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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!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

16 comments on “Trap And Release for Squirrel Control: Not Such a Good Idea

  1. Colette Bachand

    This is awful what u are suggesting. Will not do that. Everyone and everything deserves a second chance. I am sure that the area here is so densely wooden that there is place for every squirrel and more, there is no cats there.

  2. Eric Walburger

    I don’t agree with killing a trapped squirrel. Being a squirrel on the run is not as bad as getting killed. Would a soldier rather go to war or be shot on the spot in order not to go ? I think there are unexplored options such as electrical fence. Which is not as expensive as it sounds. Squirrel just as any animals will not ask to be electro shocked twice. Furthermore squirrel overpopulation is not a humane blame. If they compete with each other resulting in maiming that is nature taking its course and is acceptable as such. Killing a healthy squirrel on the other end, is just cruel and inhumane.

  3. There is no way I could kill a living animal who I’ve trapped unharmed. I don’t even know (or want to know) what methods people use for killing. As Eric says, at least relocating gives the critter a chance for survival.

  4. Mikey, I need to ask if you are a meat eater. If so, I also ask the difference between capturing a squirrel live and killing it and raising animals, then killing them?

  5. After battling with squirrels over and over again, I totally agree that capturing and immediately butchering them or using a snap trap to immediately put them out of their misery (and eliminate your misery in the process) is the only way to go. Six months ago, I was still a fan of “catch and release”. Now I see that it isn’t a good solution for the squirrel or the person battling them.

  6. They’re Pests….not Pets.

    • Squirrels were here far before we moved into their lands so I’d say that humans are the pests.

      • That depends where you live. Many “problem” squirrel species are introduced ones or have expanded their range du to human intervention and local plants have no adaptations to cope with them.

  7. M.K. Myers

    Thank you for all of this helpful info. Are there items we can set up outside as alternative teeth sharpeners to prevent the significant number of little branches being gnawed off and littering our yard?

  8. James Harman

    Anyone heard of squirrel gravy? Mom used to make it for my dad😅

  9. Squirrels can be very destructive they have eaten my lawnmower tank gas container put holes in my screen porch and eaten the wooden end of my hammock for starters
    Let the find their was in a large forested area as best they can

  10. bob wilkuns

    Squirrels are the devil. Shooting them is the way to go.

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