Trap And Release for Squirrel Control: Not Such a Good Idea

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Trapping squirrels to release them elsewhere is not a good idea!

It’s frustrating to see squirrels and chipmunks dig up and eat the tulip and crocus bulbs you just planted. Fortunately there are several ways of preventing them for doing so, and for that I refer you to Protecting Bulbs from Squirrels for suggestions. But trapping squirrels then releasing them elsewhere is not one of them.

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Gray squirrel

The gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which may also have a black coat, is the main culprit when it comes to stealing tulip bulbs. Native to eastern North America, it has been introduced here and there throughout the world, including in Western North America, Italy, and Great Britain. In Europe, attempts to eradicate it are on-going, as it outcompetes the native red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) and spreads squirrelpox virus, fairly harmless to gray squirrels, but deadly to the native squirrel.

Yet many gardeners claim great success with trap and release methods. Typically they use Havahart-type traps: a cage the animal is drawn into by a bait of some sort (a slice of apple slathered with peanut butter is a favorite choice), then the door closes and presto! You’ve caught your first squirrel.

This apparent success hides several problems, though.

Does It Really Reduce the Population?

One trap-and-release proponent claimed to have caught 13 squirrels in just one season on a simple suburban lot. But curiously, was still regularly baiting his trap to catch further squirrels. This points out one major flaw with the plan: you can trap squirrels all you like, but generally more will just move in to fill in the vacated territory. Where squirrel populations are naturally high, that’s what usually happens… and replacements arrive very quickly. So you really haven’t solved your squirrel problem, you’ve just given yourself extra task to carry out.

What to Do with your Furry Prisoner?

A nervous squirrel is peering out of the cage trap. What should you do with it? You know you have to release it, but where? Because it will tend to return to its original territory if possible.

There are lots of studies on this subject and they give varying results, but dropping them off at least 10 miles (15 km) from their home territory is the safest bet. Zigzagging as you drive rather than carrying out a straight run apparently has little beneficial effect, but dropping them off a night certainly does. Any that do make it back from such a distance will be in pretty pitiful shape… but more on that below.

So you’ve driven far enough away for a release. But where are you supposed to release them? Not in someone else’s yard (the owners are not going to be happy), nor in a municipal park which probably has a squirrel population of its own. What about a woodlot or nature reserve? If so, make sure it is a habitat gray squirrels can live in, that is a deciduous or mixed forest, not coniferous one.

Think you’ve found just the right spot? Well, watch out for cops, because releasing a squirrel outside of its original territory is actually illegal in most jurisdictions. There are many reasons for this, the main one being to avoid transmitting diseases or parasites from one place to another. To be honest, few charges are ever laid against squirrel-releasers: you’re more likely to get a warning. Still, there is a risk.

Humane Traps are Actually Inhumane

But the following point is the clincher. Most people who trap squirrels for release elsewhere think they’re doing a good deed. After all, they don’t harm the animal, but release it elsewhere. But these “humane traps” actually cause more suffering to the squirrel than any other method. In fact, it could easily be considered a case of cruelty to animals!

That’s because you’ll be releasing the squirrel in another squirrel’s territory and it will jealously defend its territory from any invader. They’ll chase the newcomer and attack it if they can. Most freed squirrels suffer a painful death from the injuries they receive, the stress of fleeing one squirrel after another or starvation (you can’t eat much when you’re on the run!). This is readily seen, because squirrels released at insufficient distances from their original territory often make it back emaciated with their tail in tatters or lacking an ear or eye.

I know what I am about to write is going to shock certain readers, but in fact the most humane treatment to give a trapped squirrel is… to end its life as quickly and as painlessly as possible. You’ll find that most authorities agree. They discourage live traps for squirrels or, if you do trap one, recommend the animal be handed over to the nearest nuisance animal control center for euthanasia. They generally recommend rodent traps that kill the victim instantly over live traps.

Back to The Beginning

That’s why I’m returning to my original suggestion: use one of the methods recommended in the blog Protecting Bulbs from Squirrels to gently keep your local squirrels from eating your bulbs rather than trying to eliminate them. That they can live out their normal life and your bulbs will still be protected.

Plus, squirrels are kinda cute after all… when they’re not eating your bulbs, that is!

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