Animal Handling

Module 9      Animal Handling

Module 9 discusses how to handle animals and the treatment of wildlife while under the direct control of a person, trap, or other control method.

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the principles behind proper animal handling.
  2. Identify three tools used in animal handling.
  3. List appropriate animal handling procedures.
  4. Define relocation and translocation.


Wildlife that is captured can become extremely stressed when approached and handled by people. Proper animal handling begins before the animal is captured.

Use quality equipment and ensure that it is in proper working order. Initial equipment includes durable heavy leather gloves, such as welding gloves, and a blanket made of smooth but durable fabric, such as denim.

Strategies to Reduce Stress

Recall in Module 8 how humane trapping required attention to trap selection, placement, and monitoring. Listed below are additional strategies to consider.

  1. Equip cage and box traps with water bottles and food for animals that are trapped. Check traps daily to ensure that they always contain fresh food and water.
  2. Keep external noise and excessive handling or movement of traps to a minimum. Wild animals, particularly prey species, perceive noise and excessive movement as threats.
  3. Handle animals as briefly as possible. Animals often become stressed near humans, so reduce the amount of time spent in hand. Do not allow animals to be used for “show and tell” to neighbors and friends.

Handling Snakes

Snakes require more specific handling information and skills than other wildlife.

  1. Whenever possible, use snake tongs to handle snakes. Most people are not experienced enough to distinguish non-venomous from venomous snakes. Even a non-venomous snake can inflict a painful bite requiring medical treatment. Hold a snake behind the head to avoid being bitten (Figure 1); support its body to reduce the likelihood of it suffering injury as it struggles. Be careful how hard you squeeze the snake with the jaws of the snake tongs, as vertebrae of snakes are easily crushed. Practice control of the tongs by picking up Ping-Pong® balls, or thin skinned fruit such as tomatoes, to help gauge your pressure. Tongs with wide, flat jaws are less likely to injure snakes.
Figure 1. Proper hand-hold of a non-venomous snake. Photo by Stephen M. Vantassel.

Place the captured snake in a pillow case and tie the end securely, ensuring that the snake is not in the knot. When transporting a snake, place the pillow case in a bucket, cooler, or other hard-sided container with a cover to prevent injury. Always ensure that animals have proper ventilation.

Place captured snakes in a cool, preferably shaded, area between 40° and 75o

Animal Removal

Trapped animals

Move captured animals out of public view as quickly as possible to reduce stress to the animal and minimize the risk that well-meaning or curious onlookers will be injured. Ensure that the holding area for animals is neither too hot (out of direct sun) nor too cold (out of rain, snow, or wind). In general, small mammals have a low tolerance to extreme heat or cold, while large animals (raccoon-sized and larger) have greater tolerance. Sometimes, moving the traps and animals to a shaded area or out of the elements is sufficient. Always keep cages partially covered to help reduce animal stress.

Disposing of animals

Depending on state laws, three options are available for disposal of captured animals: on-site release (relocation), translocation, or euthanasia.

On-site release (relocation)

Relocation refers to releasing an animal within its home range. On-site release is the easiest and usually most convenient option. Open the trap and release the animal on the property where you caught it. Use caution when releasing an animal to minimize injury to you and the animal. The following recommendations may help an on-site release go smoothly.

  1. If you are not the landowner, obtain written permission in advance of release.
  2. Without handling the animal, inspect it to ensure it is free of debilitating injuries or signs of illness. Only release animals that appear healthy.
  3. Ensure that nearby structures are properly secured. Skunks tend to walk into open garages.
  4. Keep children and pets away from the area. Although it is unlikely that the animal will turn and attack, it is possible.
  5. Whenever possible, release the animal towards cover and away from roads and people.
  6. Release nocturnal animals at dusk and diurnal animals in the morning.


Translocation refers to moving and releasing an animal outside of its home range. While legal in some states, many wildlife biologists have serious reservations about its use. Animals moved from their home range suffer higher-than-normal mortality rates, are more likely to repeat problem behaviors, and may transmit diseases to animals in the new area. Also some states (e.g., New York), do not allow landowners to move problem wildlife from their property. A Wildlife Control Operator (WCO) license or a permit may be required for live transport of wildlife.

Translocation is stressful and may be inhumane to released animals. When species such as raccoons and tree squirrels are released into an area where territories are already occupied, resulting disputes can lead to injury and death to both released and resident animals. Species that are more communal and less territorial, such as rabbits, voles, opossums, snakes, and birds, are better candidates for translocation.

State regulations may place restrictions on the release of rabies-vector species (e.g., raccoons, foxes, and skunks). Always check your state regulations before moving any species to another location.

If translocation is the chosen and legal option for disposition, consider the following recommendations.

  1. Release animals in accordance with state laws. Consult with the landowner and obtain written permission in advance of release.
  2. Without handling the animal, inspect it to ensure that is does not have debilitating injuries or show signs of illness. Only release animals that appear healthy.
  3. Release animals in habitat suitable for the species.
  4. Release animals at times that will provide the greatest opportunity for survival, especially in respect to diurnal and nocturnal activity.
  5. Release animals a sufficient distance from the capture location to minimize returns. Use natural barriers (e.g., rivers) and human barriers (e.g., highways) to reduce the return of wildlife. The following are suggested minimum distances.
    • chipmunk-sized animals – 2 miles
    • skunks and opossums – 10 miles
    • raccoons – 20 miles

Handling Animals that Won’t Leave a Trap

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, animals refuse to leave their cage or box traps. This behavior is particularly common with skunks and opossums (Figure 2).

Figure 2. A juvenile opossum hunkers down in the back of a box trap. Photo by Stephen M. Vantassel

Several methods can be used to encourage an animal to leave a trap.

  1. Remove any trap covering to expose the animal to sunlight or the elements.
  2. Ensure the animal can see a pathway for escape.
  3. If, after several minutes, the animal doesn’t move, consider securing the door in an open position and leave it overnight.
  4. With a skunk in a cage trap, remove the cover and gently spray water on it to encourage it to leave. Do not use this method when using a box trap or during cold weather.


In some states, laws or regulations require euthanasia of captured nuisance animals. If the potential for disease transmission is high, euthanasia is the preferred option. Euthanasia must be performed in accordance with your state regulations. Guidelines for euthanasia have been established by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) but their application in field settings may be difficult. Recommendations are available at In addition, organizations such as the National Wildlife Control Operators Association and The Wildlife Society are working on guidelines for humane euthanasia in field settings. Module 10 has more information on euthanasia.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Explain the difference between relocation and translocation.
  1. Which activity (relocation or translocation) do some wildlife biologists have serious concerns about? Explain their view.
  1. Your client wants to translocate an animal that appears ill. What would you say to that person?
  1. A major snow storm is in the forecast, and your client desperately wants the trapping project to begin now. What should you recommend?
  1. Describe some ways to encourage an animal to leave a trap.