My Rooftop Garden Raccoon War

Encounters with a most formidable foe.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY JEFF CROSBY

Author’s Note: I’ve been around, and I like to think I’m a problem-solver. But I never faced a problem like this—until I retired.

Just before the building permit was issued for our RV garage, my wife and I had an epiphany: the roof of the garage was going to be flat, get lots of sunshine, and be well out of reach of deer. Why not put a garden on it?

So after the garage, with beefed-up walls and trusses, was finished, we laid down the appropriate materials over its roof. Following that, I constructed cedar planter boxes and plasticized lumber walkways, and we contracted to have 50,000 pounds of engineered growing medium blown into the planter boxes. The next growing season, we were finally ready to raise our first—$400—tomatoes!

One raccoon looked into the motion camera—and thumbed his nose at me!

My wife and I, with our teenage daughter, live in a heavily wooded suburb of Cincinnati. We thought raccoons were cute! “Awhhh,” said my daughter, “look at the mask and the way it cleans its face with its front paws. Can we keep it?”

Even I admired the raccoon who developed a habit of sleeping in the daytime, upside-down in a tree hole, 30 feet above the ground, head and front legs hanging out: “How does it do that?”

Yes, we did know that raccoons could be destructive—to our birdfeeders and the walls of our cedar home—and that their very social nature can lead to family tiffs. This last was evidenced the second night we threw out seed corn for the deer during an exceptionally cold winter. At 3 a.m., we were awakened by 40-50 raccoons fighting over the corn. But we won those battles by bringing birdfeeders inside at night, helping the deer with salt blocks, not corn, and putting metal hardware cloth under our cedar siding.

We had no idea what we were about to face.

Our first year’s rooftop crop included cantaloupe, one of our favorite summer treats. After weeks of daily inspections, eager for the first melon to fully ripen on the vine, we finally climbed to the roof garden to ceremoniously pick it—only to discover that, during the previous night, a raccoon had chewed a two-inch hole and completely hollowed it out! We had to repel this invasion!

I hurried to the farm supply store and bought the components for an electric fence, planning to mount its parallel wires up high, just below the perimeter of the roofline. I explained my project to the clerk and asked, “How closely together can I mount the hot and ground wires without the electricity arcing like lightning from one wire to the other?”

Her response, no doubt derived from working with cattle, was, “Oh, you don’t need a ground wire. The animals’ feet will provide the ground connection.”

Trying to keep a straight face, I re-explained that the fence was, in most places, 18 feet off the ground and added, “If one of the raccoon’s front feet can reach the top hot wire with its back feet still on the ground, I have a much bigger problem than I think!”

At first, the electric fence was effective, but soon the rest of the melon crop and many of our tomatoes were ruined. Desperate, I borrowed a friend’s infrared motion-activated camera and discovered the raccoons were coming up the steps. So I added more strands of electrified wire across the steps and offset the insulating handles. That worked—brains and technology had won the day!

The following year, however, we found more garden damage: the raccoons were bypassing the maze of electrified wires on the steps by walking up the handrail and then jumping onto the landing. I added extensions of the wires on the handrails. That bright idea worked—for a season. The next year, though, they started getting in again, and I wasn’t able to pick up how on my (by now) own infrared camera. Had the raccoons gotten invisibility cloaks?

I set a Havahart trap on the stair landing. In one week, I caught four raccoons and a possum. I released my prisoners in woods about a half-mile away. But could they find their way back? I obsessed over this quandary during several sleepless nights. How could I be sure? Trying to band a snarling raccoon seemed foolish, and I felt sure that they would not agree to wear numbered jerseys. Then one night, the proverbial lightbulb flicked on. I began spray painting a colored spot on their lower backs, just above their tails (not being, yes, a total idiot, I did this while they were in the trap).I even wrote down which raccoon received which color spot.

Given the number of trapped raccoons, however, having enough distinctive paint colors soon required a trip to the local hardware store. To the traditional, “How may I help you?” I responded, “I’m looking for small cans of inexpensive outdoor spray paint in a variety of bright colors.”

“OK. What are you painting?”

“Raccoons,” I deadpanned.

I met, and sprayed, a lot of raccoons. Each one was different. One cowered in the trap when I approached. One wanted to tear my leg off. Another wanted to be my best friend. But I never saw the same one twice. My catch, paint, and release strategy had won the war—or at least I thought it had!

Toward the end of the season, the enemy started raiding my rooftop again. Could another technological advance save the day? We tried guarding our tomato planter box with solar-charged, motion-activated, ultra-high-spectrum sound. I have always been suspicious of devices which claim to work in ways beyond perception. However, I became convinced when our Border Collie approached within ten feet and the device and its blue sound-activation light came on. She tucked tail and quickly left. (Of course, she wasn’t a threat to the garden, anyway. Besides, she only likes sugar-snap peas.) I wanted to see the same reaction from a raccoon, but had to defer to the evidence: no ruined tomatoes. Season saved!

The next season started with a new wave of attacks. Not only did raccoons ruin our tomatoes, they also developed a taste for our squash: acorn, crookneck, spaghetti, and butternut (although not—the picky eaters!—our prolific zucchini). My infrared camera showed them high-stepping single file through the step wires without any visible signs of shock. I replaced the fence transformer and sanded the wires on the steps. The camera then showed one or two raccoons individually running away as they took a shock, but, like a trained assault force, others kept coming, taking the shock risk or weaving through the handrail extension wires and leaping over the step wires.

We bought more ultra-high sound makers and turned them to higher frequencies. When that didn’t stop them, I added a motion-activated strobe light: still no effect. I couldn’t stop them! Not only that, each morning, the Havahart trap was triggered and flipped on its side: bait gone, cage empty. The camera showed that the raccoons moved it around from the back until it triggered, and then reached in for the bait. One image even showed a raccoon standing on his hind legs on the top of the sprung trap, looking into the camera—I think he was thumbing his nose at me! I was only surprised that I wasn’t mooned.

In desperation, I thought about adding more electrified wire and a higher-voltage transformer, but wouldn’t adding more of what wasn’t working be a useless strategy? I thought about sitting in the garden in camo face paint and night-vision goggles, somehow armed for the regular 2-to-5 a.m. raccoon patrols. No, that was truly crossing the line, even for me.

Then, out of the blue, my wife said, “What about human voices?” Worth a try! We bought a shower radio with a recharge-able battery and left it near the top of the garden stairs every night, tuned to the local NPR/BBC station. I also reset the ultrasonic squeals to their lowest frequency, almost audible to humans.

What do you know? It worked! As I write this, we have had no evidence, for the past two growing seasons, of any rooftop raiders. We’ve been able to harvest our own vine-ripened tomatoes—without any teeth or claw marks in them!

Still, I know that winning a battle, even for two years, is not the same as permanently winning a war. It’s very possible that this man-raccoon confrontation will go on for the rest of my golden years. But I tell you what, I’ve had a fine life, and I’m relatively proud of my accomplishments. So I don’t really care if, after it’s done, my epitaph reads:

“He fought the good fight over and over. But raccoons raid his roof now he’s under the clover.”


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