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Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Stephen Vantassel’s book “Being Kind to Animal Pests,” revised edition. See box below for additional information on this book.

Effective trapping involves four elements: equipment, location, the set and the attraction. This article focuses on location, the set and the attraction, which encompass making the set. (Keep in mind that “cage trap” often refers to cage and box traps. I have just used the phrase “cage traps” to avoid the awkwardness of constantly writing “cage/box traps.”)

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. Location is probably the most important element of the trapping quadrilateral because the animal must be able to find the trap. Only you, the PMP/trapper, can choose proper trap sites. I contend that selection of set location separates the good PMPs/trappers from the great trappers. No aspect of successful cage trapping is more important than proper location.

Selecting good set locations involves three elements: animal behavior, reading signs (evidence of the animal) and security. Beginners are sure to experience some difficulties with set location. Some trial and error will assist in developing skills that are helpful in the selection of good sets. The adage “experience is the best teacher” applies to cage trapping also. Yet, the selection of good cage trap set locations is not difficult. Just by keeping a few principles in mind, even those who may use a cage trap only once or twice in their life can choose good locations.

ANIMAL BEHAVIOR. Success with cage traps requires some knowledge of animal behavior. Failure to understand animal behavior is a leading cause of unsuccessful cage trapping. Fortunately, animal behavior is not difficult to understand. There are five basic motives behind all animal behavior: shelter, sex, territory, curiosity, and food and water. All animals move from their dens to locations where they can feed and then back again to the original den or to another location to sleep. Traps need to be set either by their dens, on the trails or at the locations where animals feed. Traps set even a few feet from these locations can seriously limit success. Animals will not travel far out of their way (which can be as short a distance as 10 feet) to enter something as foreign as a cage/box trap unless they are very motivated.

Each species has its own preference for food, shelter and habitat. Some animals require a specific type of habitat (e.g. beaver); others, such as the raccoon, are highly adaptive and can live in a variety of habitats. The more knowledgeable you are about habits, needs, diet and behavior of the species being pursued, the more success you will have with cage and box trapping.

READING SIGNS. A key element of understanding animal behavior is the ability to “read” animal signs. Signs can include tracks, feces, hair, odor, remnants of food, digging, noises, etc. Signs that are left by an animal provide clues to what animal was there. Before setting traps, the trapper needs to identify the animal or species he is trying to catch so proper preparation for handling the catch can be made. Some problems can occur if the trapper targets a raccoon and catches a skunk instead. If the sign is damage related, it will reveal the species the trapper needs to catch to stop the damage. Good PMPs/trappers won’t just rely on visual sightings alone because frequently the animal that is seen is not the animal that caused the damage. In addition, most animals are secretive and will not be witnessed in the act in the first place. Consequently, animal signs are often the only information the trapper must rely on in developing a game plan for the capture of the animal.

Learning about locating and interpreting animal signs will take years to perfect. But you should start this process by learning about animals you wish to or are likely to trap and read about the types of food they eat, tracks and trails, dens or living areas, feces and the type of damage or annoyance the species typically causes. I suggest beginning to learn about animal diets, dens, tracks/trails and scats as these signs will be the most commonly encountered in either natural or urban environments.

ANIMAL DIET. Animal food habits fall into three basic categories: herbivores, carnivores or omnivores. The diet of herbivores consists of primarily vegetative matter. These animals have teeth adapted to gnawing or cutting. Rabbits, squirrels and groundhogs are examples of herbivores. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the carnivores (or predators), animals which live off meat. Carnivores have teeth adapted to tearing and ripping. These animals subsist by preying on other animals and/or eating carrion. Animals such as foxes, coyotes and weasels are carnivores. Some animals will eat either vegetative matter or meat. These animals will eat anything they happen upon that appeals to them; they are called omnivores. These animals have teeth that can grind plants (like an herbivore) and tear meat (like a carnivore). Raccoons and opossums are omnivores.

A tree squirrel gnawed through this plastic trash can lid.

Each animal species, regardless of its general food habit classification, has food preferences. As an example, consider the cottontail rabbit and the fox squirrel. Both are herbivores. The cottontail rabbit prefers to eat tender young, green leafy matter. Therefore, gardens are favorite eateries. The fox squirrel prefers the inner vegetative matter (pulp) of acorns, buckeyes, nuts and the garbage tossed in cans (see photo at left). Both animals cause grief to homeowners with their eating habits.

Many gardeners expend considerable efforts keeping cottontail rabbits out of their gardens. Fox and grey squirrels have a habit of hiding (caching) food by burying items in the ground. Their digging activities can create havoc in lawns and parks.

DENS. Animals seek shelter in a variety of places. Some species, such as the badger, dig burrows in the ground. The groundhog also may burrow, but the groundhog is just as likely to use some suitable cranny in an old building foundation for shelter. Tree squirrels live in hollowed trees. So also might the raccoon. But, as adaptive as the raccoon is, it could be found living most anywhere. City storm sewers, abandoned animal dens, culverts, buildings, attics, even chimneys are all living quarters the raccoon finds suitable.

The sign which identifies an animal’s living quarters can be large and visible, such as holes in hollow trees and freshly dug earth next to a ground burrow. However, some animals may use openings that are not so conspicuous. Squirrels, for example, can enter a hole no larger than 2 or 3 inches in diameter. Such a hole can be hidden in an obscure place such as under the eaves of a house, which allows the squirrel to enter the attic. A mere crack can allow mice to enter a house or bats to enter an attic.

Many animals prefer to live in structures built by man. Look for holes in the sides of buildings, toilets (areas where animals defecate) or openings in building foundations that animals are using. Such openings often can be identified by the wear marks around the edges that occur from an animal’s repeated entrance and exit. Animal hairs may be discovered clinging to the edges of the opening. Other avenues of entrance or exit may be under doors and through windows. Knowing where an animal lives will provide a clue to good trap set locations.

TRACKS & TRAILS. Traps can be placed near where an animal is living, but most often the set will be near trails and travel ways used by the animal. Animals may create distinct paths when they travel through grass and brush. Such paths are easily observed. Paths of animals usually have an origin at their living quarters and lead to areas the animal travels to in search of food. Not so easily observed are the travel ways of animals living in urban areas. Squirrels, for instance, will travel via rooftops and power lines in cities, and will leave no visible trail. Lawns and concrete do not provide good conditions for noticeable animal trails to appear. Sometimes the cage trapper must rely on visual sightings of the animal in urban areas to determine an animal’s travel routes. Also, remember that an animal will follow along natural and unnatural features of the environment as they travel.