Home invasions

Don't go batty this holiday season

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Over the holidays we expect to invite certain guests into our homes to fill them with love and warmth. What we don’t ever expect - but many deal with anyways - is uninvited guests gaining access into our homes so that they can reap the benefits of that warmth we create.

It’s a simple equation. The weather gets cold and, as a species that has conquered our natural environment, we winterize our windows and turn our heating units on so that we can enjoy a comfortable temperature despite the frigid conditions outside. Our mastering of temperature, combined with the ready-made shelters provided by our homes, makes for an ideal situation for invasions.

We’re not talking about home invasions that end up on Dateline - those one in a million type crimes where someone discovers that another person has been surreptitiously living in their house for weeks or even months undetected. These intruders are smaller, fluffier, and despite their supposed cuteness they can actually pose real issues for homeowners across the state.

“It can happen to anybody in any house,” said Peter August, co-director of the College of the Environmental and Life Sciences and Environmental Science and Management Graduate Program at the University of Rhode Island.

August said, in his experience, such home invasions are more common than you might think, and whether your house is brand new or approaching 100 years old, critters can be inventive in ways to let themselves in and make themselves at home within your attics, walls or dark, quiet corners.

This writer, for example, bought a house close to 90 years old in Cranston. It was expertly cleaned by the previous owners and kept in great condition. A routine home inspection during the closing of the sale revealed no major structural insecurities that might allow entry. No bugs found their way in throughout the entire summer and early fall, and keeping the place pristine was a priority of consistent routine.

And yet, in the dead of early morning in the middle of a cold stretch in November, the noises began. A scratching, scuffling sound was coming from above the ceiling of the bedroom. The brain tends to de-escalate such situations - especially when the noise wakes you from a deep sleep. The thought process went, in this order, from ghost, to human murderer, to an army of rats in the attic and, finally, probably just a squirrel scurrying along the top of the roof.

The sounds stopped for two weeks after their initial appearance, and it seemed no more creatures stirred - not even a mouse. Then, the sounds returned with a vengeance and turned a quiet Sunday night into a calamitous occasion marked by frantically Googling pest control services and listening for the trademark squeaks and sneaky creaks to see if they were somehow able to breach an area outside of the attic.

The prevailing thought was we had a mouse - or mice, as our pest control professional gave it to us straight that very rarely is it ever just one mouse in such a situation. What it actually turned out to be? A bachelor big brown bat, just hanging out in his newly found winter home, preparing for hibernation.

According to August, who studied bat ecology for both his masters and PhD, finding bats in the attic as the season turns to winter is much less common than bats finding shelter in attics during the summer - their most active time - but it does happen. Mice, he has found, are far more common.

“What you have found is not uncommon but it doesn’t happen to everybody all the time,” he said. “In my experience, it’s going to be more like 99 out of 100 people get mice.”

Whether it’s mice or a bat, how they gain access is pretty much the same. Both mammals have a keen ability to fit in tiny spaces. August said the likely point of entry into this writer’s house could have been the tiny hole in the wood siding to the attic - a space no larger than the size of a quarter.

“A quarter sized hole would be a thoroughfare for a bat,” he said. “That would be plenty of room for a bat to come and go from.”

The situation with mice is similar. They can squeeze in between tiny cracks in foundations, scurry up gutters and slide through gaps in the eaves of the roof, or find other access points you may not even be aware of. The trademark clue to identifying an uninvited visitor can be visual or audible. Visually, look for droppings - about the size of chocolate sprinkles, to use an unfortunately edible comparison. Audibly, scratching and scurrying from above during late night hours - both bats and mice are nocturnal - are the telltale signs you have a problem.

With mice, the concerns for homeowners include possible property damage, as they must constantly gnaw and chew to keep their teeth in check, which never stop growing. They can wreak havoc with wiring and may even affect the structural integrity of your home. They also can get into food storage and carry diseases into your home, leaving those with compromised immune systems at risk.

Bats, on the other hand, largely get a bad reputation and draw the ire of Americans for more manufactured reasons.

“I think it’s all cultural,” August said. “You and I both grew up as kids with Halloween visions of Count Dracula sucking your vital fluids dry. How many science fiction movies have you seen as a kid with the vampire bats tormenting a Romanian village? Bats get a pretty bad rap.”

But not all cultures around the world see bats in the same spooky fashion.

“If you were doing this story in China, mice are highly regarded,” August continued. “Look at your Chinese plates and your Chinese furniture. On the legs and on the decorations, you’ll always see bat silhouettes, because the Chinese word for ‘bat’ is also the same as the word that means ‘good fortune.’”

Regardless of their perception, having such an experience can be upsetting, as it opens up more questions. What didn’t we do to prevent an animal from getting in? Is there more that are just better at hiding? What is it doing up there, and is it causing damage? How can we make changes that will prevent this from happening again and, most importantly, how much is this remediation going to cost me?

According to August, the first step should always be to call in somebody who knows what they’re doing in order to identify the points of entry and egress and the species of the intruder. Depending on what answers that step reveals, the next steps may vary. For bats, though, considering the potential risk of rabies should a bat bite or scratch you - though very few bats are carriers - precautions should be taken.

“I would never recommend any citizen to go up and try to handle a bat and let it go or do something with it,” he said. “It’s something you want a professional to do.”

For many, getting rid of mice is a job also best reserved for a professional, as they will also provide guidance on how to seal up your house to prevent future invasions and offer protection plans that will lessen the cost of any future remediations that are necessary.

The Department of Environmental Management offers tips on how to properly winterize your home at http://www.dem.ri.gov/programs/fish-wildlife/wildlifehuntered/animalproof.php.

You can be certain that this writer will be listening to all experts in regards to how to expel our uninvited holiday guest. Being a new homeowner during your first holiday season is batty enough without making it literal.

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