Animal Under My Steps

 


If you have seen a wild animal coming and going from underneath your steps, or even just notice a suspicious hole, you may have a wild animal that has burrowed beneath the steps to create a den site.  The good news is that the den site is usually a temporary one, and the animal will likely not reside there indefinitely.

Wild animals typically seek out den sites beneath human dwellings during the spring birthing season, or during the colder winter months.  During the spring birthing and rearing season (March through October) wild animals are looking for a safe place to raise their young.  As soon as the young get old enough, it is no longer safe for the babies to be in such close proximity to humans and the entire family will abandon the den site.  Likewise, during the colder months wild animals are often looking for a warm place to hunker down for the winter, and are often gone when the weather gets warmer.

For these reasons, the simplest solution is often to give the wild animals a “grace period” of several weeks and allow them to leave on their own. This is the least risky solution of all, particularly during the spring rearing season, since it ensures that mother and young will remain together.  Nests of wild animal babies are often tucked away in inaccessible locations, so if the mother gets separated from her young for any reason it is almost impossible to find the babies.  Additionally, if separated from their mother too long, wild animal babies will often leave the nest in search of their mother and can pose human safety hazards as a result.  Allowing the female to raise her young until they are mobile enough to start following her around avoids the possibility of having dead or dying young trapped under an inaccessible portion of your house.

 


Q: So what kind of animal is living in under my steps?

A:  What kind of animal it is depends on what time of day or night you notice the most activity.  If you cannot see the animal directly, it is very important to determine the animal’s normal activity patterns in order for the eviction strategies discussed below to be successful.

The two most common inhabitants underneath steps are skunks and woodchucks, but it is not unusual to find opossums and raccoons beneath steps as well.  The first step to take is to determine what time of day the animal is active.  Take a crumpled up piece of newspaper and stuff it in the hole beneath your steps.  Next, check the position of the newspaper in the late evening and again in the early morning.  The newspaper is light enough that an animal coming or going from the hole will be able to push it aside to enter or exit.  If the newspaper is disturbed at night the animal is nocturnal, and if the newspaper is disturbed during the day the animal is active during daylight hours only.

If there is not one single hole leading beneath your steps, you can sprinkle a 6-8” band of all-purpose baking flour (the kind you bake bread with) around the perimeter of the steps.  Check back in the late afternoon and early morning and look to see what time footprints appeared tracking through the flour.

Of the four animals listed, the only animal that is active during the day is a woodchuck (also known as groundhogs or gophers).  Woodchucks often frequently leave a large mound of dirt beside any hole that they have dug.  Woodchucks are completely harmless animals, and their tunnels do not cause any type of structural damage to foundations.  We strongly recommend allowing the woodchuck to remain on your property due to their gentle nature and the relatively few problems that they may cause.  Please see our page on woodchucks for further information, or for eviction strategies if absolutely necessary.

Skunks, raccoons and opossums are all nocturnal animals, meaning they are primarily active at night.  Most animals find the smell of ammonia - the common household cleaner - unpleasant, but skunks seem to have a higher tolerance for this smell than other animals.  For this reason, we recommend substituting the Castor oil recipe (1 C castor oil, 1 C liquid dish soap, mixed with 1 gallon of water) for ammonia in the eviction strategy below if you believe you have a skunk living beneath your steps.

 


If you cannot wait for theanimals to leave on their own, you can try convincing them to leave using a combination of unpleasant smells and sounds.  The size of the denning space and the amount of ventilation will largely influence if a repellent will work.  We recommend using ammonia-soaked rags, lights and a blaring radio during nighttime hours to convert an attractive space (quiet, dark and protected) into one that is inhospitable.  Remember, repellents provide a temporary solution at best.  You’ll need to seal off any denning areas to prevent animals from using those same spots in the future (see below on how to do this).

However, don’t forget to make sure all animals are out before sealing off any space!   If an animal is living underneath your steps during the spring or summer months, it is extremely likely that the animal is a female with dependent young.  For this reason, you want to make sure that mother and young are able to remain together, otherwise the young will starve underneath the deck/shed.  An easy way to determine if the den has been vacated is to sprinkle white flour outside the hole and check after dark for exiting footprints. You can also put balled- up newspaper in the hole.  If the newspaper hasn’t moved for three to four days, the den has been vacated.

Exclusion: THE NECESSARY FINAL STEP! After completing the eviction strategies described above, create an L-shaped barrier by sinking hardware cloth 4-6 inches into the ground and then bend it at a 90-degree angle, away from the deck (as illustrated below) for 8-12 inches to create a false bottom so animals don't dig under the barrier. Check the next day for signs of digging from the inside to ensure that no animal was sealed in.

*If the problem occurs in late summer/fall, and you're sure there's only one animal underneath the deck, seal up the deck/shed by creating an L-shaped barrier (as illustrated) except for one main opening.   Place a pre-made one-way door (Sold mail-order by ACES: 800-338-ACES or Tomahawk Live Trap Company, 800-272-8727) over that one remaining exit and leave it in place for 3-7 days so all animals can get OUT but not back IN.  To ensure that all animals are out from under the deck before sealing it off permanently, put a layer of flour on the inside and outside of the door after installation, and leave it in place for one or two nights. Any footprints in the flour should be outside the door with none inside. Do not try this technique if it is at all possible that young are present, otherwise the young will starve under the deck/shed.