Homeowning Nightmare: “My House Is Infested With Raccoons”

We first started hearing animals in the walls shortly after we bought our 1920s twin in Germantown in 2009. No problem, we thought. The inspection before we bought it had revealed holes in the soffits, which run around the edge of the roof underneath the rain gutters. We called a roofer and had them fixed.

That took care of the animal sounds for a while, but soon they started up again. Twice more we called the roofer. Twice more he came out, put up his ladder and banged around up there, closing gaps in the siding. We hired someone to trim our trees aggressively so squirrels can’t easily jump onto the roof of the house. And still the animals kept coming back.

And I’m not talking about a gentle rustling sound. It sounds like something is trying to scratch through the wall in my 9-year-old son’s third-floor bedroom, and I’m pretty sure there’s something living in the wall next to our bed as well. When the scratching starts up at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning, it sounds like it’s about 4 inches from my nose.

“What if it comes through the wall into my room?” my son asks.

“Whatever it is, it can’t get through,” I tell him.

But what if it actually can?

A neighbor told me a horror story yesterday about a house he owns on the next block. There were raccoons in the walls, and in the crawl space between floors, so he closed up some holes around the eaves. But raccoons sleep during the day, so they were inside the house when the holes were closed and got trapped inside. Looking for a way out, the raccoons managed to scratch their way through the ceiling into his tenant’s dining room. Fortunately, they made only a small hole before they saw light, got scared and stopped scratching. But the tenant was understandably a little freaked out.

At this point, we’re all losing sleep because of the scratching sound in the walls, and the roofer hasn’t been able to eliminate the problem. I spent a couple of weeks agonizing over whether we should rip off the hideous vinyl siding that covers the vertical part of the mansard roof that surrounds our third floor. Siding can hide nasty problems like cracks and water damage–and holes large enough to admit a full-grown raccoon. But I’m terrified of taking off the siding because I have no idea what we’ll find or how much it will cost. Also, since we can’t see any obvious holes in the siding, it’s not clear that would take care of the problem.

Instead, I called a wildlife control company. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you can order a live trap from Amazon for about $45 and try to trap the animal yourself. But after several unsuccessful attempts to trap a groundhog that was eating my garden, I decided it was a little beyond me to trap something as fierce as a raccoon, so I brought in the professionals.

Wildlife control companies generally charge you just to come out and inspect the property. There’s an additional fee to set live traps, and if they actually catch anything they close up the points of entry in your house and charge you to remove the animals. I wish I could tell you that they drive them out to a nice wooded area far from the city and let them go free to live happy raccoon lives, but it’s illegal to transport and then free trapped raccoons in Pennsylvania because of the risk of spreading rabies. So the raccoons are, um, eliminated. It breaks my heart a little, but they’re trying to scratch their way inside my house, into the very bedroom of my only child. It’s me or them.

I found a company with lower fees than most. The guy who came to my house had spacers in his ears and talked earnestly with my son about Pokemon. He said he had worked as an animal handler at a zoo, so I felt pretty confident I had hit the animal control jackpot. He helped me figure out that our infestation was most likely raccoons, not squirrels, because we’re hearing them at night but not during the day. Also, they’re only on the third floor. Squirrels are smaller and can get down further into the walls, so we’d probably be hearing them all over the house. Plus, I saw a raccoon walking by the third floor bathroom window a couple weeks ago. So far so good, but he couldn’t find any likely holes where they were getting in. He checked my house and the attached twin, and the only possibility he could find was that they were entering through a disused chimney at the back of the house.

Before he could close the chimney, though, he needed to catch the animals. He set three big traps, baited with marshmallows. A friend of mine in West Philly who has trapped several raccoons on his property uses marshmallows as bait too, so I was on board for this approach. However, days went by and no raccoons took the bait. We’ve switch the bait to wet cat food, another popular treat for raccoons. It’s only been 24 hours since we changed the bait. No luck so far.

At this point I’ve had to bring in the owner of the attached twin, because our chimneys are most likely connected. There’s also a good chance there are openings between our crawl space and theirs. This can be one of the challenges of fixing structural problems in Philadelphia houses. Row houses and twins are basically like town homes or apartments–except in most cases we have no homeowner’s associations forcing the owners of attached homes to cooperate. Luckily the owner of our attached twin takes good care of his property, and is willing to work with us on this.

So where do we go from here? We can’t seal up the chimneys until we get the animals out of the house. The state’s Game Commission website suggests waiting til fall to eradicate raccoons because that’s when the young will typically be ready to leave home. But I don’t want to be woken up at 4 a.m. from now until the autumn.

The wildlife company has said they can knock a hole in the wall from the inside of the house and extract the animals that way. But that sounds messy and expensive. We know about two different spots where animals are hanging out, but what if there are other places? I don’t want to start banging holes willy-nilly without knowing for sure we’re going to get the animals on the first or second try.

My current plan is to wait a few more days and see if the raccoons take the cat food bait. If they don’t, we might have to take a more invasive approach.

This is one of those things that makes me wish I was a renter.