Trapping nuisance wildlife

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Photo by Kyla West
Two beavers being relocated in live-trap

Trapping is a viable option if you cannot resolve a conflict with an animal by other means, such as removing the attractant, installing a barrier, or applying a scare tactic. It should, however, be considered the last option, because trapping it presents many problems for both the animals and the trapper. Also, it rarely is a permanent solution if other animals are in the area, and food and/or shelter remain available to them.

An animal that is simply passing through the yard or living in a tree in the backyard should not be trapped. There is no guarantee that the next animal to move in won't be a problem. Living near animals is like having new neighbors—you never know what the situation will be until after the new family has already moved in.

Appropriate times to trap an animal in or around a home or property include emergency situations, the removal of a targeted problem animal, or when trapping is the only practical solution.

Trapping activity by an individual in a nuisance wildlife situation must comply, where applicable, with the requirements under WAC 220-417-030 and adhere to RCW 77.36.030 & 77.15.190.

Basic trap designs

Modern traps fall into two main categories: quick-kill type traps and live-holding traps. Kill-type traps are designed to quickly kill the captured animal, much like a common snap-trap used on house mice. Live-holding traps can be separated into cage traps, foothold traps, and snares.

Cage trap
Photo by Jennifer Rees
The homeowner who is dealing with a human/wildlife conflict often uses a cage trap, also referred to as a live trap. The common cage trap used to capture mammals works when an animal steps on the treadle, or pan, located inside the trap. When the treadle is tripped, it causes the closing of a door, or doors, at the end(s) of the trap.

The information on this page deals only with the use of cage traps used to capture mammals. These are the traps most often used by people dealing with human/wildlife conflicts in yards, gardens, and houses. They come in a variety of designs; their sizes range from those that capture mice to those that capture large dogs. To avoid injuring people or trapping pets and other non-targeted animals in urban or suburban settings, cage traps often are the only traps permitted for use in these areas.

Except mice and rat snap-traps, quick-kill traps and other live holding traps should be left to professionals and individuals who meet state requirements and are authorized to use these traps under permit.

Cage-trapping wildlife

Two questions to ask yourself before attempting to trap an animal are: (1) Can I do this legally (comply with state laws regarding trapping and transporting wildlife? and (2) Can I do this humanely? If the answer to either of these is no, consider hiring a professional who is better able to meet these ends.

When used properly, cage traps can offer non-lethal solutions to conflicts. However, despite the perception that live capture in cage traps is humane, animals often experience stress and physical damage during capture. Captured animals may also suffer from exposure to extreme weather and lack of water. Such injuries, trauma, and disorientation can lead to the death of an animal days after it has been released.

For these reasons, it is important that all precautions described throughout this handout are carefully followed.

Cage traps can be purchased from hardware stores, farm supply centers, and over the Internet (search for "Live Traps" and "Cage Traps"). Some rental business and wildlife damage control companies rent them. Before using a trap, be sure it is clean, to prevent the animal coming in contact with or spreading potentially dangerous organisms. A dirty trap should be washed, disinfected with a bleach solution (1 part bleach to 9 parts of water and let it remain on for 20 minutes), and thoroughly rinsed. To protect yourself, always wear gloves when handling the trap.

When not to trap

Never trap an adult animal that is caring for dependent offspring. Look and listen for young—even outside the animal's known birthing season.

When an adult animal is trapped, look for enlarged teats that are relatively free of hair, which indicate it is a female nursing young. (By standing the trap up on end you can usually observe the underneath side of the animal.) In such a case, release the female on site so she can tend to her young.

Permanently separating the nursing female from her young would likely cause the offspring to starve to death. Orphaned wildlife must be cared for by licensed professionals. Do not attempt to care for the animals yourself. Not only could you further harm the animals, it is illegal for you to do so. Contact your WDFW Regional Office for a current list of wildlife rehabilitators.

Never trap an animal during poor weather with the intention of releasing it. Trapped animals expend energy that is normally used to cope with winter conditions and they may die soon after.

What to do with a trapped animal

Before trapping an animal, you need to know what you are going to do with it after the animal has been captured. There are a variety of options:

Option 1: Release the animal at the site of capture

With this option, an animal is trapped and released on site after its reentry into a structure is prevented by physical exclusion. (See Evicting Animals from Buildings for exclusion techniques.)

In such a case, the animal is evicted within its home range and because it is familiar with its surroundings, it can soon find suitable food and shelter. In the event young are present but were not noticed prior to trapping, allow the female back inside to tend to her dependent offspring.

A downside to this approach is the possibility that the animal may simply enter someone else's attic, chimney, or similar place. Then, if someone else has to trap the animal, they will be dealing with a trap-smart animal, making its capture difficult.

Option 2: Release the animal outside of its home range

The release of elk, bear, and other wildlife by professional wildlife managers to reintroduce or augment populations is a proven and valid technique for wildlife management. However, releases of this kind should not be confused with moving problem wildlife, which may be illegal. In the State of Washington, it is unlawful to possess or transport live wildlife or wild birds (except starlings and house sparrows by falconers) without a permit (WAC 220-450-030). This includes Eastern gray squirrels, Eastern cottontail rabbits, raccoons, and opossums. They are considered wildlife because they occur in Washington in a wild state—which includes neighborhood parks and backyards.

Many times, not enough consideration is given to the impact of the capture and release process on the animal, or to the animal's impact on the established wildlife populations at the release site. While wildlife released in a new location is an option often preferred by well-meaning people opposed to killing animals, it is not only prohibited without a permit, but also may be at the expense of the released animal or the animals at the release site.

Biologists do not recommend releasing wildlife outside their home range for the following reasons:

  • Mortality rates increase when animals are subjected to stress and trauma associated with capture, handling, transport, and being released into an unfamiliar territory.
  • Animals that are released may harm or be harmed by resident animals (e.g., by territorial disputes, disease transmission, gene-pool disruptions, etc.).
  • The same (or a competing) species may already be overabundant in the area. Excess animals have to move or die.
  • Habitat conditions in the new area might not be suited to the animal being released.
  • Many animal species have strong homing instincts and, upon release, they begin traveling in the direction of their capture sites, resulting in exposure to roads and other hazards.
  • Animals may cause problems for humans in the vicinity of the release site.

Option 3: Humanely kill the animal

Trapped nuisance wildlife must be killed humanely. When killing of live-captured nuisance wildlife is necessary, it must be done in a manner consistent with the euthanasia (link) and depopulation (link) guidelines of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Under these guidelines, drowning, live burial, freezing, or injecting live animals with unapproved chemicals are considered inhumane and unacceptable. Therefore, WDFW does not recommend, encourage, or condone any of these methods for killing live-captured nuisance wildlife. If you need help with nuisance wildlife, call a WDFW-certified wildlife control operator.

What is euthanasia or humane lethal removal?

Euthanasia is derived from the Greek terms eu meaning good and thanatos meaning death. The AVMA defines euthanasia as ending the life of an individual animal in a way that minimizes or eliminates pain and distress. Recognizing that not all situations lend themselves to the technical definition of euthanasia, when true euthanasia cannot be achieved, other means of humane killing are acceptable and can be found in the AVMA’s depopulation guidelines.

Methods for humane removal 

The most widely accepted guidelines for euthanasia or depopulation practices follow standards set by the AVMA. Some common methods are briefly outlined in the below table and while this list is inclusive, it is not limited to all acceptable means euthanasia or depopulation.  

Methods 

Taxa  

Notes  

 

Gunshot from a firearm or an air/CO2 rifle (.22 caliber minimum)  

 

 

  • Small and medium mammals (e.g., rats, squirrels, rabbits, opossum, coyote, fox, etc.) 

  • Birds 

  • Amphibians  

  • Reptiles  

The typical .177 pellet or BB gun is not an acceptable device. 

 

Check local firearm and shooting ordinances 

Carbon Dioxide (CO2)  

  • Small and medium mammals (e.g., rats, squirrels, rabbits, opossum, coyote, fox, etc.) 

  • Birds 

  • Amphibians 

  • Reptiles 

Must be supplied to an air-tight chamber from a compressed gas cylinder. 

 

Be careful not to inhale CO2 and use only in a well-ventilated space as CO2 can be dangerous to humans.   

Cervical dislocation  

  • Small rodents 

  • Bats 

  • Rabbits 

  • Small birds  

Done by quickly stretching the animal so the neck is hyper-extended to separate the first neck vertebrae from the skull.  

 

 

Physical methods (e.g., pithing) followed by decapitation and exsanguination  

  • Amphibians 

  • Reptiles 

ONLY applicable for reptiles and amphibians.  

Chemical euthanasia  

  • Any species 

Euthanasia drugs can only be used under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian or permitted humane society.  

The methods of euthanasia require training and care to administer. In addition, most are not available to, or do not appeal to, the do-it-yourselfer. This includes the use of chemical euthanasia, such as an injection of sodium pentobarbital or other pharmaceuticals. This form of humane euthanasia is not available to the general public and requires dedicated training and professional licensing to be performed. For this reason, chemical euthanasia must only be done by, or under the direct supervision of, a licensed veterinarian. The use of unapproved chemicals or solvents to kill an animal is unacceptable.  

Care should always be taken to guarantee that the animal is humanely killed. Be prepared to use a secondary killing method, in case the first method is unsuccessful.  If it is not feasible, or you do not have the necessary training, an alternative would be to contact your local wildlife damage control company, veterinarian, or animal shelter. They may euthanize the animal for a small fee.

Live burial, freezing a live animal, drowning and injecting live animals with unapproved chemicals are unacceptable methods of killing an animal and are considered inhumane according to the guidelines set by the AVMA. Per RCW 16.52.205, suffocation of an animal is considered animal cruelty in the first degree. While shooting an animal may sound extreme, in many cases it is the best available method because of its quickness, and it may cause the least amount of stress and pain to the animal. If shooting is used, the operator and firearm must be capable of producing a quick death. When humanely dispatching an animal for rabies testing, please remember the animal must not be shot in the head; instead aim for the lung/heart area directly behind the front lower shoulder, at the point of the elbow (to be as close as possible to the heart).

The infographics below demonstrates proper bullet placement:

Image depicting bullet placement for humane dispatch at the cranial and lung/heart areas of small mammals.
Photo by WDFW

To calm the animal, the trap can be covered with a dark towel or other cover. Depending on the species and size of the animal, a .22 caliber rifle or pistol, or a minimum of .22 caliber air/CO2 rifle should be used in accordance with local laws and regulations. See Step 4 below for information on how to handle the dead animal.

People and euthanasia or humane lethal removal

Human psychological responses to killing animals need to be considered, with grief at the loss of life as the most common reaction for both the public and people who euthanize or humanely dispatch animals. For those providing professional trapping services, be mindful and respectful of the diverse reactions people may have to the lethal removal of wildlife.

Cage-trapping wildlife: Step by step

If an animal needs to be trapped and you are uncomfortable or have no interest in doing the work yourself, contact a wildlife damage control company. In the wildlife damage control industry, private companies made up of one or more people offer a variety of services, including trapping. Experienced trappers know the behavior of each species and the methods required to trap them. They also recognize signs of diseases and nursing females.

Often their solution to a conflict will involve setting several cage traps to make sure the entire family of animals is caught—or as many as possible at one time. Multiple traps are not something most homeowners have on hand.

Note: Persons working at state wildlife offices do not provide trapping services, but they can provide names of individuals and companies that do. If you are somewhat knowledgeable about wildlife, have identified the species of animal to be trapped, and feel you can handle the situation in a humane and legal way, follow the steps below. cage traps, foothold traps, and snares.

Step 1: Develop a plan that includes options

Contact your local wildlife office and municipality for current information on trapping restrictions (types of traps to be used, requirements foreuthanasia, species of biological concern in the area) and any required authorization. Decide if the animal will be released on site, euthanized, or moved somewhere else by someone who has a permit to transport it. If it is to be released on site, be ready to make all necessary construction repairs to ensure that the animal will not reenter the structure after being released. If the animal is to be euthanized, decide who, and if necessary, how it will be done.

Step 2: Set the trap

Set the cage trap as near to the den as possible, in the animal's pathway, or in the area of damage. When locating the trap, consider the possibility of young children approaching the trapped animal, theft of the trap, or damage to the trap by vandals.If setting a trap on concrete or another hard surface, place the trap on plywood or some other protective surface to prevent the animal from damaging its paws when trying to dig its way out. To prevent raccoons and opossums from toppling the trap, make sure the protective material extends out from the trap at least 8 inches and locate the trap away from shrubs or other objects that they could grab.

A captured animal often defecates in a trap. If the trap is set outdoors, biological risk is minimal but still real. Refrain from setting a trap near a shallow well, garden, playpen, or where a dog is tethered. Traps set inside the living area of the house should be placed on top of at least ten sheets of newspaper. Place a tennis ball in the trap to give a large animal a way to release energy and frustration; a piece of wood will provide a small animal something to chew. Anchor the trap so it won't tip or misfire when the animal enters—an animal will not enter a tipsy trap, and misfires teach it not to try and enter again.

Anchor the trap with a cinder block or other heavy object placed on top. You can also pound rebar stakes into the ground at the corners, or wire or clamp the trap to a stable object. Set the trap and then trip it several times to be sure the cage is steady and functioning properly. Trip the trap by using a pen or pencil, sticking an end through the side of the cage and pushing down on the treadle. If the doors do not work fast enough, place small stones or other weights on top of the door to make it drop faster. Use plenty of the suggested bait so it will be seen and its odor released into the air.

Step 3: Monitor the trap and animal

Be "on call" the entire time a trap is set. A trap set for a nocturnal animal should be set at or near dusk. The unset trap should be closed at dawn to avoid trapping a non-target animal during the day. Reverse this procedure when attempting to capture a diurnal (active during daylight) animal. Change the trap location or try different bait if it doesn't produce a catch within three days. When an animal is captured, move the trap to a quiet, protected spot and cover it with a tarp until time of release or euthanasia. A captured animal should not remain in the trap longer than necessary.

Note: In summer, a trap set where the sun can beat down on it can cause the animal to dehydrate rapidly, suffer a heat stroke, or die. If the captured animal appears injured or sick (i.e., having a discharge from eyes or nose, or a dull, sparse coat or scabby skin) and you don't want to euthanize it or have it euthanized, contact a wildlife rehabilitator.

Step 4: Remove the animal from the trap

Release nocturnal animals at night and diurnal species during daylight. Point the opening of the trap toward escape cover, so the animal can see and move toward it. Stand at the opposite end of the trap, open the door, and tap the trap with your foot. If the animal is reluctant to leave, try placing the open trap on its side and moving away from the trap. When releasing an animal that offers the potential of a bite or a spray, attach a long string to the door of the trap prior to setting it, so the door can later be opened from a distance. Place the trap under the driver's-side door of a truck, or a window on a house, lean out the window, and hold the door open with the string until the animal exits. Note: Skunks and opossums often take their time when leaving a cage trap.

The carcasses of euthanized animals must be disposed of properly. To dispose of an animal on-site, the carcass must be covered by at least 2 feet of soil and located at least 200 feet from any groundwater well that is used to supply drinking water. Cover the burial hole with rocks or strong wire screening to help prevent animals digging into it. Sprinkling a layer of garden lime on the carcass will also help reduce the odor, which attracts digging animals. If it is not feasible to dispose of a carcass on-site, contact a local veterinarian or wildlife damage control company for assistance with disposal. Animal carcasses should never be handled with bare hands.

Step 5: Follow up

A trap that contained a sick animal should be washed, disinfected with a bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water and left on the trap for 20 minutes), and thoroughly rinsed after each capture so as to stop the spread of any potential disease. Immediately complete all repair work necessary to prevent another conflict.

Cage-trapping specifications

Measurements represent minimum height, width, and length requirements.

Wildlife Species Trap type, size (height, width, length) Type of bait Additional notes

Badger

Single-door type, 10 x 12 x 42 in.

Chicken and attractors such as feathers and eggshells, cotton balls, or marshmallows.

Due to the strength and aggressiveness of badgers, it is recommended that a professional trapper trap them. Contact your WDFW Regional Office for release sites.

Bat

   

Trapping bats is not recommended. Traps can be fatal to bats if left unattended, or if they become overcrowded. In addition, bats have excellent homing instincts, making moving bats unlikely to succeed.

Beaver

Hancock or Bailey suitcase-type trap

Freshly cut tree sprouts or branches, commercial scents and lures.

Due to the weight and dangers associated with suitcase traps, it is recommended that only people experienced with these traps use them. Some success has also come from using a 4 foot long cage trap set right at the water's edge next to the beaver slide.

Bobcat

Single-door type, 15 x 20 x 42 in.

Poultry or rabbit carcass and feathers for a sight attractor.

Set the trap in the vicinity of an animal kill or a travel way to and from cover. Use brush or grass on the top and sides of the trap to give the appearance of a natural "cubby" or a recess in a rock outcrop or in brush. Cover the cage bottom with soil.

Coyote

Single-door type, 20 x 26 x 48 in.

Sight attractors like chicken feathers, eggshells, cotton balls. An auditory lure that "squeals" can be effective. Wrap it in paper towels and a baggie to muffle the volume.

Cage traps are rarely effective at capturing healthy adult coyotes and most effective at capturing young or sick coyotes living in urban areas or entering a chicken coop or other holding area for pets, livestock, or birds. The trap should be thoroughly concealed with a tarp or other material, and extra precautions need to be taken to eliminate human scent from the area of the trap.

Chipmunk

Single- or double-door type, 5 x 5 x 16 in.

Unroasted peanuts, sunflower seeds, grain, popcorn, apple slices.

Place the trap where the chipmunk is active. Place a few sunflower seeds in front of the trap entrance.

Fox
(red fox)

Single-door type, 15 x 15 x 48 in.

Tainted meat, eggs placed in a nest, marshmallows, cotton balls (they resemble eggs and have eye appeal).

Foxes are long-bodied animals, so the trap must be long. Take precautions to eliminate human scent from the trap and the area around the trap. Place bait in a hole dug under the rear of the trap. Cover all sides of the trap with a tarp or other material. Sift dirt onto the bottom of the cage to cover the wire bottom.

Ground squirrel

Single-door type, 5 x 5 x 15 in. to 7 x 7 x 24 in., longer if a double-door trap is used

Peanut butter, oats, barley, fresh fruit, vegetables, greens.

Set the trap near an active burrow with signs of recent diggings. Placing guide logs on either side of the path between the burrow opening and the trap will help funnel the animal into the trap. Cover the floor of the trap with soil and leave the bait highly visible. Cover the trap with a tarp to conceal the trap and provide an enticing nook for the animal to enter.

Marmot
(yellow-bellied marmot)

Single-door type,
12 x 12 x 36 in.,
longer if a double-door trap is used

Peanut butter, oats, barley, fresh fruit, vegetables, greens.

 

Mice

Single or double-door type, 3 x 3 x 10 in.

Peanut butter, grain.

 

Mink

Single-door type, 7 x 7 x 17 in., longer if a double-door trap is used

Cheese or fresh bloody meat such as chicken or rabbit; use sight attractors like feathers or fur.

Wrap the cage trap in something dark; mink like to investigate dark holes. Set the trap in the animal's line of travel.

Mountain Beaver

Single-door type,
7 x 7 x 17 in.

Piece of apple, sweet potato, or whatever is being eaten in the area.

Set trap directly in the entrance of an active tunnel. Alternatively, place a plastic laundry basket over the hole and cut out an opening just large enough to insert the door of a trap into the basket cut-out. The mountain beaver will search for an opening to go through and enter the trap. Stake the basket down so it cannot be moved. Mountain beavers are very prone to hypothermia, so wrap the trap with black plastic or burlap and cover it with soil. Trap when the weather is mild and check the trap early in the morning.

Muskrat

Single-door type, 6 x 6 x 20 in.,longer for double-door traps

Corn, carrot greens, sweet apples, cattail roots.

Place the trap just outside the burrow and partially in the water, taking every precaution that the captured muskrat will not be under water and will be able to breathe. Conceal the cage trap well with grass or leaves. A short line of bait leading to the entrance of a trap will increase capture success.

Nutria

Single-door type, 9 x 9 x 45 in.

Cantaloupe rind, ripe bananas, sweet potatoes.

Place the trap along an active trail or where nutria are seen. A short line of bait leading to the entrance of the trap will increase capture success. A trap placed on a floating raft will effectively catch nutria, but pre-baiting is necessary.

Opossum

Single- or double-door type, 11 x 11 x 36 in.

Dry or canned pet food, sardines, old meat, chicken entrails, bacon, fish, apples.

Place the trap where the animal, or evidence of the animal has been seen, or at its den entrance.

Porcupine

Double-door type, 10 x 12 x 42 x in.

A salt-soaked cloth, sponge, or piece of wood, also water softener tablets, sweet potatoes, apples, roasted peanuts.

Place the trap in the vicinity of damage or at the den entrance. To lure the porcupine, blend a cup of raw sweet potatoes and an apple, and dribble the puréed mixture at the opening of a single-door live trap.

Rabbit and Hares

Single- or double-door type, 9 x 9 x 26 in.
See notes

Fresh vegetables in summer; apples, carrots, or bread in winter.

Place the trap near cover where rabbits feed or rest, or where they gain entry under a fence. Place some bait just outside the trap and spray the inside with apple juice to increase effectiveness. To capture hares (jackrabbits) in open terrain, use a double-door trap with weighted doors to prevent escape. It is best to use a larger trap than used on rabbits

Raccoon

Single-door type, 10 x 12 x 42 in.

Fish-flavored cat food, corn, ripe bananas, bacon, sardines, peanut butter, jelly, marshmallows, (resemble eggs and have eye appeal).

Place the trap where the animal, or evidence of the animal has been seen, or at its den entrance.

Rats

Single- or double-door type, 5 x 5 x 18 in.

Peanut butter, grain.

 

River otter

Single-door type, 10 x 12 x 42 in. larger, longer if a double-door trap is used

Fresh fish.

Cover the bottom of the trap with sand. River otters may be trapped in suitcase type traps used to capture beavers. Modify the sides so the otters can't escape.

Skunk
(spotted skunk)

Single-door type, 7 x 7 x 20 in.

Small marshmallows (resemble eggs), tainted meat, sardines, bacon, canned fish.

See Striped skunk.

Skunk
(striped skunk)

Single-door type, 10 x 10 x 24 in.

Peanut butter, bananas, honey, or molasses spread on a piece of bread or dried fruit; also yogurt, cheese, raw egg (trail some through the trap and leave the rest in the back of the trap).

Place the trap along a travel route or immediately outside the den entrance, using the funnel method (Fig. 2). Alternatively, place a plastic laundry basket over the hole and cut out an opening just large enough to insert the door of a trap into the basket cut-out. The skunk will search for an opening to go through and go into the trap. Stake the basket down so it cannot be moved. Box traps designed specifically for trapping skunks are available, or a cover can be made out of a dark-colored blanket, plywood, or cardboard fastened with bungee cords. If a skunk is accidentally caught, use a long stick or other device to slowly cover the trap with a towel or blanket before moving it. Avoid sudden movements or loud noises that may frighten the skunk.

Squirrel
(Eastern gray and fox squirrel)

Single- or double-door type, 6 x 6 x 24 in.,
longer for double-door traps

Peanut butter, nuts, corn, sunflower seed, popcorn, bread.

A squirrel may not find a trap set in the dark, or it may bump the trap, causing it to close prematurely. A trap set on the roof is safe from theft, children, and pets, and offers a better chance for catching the squirrel. If possible, find a window adjacent to a roof that the squirrel is using and you won't need a ladder. 

Squirrel (Douglas and flying squirrel)

Single- or double-door type, 5 x 5 x 18 in.

Apples, sunflower seeds, roasted peanuts.

For Douglas squirrels, see above. For flying squirrels, set the trap inside a structure and near the animal's point of entry.

Weasel
(long-tailed weasel)

Single- or double-door type, 5 x 5 x 24 in.

Fish, fresh chicken liver, chicken entrails.

Set the trap in an old brush pile, or under an outbuilding or fence, since the weasel is likely to investigate any small covered area.

Weasel
(short-tailed weasel)

Single- or double-door type, 5 x 5 x 18 in.

Fish, fresh chicken liver, chicken entrails.

Set the trap in an old brush pile, or under an outbuilding or fence, since the weasel is likely to investigate any small covered area.