Have you ever felt like your farm was more like Noah's ark? At least two of everything seems to be burrowing into your lawn, nesting in your barn's rafters, tearing open feed bags or making creepy sounds at night. Outdoors people like us horse owners sort of expect (and enjoy) encounters with nature... but sometimes it gets a little ridiculous. And usually, we human are to blame.
The picture to the right is the smaller of my neighbor's two resident possums. The larger one doesn't bother with measly bird seed scraps; it goes into the barn and chews up the catfood dishes. Early this spring, I surprised that one while pet-sitting. Did the possum run away? Hell no. He (or she) made a growling squeaky noise that clearly meant "fuck you," and proceeded to investigate the cat dishes despite my presence. Only when I walked quickly towards it did the damn thing turn tail and walk, not run, towards an exit. Yes, the barn cats were there too; either they're in cahoots with the criminal, or have the good sense to avoid getting beaten up. Possums, however, are only half of my neighbor's worries.
When a raccoon eats the fish in your outside pond or tank, I call that natural. You have just provided a free buffet, and should expect that sort of thing. But when that 'coon saunters into the barn and uses the cats' heated water dish to wash its sushi and its paws, I call that fucking bold.
This too happened while I was pet sitting, and I called my neighbor to explain what happened, with both species of miscreants. To my surprise, my supposedly macho friend did not want me to even set a single live trap for fear of harming the thieves. "If they're not really bothering the place..."
Well shit! What's your definition of "bothering the place" then? Is it when the possums start using the guest towels in your bathroom?! Is it when the raccoons ran out of cat food and eat the cats?! That does happen, by the way-- go here if you're prepared to see gore. Anyway, no wonder these critters are so bold-- my neighbor does nothing to discourage them!
Look, I'm an animal lover, I really am, but there's got to be a line in the sand. Allowing wild animals in your barn and feeding them isn't good for anyone.
Why it isn't good for horses: Yes, it's wonderful to see deer, rabbits, woodchucks and in your front yard, chowing down on the corn you've provided them. Very Snow White. But it won't be so adorable to see a cougar or a wolf pack chowing down on the prey-animal buffet you've inadvertently provided them. That prey can include your horses, dogs, cats and kids too! Admittedly, predator attacks are fairly rare. But why would you want to make them more likely be attracting them? Aside from being eaten, horses are susceptible to many of the diseases carried by wildlife. Even if you vaccinate for rabies and everything else, there's no prevention for EPM, worms, leptospirosis, anthrax, brucellosis, vesicular stomatitis... the list goes on and on.
Why it isn't good for wildlife: When critters start to associate humans with food, they associate all humans with all food. Pretty soon, they start to break into chicken coops and eat the hens, nest in attics, enter cat doors to steal pet food and destroy gardens. And while you may be content with letting them off easy, your neighbor may trap them, poison them or run them down with dogs. I once knew of a guy who trapped an overly-friendly raccoon and tried to kill it with a pellet gun. The poor thing took three days to die. In addition, a source of human food can allow animals to have larger families that nature wouldn't normally support. This is all fine and dandy... until you move or go on vacation or have to cut your budget and can't feed the growing hoard. Finally, wild animals shouldn't be eating the kind of food you and I have to offer. It can lead to terrible health problems.
Why it isn't good for humans: I mentioned wildlife diseases before. Chances are, you probably shrugged that off. Don't. There is some bizarre shit infecting the animal world that affects humans too. Raccoons alone are awful: they can carry stuff straight out of sci-fi movies. For example, parasitic nematodes that eat human brains live in about 50% of Minnesota raccoons, and as many as 75% of 'coons in some other parts of the country. Raccoon roundworms, while rare, can cause nerve damage, seizures, brain damage and death in humans. How do these things get into the human body? Mostly through raccoon poo, in water or dirt. That's right, just having one take a shit in your garden is bad news. Plus there's the "normal" scary crap like rabies to worry about. Just this week, a well-meaning Rhode Island family found and took in a sick baby raccoon...and thirteen people ended up having to be treated for rabies. For God's sake people, don't handle wild animals!
What To Do Instead
The best plan of action is to prevent critters from invading before it becomes necessary to shoot 'em.
- Clean up any remaining outdoor pet food and dishes at the end of the day.
- Patch up holes in your barn and sheds.
- Fence your garden and your chickens, and make sure the fence extends a few inches underground.
- Don't leave old hay bales, rags and boxes laying around for critters to nest in.
- Use locking lids on garbage cans, feed bins and compost piles.
- For God's sake, do not feed critters stale bread and old marshmallows, like another one of my neighbors did. *sigh*
- Become a wildlife rehabilitator with the proper training to take in critters.
- Buy a healthy, de-scented skunk or ferret or a domesticated fox from a responsible breeder. (Not legal in all states.)
- Go to the zoo, dress up your cat, watch National Geographic, volunteer at a sanctuary.
- Most of the time, they aren't "abandoned." Deer, rabbits and other critters leave babies for long periods. Young birds frequently fall out of the nest learning to fly, and are fed by their parents on the ground. Leave them alone; if they're still in the exact same spot 24 hours later, then you can worry.
- Contact your local wildlife rehab center- your local humane society will know their number.
Links and Pics
More about raccoons and how to prevent them from invading here.
This adorable video is all about the pitfalls (and pleasures) of owning a pet skunk.
Dead Possum Hand Soap is quite possibly the weirdest soap advertisement I've ever seen.
Here's a list of diseases that affect both horses and humans.