An unwelcome lodger in the barn

By Ralph Jimenez

For the Monitor

Published: 09-16-2023 4:00 PM

After years of living in the woods, my wife, Linda, confronts most wildlife situations with equanimity. “There are animals fighting under the washing machine,” she said one week or so ago. That, of course, is far preferable to having animals fighting in the washing machine, but still not ideal. The snarling was deep and guttural. It wasn’t cats. I would have to inspect the granite and fieldstone foundation enclosing the crawlspace under the pantry and bathroom of our 150-year-old house.

One year, and we no longer live in the wilds but about 100 yards from Concord’s White Park, a woodchuck tunneled under the foundation wall and took up residence under the toilet. Again, better a woodchuck than a skunk, but not ideal.

At dusk, I heard Linda, who was reading on the back porch, stamp her foot and yell “Hey, get out of here.” The porch has a screen door that opens to the outside and a door that opens into a barn that’s even older than the house. I grabbed a sturdy walking stick and stepped into the barn to see three raccoons, one large and two half her size, standing there as if waiting for instructions.

“Out with you,” I yelled and smacked the stick on the floor. The young raccoons went left into a room used as a shop and mom raced up the stairs to the barn’s second floor, which has a crawlspace that extends over the kitchen.

The shop room has a gap in the floor that once led to a cat door that was sealed once the cats expired. It has apparently been reopened. The youngsters first went up a set of shelves, scattering tools and paintbrushes, and then stared out from beneath the shelves. They wanted to follow mom and were reluctant to retreat down the cat door. I looked around to see what incentive might be at hand. There, within reach, was a spray can of rust dissolver, a brand with a putrid odor. I sprayed the critters, they fled, and I sealed the opening.

The next morning I grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down, and my wife said, “There’s something thumping overhead. It sounds like a dog scratching fleas.” Sure enough, it did. We had a lodger — with fleas. I set up a trail camera and baited a live trap with some cooked lobster legs too small to bother with. The next morning no raccoon in the trap and more thumping.

A trail camera caught our house guest in the act. Our lodger was apparently literate. I knew, from past experience that small wildlife like squirrels and woodchucks rarely survive when moved outside their home territory. Wildlife agencies discourage the practice because it may foist the problem on someone else. Raccoons, I thought, are so tough, clever, and resourceful that they could make it anywhere. Apparently, however, only about half of them, when released, do.

We have turned half our large lot into a pollinator garden, one that is often scented with the smell of grilling burgers or chicken. It’s like putting out a welcome sign for raccoons, along with deer, possums, skunks, hawks, crows, ravens and the occasional wild turkey. I put away the trap, but we needed to evict the lodger and clean up our act. The half-full purple trash bag went into a metal can that could be bungied closed. I once, through a basement window, watched a raccoon squat down like an Olympic weightlifter, grasp the lid of a metal garbage can, then stand and pop the lid off.

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I cleaned the grill, but couldn’t close the door to the barn until our lodger left. I reset the trail cam.

The next evening I opened the porch door, barn door, and the doors to the attached room that serves as a gym. I kept a homemade wooden tool shaped like a push broom nearby.

I was on the recumbent bike pedaling away when the lodger wandered in, stopped about six feet away, and gave me a look I’ve seen many times before in gyms. It was the “how much longer are you going to be on that machine” look.

I jumped off the bike, grabbed my wood push broom, and tried to herd the lodger out the door. Instead, it fled up the stairs to what it now considered its personal library. There are no risers on the stairs so before it was halfway up I reached between the treads with the broom and pushed the lodger back down. She went into the workshop. Once again, I looked around for a non-lethal way to send a message. It was there in the form of a can of hornet spray.

The lodger could have gone peacefully out the porch door but instead, a few minutes later, it came back into the gym, looked at me and when I stood, ambled toward the door. I nailed it in the rear end with the hornet spray and it scampered off. They haven’t been back and I imagine that all three raccoons regret trying to move into the home of the world’s biggest skunk.