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Raccoons, bats, possums: It's Critter City

Raccoons are so audacious on the street that they're trying to get in people's windows. At least that's the way it seems to worried residents.

ROBINSON STREET above Lansdowne Avenue, in Overbrook, is under siege.

Raccoons, among a burgeoning population of wildlife that infests much of the city, are so audacious on the street that they're trying to get in people's windows.

At least that's the way it seems to worried residents.

"They're looking in the window, trying to pull the screens out," said Robert Ragland, a retired homeowner on Robinson Street near Jefferson.

Down the street, Helen Days said that she was astounded to see one of the creatures staring through her bedroom window.

Whether it's raccoons in Overbrook, a sick opossum trying to drag itself to safety across 18th Street near Christian, in South Philly, or bats so numerous they make up what Mark Coopersmith called "bat belts" in the Northeast, wildlife complaints in the city have increased tenfold in the past 25 years, the pest-control expert estimated.

"They're overpopulated," Coopersmith said.

The raccoons are not really trying to break in, despite their bandit-like faces, said Coopersmith, manager of Peerless Pest Control, in Olney. They're climbing drain pipes and running across roofs looking for openings from rotted fascia boards or other holes in people's walls where they can squeeze in and make nests, especially as the weather grows colder, Coopersmith said.

Once the raccoon, squirrel or other critter gets in, it's up to the homeowner to evict it, said Jeff Moran, a city Health Department spokesman. And that can be costly. Like other big cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Philadelphia city government doesn't provide removal services to get rid of the varmints.

And the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will come out only to retrieve sick or injured animals. That leaves homeowners to hire state-licensed pest-control companies - at a cost of $200 or more just to set up cages and $95 to remove each animal, Coopersmith said. Another wildlife pest-control operator, Azmat Masih, said that his company sets up cages for $200 and then charges $75 apiece for each animal captured. Masih said that his company has trapped about two dozen raccoons and a smaller number of opossums in the past six months.

Homeowners can try to do the job themselves, purchasing a special trap from pest-control companies like Peerless or at chain hardware stores, Coopersmith said.

The traps at Peerless for raccoons cost $58, and $42 for squirrels, who are dangerous house guests because they chew on electrical wires and could start a fire.

After that, Coopersmith said, you'll have to take the trapped animals several miles away to release them, with the property owner's permission.

"I've heard of people charging $600 to $700 for a job we would charge $300 to $400 for," Coopersmith said.

The gougers get away with it, he said, because "people panic."

'Smorgasbord' in trash

Besides housing, the wildlife interlopers are looking for dinner.

As John Griffin, director of humane wildlife services for the Humane Society of the United States, put it:

"On trash day there's an abundance of food, a smorgasbord that we provide through the trash."

Raccoons are known for ripping apart trash bags and even prying open trash cans.

Ragland, the Robinson Street resident, said that he is forced to put his food scraps in the freezer until trash day.

"They [raccoons] turn over my trash cans. I don't put garbage out till trash day.

"You can't get nobody to help you," Ragland said.

He has called 3-1-1, he said, and "they tell you to buy your own trap."

Many people can't afford to hire a pest-control company, Ragland said, but even if they could, "I doubt anyone would pay it."

He's also leery of approaching raccoons, which are among wildlife that can carry rabies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that in recent years most people in the U.S. have contracted rabies from bats, not from raccoons or dogs.

Coopersmith and a state game commission wildlife-control officer, Jerrold Czech, said that keeping discarded garbage off the streets would help to keep raccoons and other varmints from moving into a neighborhood.

And pets should not be fed outside, both warned.

Another problem is abandoned houses, where raccoons especially are known to take up residence.

Wildlife pests are all over the city. "We're finding a lot in Center City and West Oak Lane," Coopersmith said. "West Oak Lane, Mount Airy and Germantown are probably the worst because there's more park area there, and bigger houses."

Fishtown raccoons

Raccoons have even shown up in Fishtown, where a startled Mike Lalondeheard rustling noises in his back yard recently and went out to find one on the fence.

"It kind of froze when it reached the top of the fence and stared at me," said Lalonde, who lives at Thompson and Berks streets.

That was his first raccoon invasion.

But opossums, known to move from food source to food source rather than making nests, are regular visitors, probably munching on his wife's vegetable garden, he said.

The wildlife population even includes "bat belts" in the Northeast, Fox Chase and nearby in Jenkintown and Bensalem, Coopersmith said.

"Bats are a major problem in the city," he said.

Many of the creatures bring fleas with them, Coopersmith added.

Other sightings, according to Czech, have included wild turkeys in Northeast Philadelphia, a coyote hit by a car near Father Judge High School and foxes spotted near Chestnut Hill College.

Czech said that a beaver took up residence in his neighborhood, only minutes outside the city.

He said that he was called to a car dealership in the 6900 block of Essington Avenue, in Southwest Philadelphia, that reported trouble with groundhogs.

Deer are all over Fairmount Park and "just about every small wood lot in the city," Czech said.

Sharpshooters were called in to cull deer at Philadelphia International Airport after two crashed into planes a few years ago.

"I get people, literally, who want the hawks not to come in and kill songbirds," Czech said.

When pest-control companies do trap the raccoons, opossums and other wildlife, Czech said, they euthanize the animals.