Cage-Trapping Wildlife

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If you cannot resolve a conflict with an animal by other means – such as removing the attractant, installing a barrier, or using a scare tactic – the last option is to trap it. Trapping is rarely a permanent solution if other animals of the same species are in the area, and food and/or shelter remain available. It is appropriate to trap an animal in or around a home or property when there is an emergency situation, when you must remove a problem animal, or when trapping is the only practical solution.

A cage trap (live trap) effectively captures mammals for removal

Figure 1: A cage trap (live trap) effectively captures
mammals for removal. Drawing by: Jenifer Rees

Modern traps fall into two main categories: killer-type traps and live traps. Killer-type traps are designed to kill the captured animal quickly, much like a common snap trap used with house mice. Live-holding traps include cage traps, foothold traps and snares. Homeowners most often use cage traps when they have conflicts with wildlife in their yards, gardens and houses. In addition, cage traps are the only type permitted in certain situations in urban or suburban settings, as they will not injure people, pets or other non-targeted animals. Cage traps come in a variety of designs, in sizes that range from those that capture mice to those that capture large dogs.

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. (Fig. 1)

You can purchase cage traps at hardware stores, farm supply centers and over the Internet; search for "live traps" or "cage traps". Some rental business and wildlife damage control companies rent them. Before using a trap, make sure it is clean, as you need to prevent the spread of potentially dangerous organisms. A dirty trap should be washed, disinfected with a bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts of water; then let the trap soak for 20 minutes), and thoroughly rinsed. To protect yourself, always wear gloves when handling the trap.

Before You Cage Trap

Ask yourself two questions before you trap an animal:

  • Can I do this legally -- that is, can I comply with state laws regarding trapping and transporting wildlife? Can I do this humanely? (See "What to Do With the Trapped Animal") If the answer to either of these questions is no, then consider hiring a professional. (Contact your local Regional Wildlife Office for animal damage control agents in your area)
  • When used properly, cage traps can offer a non-lethal solution to a conflict. However, improper use may result in stress and physical damage during capture and exposure to extreme weather and lack of water. Injuries, trauma and disorientation can lead to the death of an animal.

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. If you see or hear young or suspect that they may be present, refer to Step 5 in "Evicting Animals from Buildings".

When you have trapped an adult animal, stand the trap on end so you can see the animal's underside. If there are enlarged teats that are relatively free of hair, you have a nursing female. Release her 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 wildlife rehabilitators. 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 local wildlife office for a current list of wildlife rehabilitators.

If you plan on releasing an animal, do not trap it during the winter or poor weather. An animal expends extra energy when trapped and it may not also be able to cope with inclement conditions. Even if you release it, it may die soon after.

In emergency situations, when a family needs to be removed, refer to Step 5 in "Evicting Animals from Buildings".

What to Do with the Trapped Animal

Before trapping an animal, you need to know what you are going to do with it. There are several options:

  • Release the animal at the site of capture. Trap the animal, make sure there are no young inside the structure in question, permanently close the animal's entrance to that structure, and then let the animal go. (See "Evicting Animals from Buildings" for exclusion techniques.) The animal is still within its home range, so it can find suitable food and alternate 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.

    The downside to this approach is that the animal may have become trap-smart and be more difficult to capture if it enters someone else's attic, chimney or building.
  • Release the animal outside of its home range. Although well-meaning people opposed to killing animals may prefer this option because it sounds benign, in fact there are distinct problems with releasing an animal in new territory and most biologists recommend against it:
    • Mortality rates increase when animals are subjected to stress and trauma associated with capture, handling, transport and release in an unfamiliar territory.
    • Animals that are released may harm or be harmed by resident animals in the course of territorial disputes, transmission of disease, gene-pool disruptions, etc.
    • The same (or a competing) species may already be overly abundant in the area. Excess animals must 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 travel in the direction of their capture site, which may entail dodging cars and predators.
    • Animals may cause problems for humans in the vicinity of the release site.
  • Euthanize the animal. If you do not release the animal, you must euthanize it. The American Veterinary Medical Association and other animal experts do not consider drowning or freezing to be a humane means of dealing with problem wildlife. A wildlife damage control agent, veterinarian or animal shelter may be willing to euthanize the animal for a fee.

The most widely accepted – but still disputed – guidelines for euthanasia practices follow the standards set by the American Veterinarian Medical Association (AVMA), which include:

  • An injection of sodium pentobarbital or other pharmaceutical.
  • Carbon monoxide (CO) or carbon dioxide (CO2) supplied to a chamber from a compressed gas cylinder (for small and medium sized animals).
  • For small and medium sized animals, a gun shot to the head. (Check local firearm ordinances).
  • Stunning, followed by decapitation (amphibians, reptiles, and birds only).
  • Cervical dislocation by stretching the animal so the neck is hyper-extended to separate the first vertebrae from the skull (birds, rabbits, and small rodents only).

Most of these techniques require training. In addition, several are not available to the do-it-yourselfer.

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. The operator and firearm must be capable of producing a quick death.

Depending on the species and size of the animal, a .22 caliber rifle or revolver, or a high-velocity pellet gun should be used. A pellet gun fired to the head is capable of quickly killing squirrels, rabbits, and similar-size mammals.

Note: In order to properly test an animal for rabies, the animal must not be shot in the head; instead, aim for the lung area directly behind the front shoulder.

State laws and local town ordinances regarding the discharge of firearms must be followed. See Step 4 below for information on how to handle the dead animal.

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Hiring a Trapping Agent

If an animal needs to be trapped and you are uncomfortable or have no interest in doing the work yourself, contact an animal damage control agent. Experienced trappers know the behavior of each species and the methods required to trap it. They also recognize when an animal has a disease and when a female is nursing. Often the solution to a conflict will involve setting several cage traps to make sure that the entire family or at least as many animals as possible at one time are captured.

Note: MDIFW employees do not provide trapping services, but they can provide names of individuals and companies that do.

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How to Cage Trap

If you are knowledgeable about wildlife, have identified the species to be trapped, and feel you can handle the situation in a humane and legal way, follow the steps below. See Table 1, following, for specific recommendations regarding each species.

Develop a plan that includes options

  • Contact your Regional Wildlife Office for current information on trapping restrictions (types of traps to be used, requirements for euthanization, 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 by whom and how.

Note: Have a backup plan in case your original plan changes during the course of events.

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 the best site is on concrete or another hard surface, place a piece of plywood or some other protective material under the trap to prevent the animal from damaging its paws when it tries to dig its way out. To prevent raccoons and opossums from toppling the trap, make sure the protective material extends at least eight inches on each side of the trap and do not place the trap next to shrubs or other objects that the animals could grab.
  • A captured animal often defecates in the trap. The biological risk is minimal but still real, so if you are setting a trap outside, set it at some distance from a shallow well, garden, playpen, or area where a dog is tethered. Inside the house, place traps 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 by placing a cinder block or other heavy object on top, pounding rebar stakes into the ground at the corners, or wiring/clamping the trap to a stable object. An animal will not enter a tipsy trap; misfires teach it to avoid entering a second time.
  • 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 more quickly.
  • Use plenty of bait so that the targeted animal can see and smell it easily. (See the section below – "Capturing a Wary or Trap-Smart Animal" – for detailed information regarding baiting).

Monitor the trap and the animal

  • Be on call the entire time a trap is set.
  • Set a trap set for a nocturnal animal at or near dusk. Disarm the trap 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 you do not catch the targeted animal within three days.
  • When you capture the animal, move the trap to a quiet, protected spot and cover it with a tarp. Do not keep the animal in the trap longer than necessary; deal with it promptly.

Note: In summer, a trap set where the sun can beat down on it can cause the animal to dehydrate rapidly, suffer from the heat, or die.

If the captured animal appears injured or sick (if it has 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.

Note: Most vets and animal shelters won't accept a sick wild animal because of their concern regarding spreading disease.

Release or 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 in back 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; move away from the trap.
  • When releasing an animal that could bite or spray you, attach a long string to the door of the trap prior to setting it, so that you can later open the door from a distance. To open the door, 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 a long time to leave 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 two feet of soil and located at least two hundred feet from any groundwater well that is used to supply drinking water. Because the odor will attract digging animals, sprinkle the carcass with garden lime and cover the burial hole with rocks or strong wire screening. If it is not feasible to dispose of a carcass on site, contact a local veterinarian or wildlife damage control company for assistance. Never handle animal carcasses with bare hands.

Follow up

  • If a trap contained an animal that appeared to be sick, wash the trap, disinfect it with a bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water; let the trap soak for 20 minutes), and thoroughly rinse it to stop the spread of any potential disease.
  • Immediately complete all necessary repair work to your building to prevent another conflict.

Table 1

Cage Specifications

The measurements given here are minimum height, width and length.

When a species is marked as wary, consult the below section, "Capturing a Wary or Trap-smart Animal".

Cage Specifications
Wildlife Species Trap Type & Size
(height, width, length)
Bait Notes
Bat IF&W does not recommend trapping bats. Bats have excellent homing instincts, so they will likely return when moved to a new location. In addition, bats can die in unattended traps; unattended traps can also become overcrowded. Instead, use the exclusion methods described under "Bats Roosting in Buildings" in the website section, "Bats".
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 people have been successful using a four-foot long cage trap set at the water's edge next to a 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," a recess in a rock outcrop, or in brush. Cover the cage bottom with soil. Animal is wary.
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 plastic bag to muffle the volume. Cage traps are 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. (They are rarely effective at capturing healthy adults.) Thoroughly conceal the trap with a tarp or other material. Take extra precautions to eliminate human scent from the area of the trap. Animal is wary.
Chipmunk Single or double-door type, 5 x 5 x 16 in. Untoasted 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.
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. Animal is wary.
Hares and Rabbits Single or double-door type, 9 x 9 x 26 in. for rabbits and next size larger for hares Fresh vegetables in summer; apples, carrots or bread in winter Place the trap near cover where hares 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 in open terrain, use a double-door trap with weighted doors to prevent escape.

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Tips from Trappers:

Capturing a Wary or Trap-Smart Animal

Enticing a Animal Into a Trap

Entice a animal into the trap by sprinkling bits of bait leading from the animal's travel route to the trap door and into the trap. Use a small amount of bait every six to 12 inches; you don't want the animal to fill up before it enters the trap.

Wiring Bait

Wire bait to the back of a single-door trap to force the animal to step on the trip pan while reaching forward to get the bait. Wrap the back exterior of the cage with small-mesh wire screen so the animal can't reach through the larger mesh wire at the back of the trap to get the bait.

Putting Out a Unset Trap

Put out a unset trap with the door(s) wired open for several nights. Offer some bait outside the trap the first night, at the trap's entrance the second night, and then inside the trap the third night – still without setting it. On the fourth night, place the bait inside and set the trap.

Camouflaging Traps

Camouflage the trap by covering the bottom with soil, leaf litter, grass clippings, or similar material, using enough to just hide the treadle. If you are trying to catch an animal a second time, place a different material on the bottom of the same trap.

Place a few things like branches, boughs, or boards over or leaning against the trap to cover any glare and break up the outline of the trap. Make sure this camouflage does not interfere with the operation of the trap.

To help make the trap less visible, you paint it an earth-tone color.

Dealing With a Animals Sensitive Nose

To deal with the animal's sensitive nose, wear old gloves when preparing the trap and do not walk or linger around the site any longer than necessary. You may need to wash new cage traps with water and vinegar to remove oils. Before leaving the site, mist the area around the trap with a spray bottle containing water and fir needles or other local aromatic vegetation.

When using a two-door trap, securely fasten one door down to prevent an animal from backing out and getting away.

With two-door traps, the trip pan is in the middle of the trap, so the trap closes when the animal is only halfway into the cage. The door may land on the back or tail of a large raccoon and not close completely.

In this situation, use a trap with only one door, use a larger two-door trap, or wire shut one door so that only the other one is operational. By placing bait in back of the trap, you force the animal to go farther into it. You can also place a wedge-shaped piece of wood under the trip pan on the open-door side of the trap, allowing the animal to step on the front side without anything happening. As it steps on the back side of the pan, the door closes.

Avoiding Capturing Birds

To avoid capturing birds, use a mixture of peanut butter, oatmeal and sunflower seeds. Place this bait on the inside roof of the trap directly above the pan, where it will be out of sight for birds. (The target animal must stand on the pan to taste the bait)

Avoiding Catching Domestic Cats or Dogs

To avoid catching a domestic cat or dog, use bait that does not contain meat or fish products.

If the target animal has been eating pet food, use pet food as bait.

Preventing Bait from Getting Wet

To prevent bait from getting wet, place it in a light-colored, covered container with plenty of holes punched in the side.

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