How to protect your house from skunks, raccoons, bats

Winter is fast approaching and as the days and nights get progressively colder, we are all happy to retreat to our warm homes.

Wild animals and insects feel the same way. When it gets cold, they seek shelter and we often find them in our attics, garages, basements and even under our decks, sheds and front stoops.

While many of us would love to just peacefully coexist with our wildlife neighbors, that usually isn't an option when they find their way into our homes because they can cause much damage and, if left alone long enough, some can even endanger our health.

The state of Illinois licenses two classifications of pest removal experts. Some, like Pest Enders ( in Des Plaines, are permitted to treat homes for insects (including bed bugs) and small rodents like mice and rats. Others, like All Wildlife Animal Evictions Inc. ( of Crystal Lake, are licensed to handle the larger animals like raccoons, skunks and squirrels.

Currently, the top pest problem is bed bugs, according to Bill Orechia, owner of Pest Enders since 1986.

“It is a national epidemic because they are so easily transported from hotels, stores, workplaces, anywhere,” Orechia explained. “We get calls about them every day and they are impossible to prevent.”

It takes Pest Enders three visits, two weeks apart, to rid a home of bed bugs. Apartments can be completely treated for about $360, small homes for $420 and larger homes for $450 and up, according to Orechia.

You have to wrap all of the mattresses and box springs in the house and keep them wrapped for six months to kill the bugs within. You have to place all of your clothes, towels, bedding and pillows in a dryer set at 130 degrees or higher for one hour. And the entire home needs to be treated with two types of insecticide.

Orechia does not use the technology that kills bed bugs with intense heat throughout the house because, he said, the heat cannot always be sustained at uniform and sufficiently high temperatures and if that happens, the bugs can survive.

Bed bugs have never been shown to carry disease, he said. But they feed on both humans and pets and can cause great discomfort both physically and psychologically.

“Once people know they have them, they just go crazy and can't sleep,” he added.

Unfortunately, Orechia said, no one can guarantee that your bed bugs won't return. You can easily have your home re-infested if they are coming from your workplace or somewhere else you frequent.

At this time of year, mice are also a problem because they are looking for a warm place to spend the winter and they can squeeze themselves through any opening even one as small as a lead pencil.

So if you see one, a reputable pest control company will survey your home for entry points and will use hardening foam to temporarily seal the opening. But the homeowner needs to follow up later and permanently fix the problem, he said.

Termites, carpenter ants, roaches, pavement ants, bees, wasps and other insects are also troublesome to homeowners. Once someone calls Pest Enders for an insect problem, many choose to put their home on a regular routine in which the home's exterior is treated three times a year to prevent the invasion of ants, pill bugs, spiders and other crawling insects. These visits cost between $75 and $95, depending upon the size of the home.

Bees and wasps, which are gone for this year, are treated on an as-needed basis.

The most expensive insect treatment is the one done for termites, costing $1,700 to $1,800 for a three-bedroom ranch. And it isn't usually covered by insurance.

Treatment involves digging holes all around the foundation and putting termite control chemicals in those holes and that cannot be done once the ground is frozen.

The bigger problems at this time of year are wild animals like skunks, raccoons and squirrels that are looking for a warm place to nest for the winter.

Tom Starai has been the owner of All Wildlife Animal Evictions Inc. since 1984. He employs a large crew of “nuisance animal control experts” who every day are removing animals from attics, homes and chimneys and from underneath decks, front stoops and sheds where they are causing destruction and unpleasant odors.

“All animals will try to get into homes to keep warm, but there are certain areas where we are likely to find certain animals,” Starai explained.

For instance, he said, 95 percent of the time when someone calls about seeing a skunk or enduring a strong skunk smell, they find the skunk living under the homeowner's front stoop. A small void usually develops under those stoops as the dirt around a house settles and skunks like to live under there where they can feel safe from predators.

They will also live under a deck when the homeowner builds it over an old patio without removing the patio.

While they cause no damage to a home, they can cause a terrible smell if they feel threatened and that can make a home temporarily difficult to live in.

According to Starai, a homeowner knows they have a skunk when they either see it roaming around or when another animal like a possum decides to move into the same quarters. The two have a stand off and the skunk sprays, getting that sickening smell all over the stoop and the home's foundation. It permeates the concrete and often makes a homeowner think that they actually have a skunk in their basement when it is actually still outside.

Starai and his employees handle the problem by finding the entry hole and placing a cage over the entrance. Sometimes they will catch a possum one day and a skunk the next or even several skunks.

If the home's bushes are too overgrown for the cage to fit over the hole, they can also put the cage further away and bait it. But that often causes the wrong animal to get caught and the homeowner's problem persists, so Starai tries to avoid that method, if possible.

Raccoons are also a problem year-round. They like to live in people's attics except during the hottest months of the year when they will retreat to live under decks, Starai explained.

“They are literally trained by their mothers to sniff roofs for rotted wood, tear shingles off and get into attics through these soft spots or through attic fans and soffits,” he said. “You hear them walking around and making noise only at night.”

They cannot be left alone to frolic in an attic because over time they ruin a home's insulation by tramping it down and by using it as their bathroom. Urine and feces from raccoons don't cause major problems immediately, but if left alone for months or years, they can make the home's residents ill.

To deal with this problem, Starai's staff will place a cage on the roof over the entry hole, catch the animal or animals and then go into the attic to clean up the mess left behind, including disinfecting and deodorizing.

His other company, AWAE Restoration, can then replace the ruined insulation, repair the hole made by the animal and replace or cap off the attic fan if it has been ruined. A damaged attic fan is a fire hazard, so it cannot be ignored, Starai cautioned.

If a raccoon gets into a chimney, the damage can be costly because of damage to the large terra cotta tiles inside which protect a home from sparks. Usually a chimney sweep needs to be called and if he sees appreciable damage, a stainless steel liner needs to be installed at a cost of anywhere between $2,000 and $4,000. This is covered by some insurance policies, but not all.

When squirrels get into someone's attic, they will hear scratching and running during the day. Little damage is done by squirrels. They will create a small nest in your insulation at the corner of your attic, but they won't chew your wires or cause major problems. You will just need to repair their entry hole.

The last major pest is the bat, which occurs most often in Crystal Lake and McHenry for some reason. Starai said he only sees a handful of bats anywhere else in his service area each year.

“They are like a mouse with wings and they can squeeze into the tiniest hole and their guano is very bad for you,” he said. They also often carry rabies.

Bats will get into an attic and roost there, hanging upside down and producing lots of guano. Starai removes them, turns them over to the Department of Public Health for rabies testing and then closes up all possible entry points and cleans up the mess left behind.

“Bats are very violent. They will readily bite you and then you have to go through expensive rabies shots as a precaution, even if the animal doesn't test positive for rabies,” he cautioned.

An opossum in a live trap.