Defending Your Turf 

What's an environmentally conscious person to do to get rid of annoying ants, aphids, raccoons, or snails?

We in the forward-thinking East Bay love animals, except when we don't. A "weed" may just be a plant out of place, but when it's an animal out of place, we call it far more derogatory names. From the amount of money and time spent on pest control in the United States, it seems like some of us would be happiest in a space colony, where no animal existed that wasn't friendly, unobtrusive, and useful.

Still there's an increasing recognition that many of the animals we consider pests have a right to exist on their own terms, and that eradicating them may allow the Law of Unintended Consequences to swat us down hard. When our relationship with a pest animal becomes unpleasant, the best option often is to change our behavior rather than pull out the spray can.


Unfortunately, that might not be true of the most widespread pests in the Bay Area: those tiny ants that swarm all over your house. They come in when it's too wet or too dry outside, too cold or too warm. You may wish they'd stay outside, but they're a horrendous problem there, too. They're Argentine ants, imported by accident, now occupying most of the state of California. Argentines do more than invade your kitchen: they outcompete and displace native ant species, many of which play crucial roles in the ecosystem as food sources for endangered critters like the coastal horned lizard, or as pollinators for native plants. And sadly, they've won the war: about all we can do is try to keep them out of our houses on principle.

Some people swear by repellents such as cucumber peels or cinnamon. Your mileage may vary, but I've found such repellents attract as often as they repel ants. Instead, trace those long ant queues back to their point of entry and seal the gaps with caulk or mortar or putty or whatever appropriate substance you have handy. And if you must squash a few, do so on behalf of the horned lizards of the world.


Mice and rats are mainly problems inside the house, although trash or a compost pile will often attract them as well. Your options, should you find yourself with an infestation of either one, are to 1) kill them, or 2) move. Option three, tolerating them, might work if you're immune to hantavirus, plague, and typhus, not to mention turds in your silverware drawer.

If you kill them, 'twere best done quickly -- and as humanely as possible. A good old-fashioned snap trap works relatively fast; I've often thought that the person who invented mouse and rat glue traps should be stripped down and tossed headlong onto a six-by-eight-foot example of his invention.

You can also rent "humane" traps for "relocating" your house mouse. People generally relocate mice to the nearest vacant lot. The flaw in this idea? Your house is the mouse's natural habitat. Take her to the hills, and the best-case scenario is that the mouse will immediately find another house and move in. Otherwise, she'll compete with the native rodents, some of whom fight really dirty; be made a quick meal of by a local hawk or snake; or starve to an agonizing death for lack of Cheerios. From both humane and ecological standpoints, the Born Free method is far inferior to the Victor Snap Trap method.


A highly-placed source within Express management tells me that he painstakingly laid a new sod lawn, only to find it rolled up haphazardly one morning. Blame the raccoon, Procyon lotor. You've run across them, no doubt, stealing innocent koi from your pond, leaving footprints all over your city councilperson's car, or coming through the cat door to snarf down Boots' bowl of Little Friskies. And they're native, and protected in many municipalities, so you can't catch and eat them the way Grampa did.

The solution? A good defense. Raccoons, like most highly intelligent creatures, are lazy: if your garbage can is secured with bungee cords, they'll simply give up and move on to the neighbors' trash can. Fasten that sod down with sod staples; make sure your koi pond has deep places out of reach of those little fingers; keep pet food inside, and use one of those cat doors with the magnetic latch that opens only for Muffin's special collar.

Better yet, replace the cat door with a solid piece of plywood and keep the cat inside ...

Snails and slugs

These guys are probably the second most reviled animals in the East Bay, after the ants. Controlling them is possible: you just need to be persistent. Snails and slugs come out at night to eat your garden, then find hiding places during the day. Provide hiding places -- upside-down pots, loose boards, back issues of the Express -- and then roust them at midday. Or you can use bait. The old metaldehyde-based baits are dangerous to other animals, but new ones based on iron phosphate should be nontoxic to nontarget animals. Or install a drought-friendly garden, as less watering means fewer snails.


They're fluffy and cute and cuddly, and can repay a daily tin of food with decades of intermittent love. They also kill millions of birds and other small animals each year in the United States, crap in your neighbors' garden beds, and their turds have been implicated in the scary die-off of marine mammals along the California coast. Your vet will tell you that indoor cats live three times longer, on average, than cats allowed outdoors, and speeding cars are just the most obvious reason. Responsible cat people keep their cats inside, no matter how much the kitties whine. Who's the boss, anyway? (Don't answer that.)

If you do have cats in your yard, whether they're yours or someone else's, there are a few things you can do to keep the digging and dumping to a minimum.

If getting a dog isn't feasible, a container of chile powder -- the hotter the better -- will do the trick. Find a spot a cat has adopted as an open-air litterbox and coat it well with the powder. When the cat comes back and scratches the soil, presto! Instant remorseful kitty. You can also buy motion-sensitive sprinklers that turn on when something moves near them, and they should work, too -- just notify your letter carrier before you use one, unless you want your credit card bill delivered soaking wet.

And by the way -- do I even need to mention spaying and neutering? (No, not the letter carrier.)

Aphids, scale, & mealybugs

The bane of many gardeners, these three related groups of insects breed maniacally and live by sucking the precious bodily fluids out of your garden plants. A few here and there aren't a problem. In fact, they provide a food source for the insects or birds who eat them, which helps the population stay more or less controlled. Still, hand removal, though yucky, can be an effective way of knocking back a big infestation. Aphids can be killed with a strong stream of water from a hose. Mealybugs and scale are made of sterner stuff, and you'll have to use your favorite thumbnail. Just be sure to exhaust all other options before reaching for the pesticide: killing off all the predatory insects in your yard is a sure way of breeding lots of pest insects in the near future. In fact, whiteflies -- a common greenhouse pest distantly related to aphids -- are almost never seen in gardens unless chemical pesticides have been sprayed there. Let nature and your opposable thumbs do the hard work instead.


More or less benign in their larval stage, children can swiftly become one of the most destructive household and garden pests imaginable, their damage extending from broken plaster or windows to stained or torn upholstery to damaged tree limbs and uprooted vegetables. The most devastating phase generally ends around age twenty, though some individual children become more destructive after that, often demolishing homes and gardens to build freeways, driving SUVs into street trees while talking on cell phones, or voting Republican. If you're not sure whether you have children, look for the telltale warning signs: loud, boring music; slammed doors; empty refrigerators; and depleted bank accounts. Control is difficult to impossible. The best strategy relies on prevention. See last paragraph in the entry on cats for details.


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