their habitats, so we need to animal-proof our properties. Critters like to burrow. Mizejewski suggests clearing piles of old tree branches and leaves away from your house.

“Don’t build a brush pile right up against your house,” he said. “Make sure there are no entry points into any crawl spaces, including basements and decks. Keep your lawn mowed because some animals can hide in tall grassy areas.”

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Encountering larger, more dangerous animals such as coyotes, bears or mountain lions is frightening. Coyotes, which reside in every state except Hawaii, flee from loud sounds. They rarely attack humans, but have been known to eat cats and small dogs. Keep your cats indoors, and if you walk your dog in an area known to be frequented by coyotes, bring a noisemaker with you.

The Humane Society of the United States suggests carrying squirt guns, pepper spray and small air horns.

In your backyard, keep all garbage cans tightly closed and — if you know there have been coyote sightings in your neighborhood — never leave food outside to feed other animals. It will attract hungry coyotes, mountain lions and other animals.

Also called cougars, pumas, panthers and catamounts, mountain lions have suffered greatly from habitat loss. Knowing how many exist is tricky since these big cats are elusive, yet a number of them have been spotted in the western states and in Florida.

Reports of attacks are rare. “Mountain lions tend to avoid people,” said Raymond Skiles, a Texas wildlife biologist. “If you see one on your property, give it a chance to leave by backing up slowly. Never run away; that can trigger an attack from behind.”

Skiles says bear attacks are more common than encounters with mountain lions. However, those are rare, too. Most bear sightings occur on campgrounds, close to where bears live. With the loss of habitat, bear sightings are not unusual. If a bear wanders onto your property, make a lot of noise and slowly back away.

Never try to lure a bear — or any animal — away with food. Make sure barbecue grills are cleaned and keep bird feeders away from your house. The seeds attract a wide range of wildlife.

Trapping and relocating animals is dangerous to us and usually ends badly because the new location may not have the animal’s food, water and shelter needs.

“Someone else may already be living there who won’t want to share food and shelter,” Mizejewski said.

If you run into a wild animal in your residential area, call animal control or your local fish and wildlife service. If you don’t have either, call 911.

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