Over the years, people have asked us about car problems relating to dogs, cats, goats, snakes, birds, crabs, raccoons, geckos, bed bugs, mud chiggers, and Madagascar hissing cockroaches – among others.

And we made up lots of answers. Until now! Meet wildlife expert, Dr. Kieran Lindsey. Her office is open, and she's here to take your questions about the intersection of cars and wildlife.

You can join the discussion going on now or get answers to common automotive-animal questions in our interview with Kieran.

Yours in keeping the bed bugs out of the Buick,

Tom and Ray Magliozzi
Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers

 

Jump to an Answer


STU LOCOCK

CAR TALK ASKS

Why do rodents make themselves at home in our cars?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

All animals, including humans, have four basic survival needs: air, water, food and living space – someplace to call home that offers a bit of protection from the weather and other creatures; a place to sleep in relative peace; and room to raise a family. Looking at this from a small animal's perspective (without actually having experienced this perspective personally, of course), cars make great cribs:

  • Rodents are small enough to make a doorway out of a dime-size hole, so there are all kinds of nooks and crannies safe from sun, wind, cold, rain, snow, and things that think of them as food.
  • There's plenty of handy building materials nearby in the form of wire insulation, upholstery fabric and stuffing, and rug fibers so you can fix the place up just the way you like it.
  • And sometimes you get a free ride to the bank, the movies – or even the beach!

CAR TALK ASKS

So, how do we keep them out?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

Of course, it's not feasible to try to plug up every opening in the family truck so we need to think about this from a different angle. Assuming the car is being driven on a regular basis, it's probably free food that's attracting the wild crowd. Think about it – if you stumbled onto a restaurant that offered a 24-hour buffet, wouldn't you start checking out the neighborhood and calling movers?

  • If the car in question lives in a garage, a rubbish bin might be the cause. If so, relocate the bin away from the car.
  • Has your family been using the garage as an auxiliary pantry or to store pet food?
  • Consider items humans may not automatically think of as food. Are grass seed and other gardening supplies being stored nearby?
  • If the car is parked on the street, look around to see if there's a food source nearby, such as trees that bear fruit or nuts, or maybe a bird feeder.
  • Americans often eat on the go, so look for wayward French fries, stray scone crumbs, or shredded lettuce. (And if you find all three, maybe it's time to think about a meal at home!)
  • If the vehicle regularly transports a baby or small child, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there will be Cheerios.

My advice is to remove as many food sources from around and inside the car as possible. Then remember to be diligent about cleaning up after eating on the go.


CAR TALK ASKS

Can you stop rodents from dying in your car?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

The main way to keep rodents from dying in a car is to discourage them from living in the car in the first place by removing sources of food and shelter.

If the rodents weren't living in the car when they died, then it's possible they've eaten poison and have used their last ounce of strength to drag themselves into the sanctuary of an automotive hideout to die in peace... and deliver a little olfactory revenge in the process. This is one of the primary problems with using poisons (from the human perspective, anyway) – once you let go of the poison you've lost control of it. You can't control who consumes it, or where the victim of your chemical warfare will die. Besides, poisons are cruel and, frankly, bad karma. Clean up the garage or parking area, remove all the food sources, and give the car a thorough and regular vacuuming.

CAR TALK SAYS

OK. We can't promise to stop poisoning the airwaves, but we do promise to refrain from poisoning animals. Just tell us how to get rid of the smell!

DR. KIERAN SAYS

A small creature can hold an amazing amount of stink. The best way to get rid of the smell – no surprise – is to remove the body. Unfortunately, that's not always easy or inexpensive.

So, how long will that nasty smell last? Until the remains have decomposed completely or dried out. Dead-mouse stink will usually stick around anywhere from two to three days to two to three weeks, depending upon the size of the mouse and whether there's more than one involved – and whether you might actually have a small, dead rat on your hands. Factors like the temperature and humidity play a big role in determining the duration of the odor, too. Dead-rat stink usually lasts for a week but could last for up to a month. If you're not willing to wait that long, you can try any or all of the following, and then wait a week or two:

  • an absorbent filter (such as activated charcoal or silica gel);
  • an odor neutralizer, such as "Nature's Miracle"; and/or
  • a masking deodorant.

JIM STROUP

CAR TALK ASKS

Why do we keep finding nuts in our ventilation systems, the engine compartment, and air intake?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

Rodents are the most likely suspects, particularly species who hoard or cache food resources. Depending on where you live, this might include chipmunks, field mice and pack rats.

Look at the engine compartment or ventilation system from a rodent's eyes. While we see an engine compartment or a ventilation system – rodents would likely see something that looks a lot like a burrow. How convenient! And how nice of the humans to provide a prefab tunnel just waiting for a nice mouse or chipmunk to move in and fill the pantry with groceries! Prevention is primarily about making groceries harder to come by. This means the following:

  • Clean up the garage or parking area, remove all the food sources, and give the car a thorough and regular vacuuming.
  • Be sure to drive the vehicle regularly.
  • Expand your parking options so the car isn't always waiting in the predictable location.

CAR TALK ASKS

Are there other animals that nest or store stuff in cars?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

Teenagers. And I really have no idea how to prevent that, but I'd suggest you start by cleaning up the garage or parking area, removing all the food sources, giving the car a thorough and regular vacuuming, and hiding the keys.


BECKY GLINKA

CAR TALK ASKS

How do you stop rodents and other small furry creatures from eating car wiring? Come to think of it, why do they like to eat wiring?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

There's some question among us animal cognoscenti over whether they're actually eating the insulation, harvesting it for other uses, such as nesting materials, or both. I have been hearing about soy – specifically, soy-based materials used by auto manufacturers instead of petroleum-based plastics – that turn wiring into a tasty meal, but I'm not sure I'm convinced. Regardless, animals that live near people tend to be quite adaptable and that's true of their ability to utilize novel resources such as new kinds of food and nesting materials.

CAR TALK ASKS

How can we put a stop to it?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

Wire damage commonly occurs when a vehicle isn't being driven for long periods of time or when it's near a vibrant population of gnawers. Soy or no soy, the first step, as I've mentioned before, is to make sure you're not inadvertently putting out the welcome mat by making other food sources readily available.

If food isn't the problem then we need to look at humane ways to ask the local fauna to leave the car alone. There are any number of techniques that will do the trick... at least for a while. But the same adaptability that allows certain wild species to survive and even thrive in close proximity to humans also causes them to habituate quickly to our scare tactics. Here are some ideas:

  • Noise, such as a portable stereo.
  • Strobes or other blinking lights.
  • Balloons or aluminum pie plates tied to the underside of the vehicle.
  • A garden gnome or some other small statue with eyes placed beneath the car... you get the idea.

Make wires less tasty by spraying with capsaicin, the chemical that makes hot sauce hot. This won't get rid of them permanently, but it may buy you some time to clean up and make the car less attractive to rodents.

We're trying to use the element of surprise so that we avoid complacency on the part of both the wildlife and the car owner. Get creative, get wild, get crazy – but stay safe.


CAR TALK ASKS

Why do mice love us – and our cars – so very much?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

Well, you have to admit, once you get past the beady eyes, humans ARE pretty cute. They provide all kinds of helpful services – finding and sharing tasty treats, for example. Who wouldn't want to keep one as a pet? And, of course, one of the best places to find your human is in a car.

Another way to look at it might be karmic. Humans and rodents go way back. Of course, it hasn't always been a marriage made in heaven. We blamed them for the Black Death, when fleas were the real culprits. We continue to conscript them for service in medical experiments. We hire exterminators to get them out of our houses then go to a pet store and buy them to keep as companion animals, or to feed to other species we keep as pets. Maybe the reason they "love" people and their cars so much is they figure we owe them. Big time.


ED CLARK

CAR TALK ASKS

How can you remove a snake, a lizard, or even cockroach that has escaped into a car?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

Who would have thought someone living in the eighteenth century could have anticipated that people in the twenty-first century would be purposely driving snakes and guinea pigs and giant hissing cockroaches around in horseless carriages? And yet Ben Franklin must have been prescient indeed because his Poor Richard's Almanac offers the best advice I know for dealing with escapees: "An ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure."

People who transport non-human animals in their cars should invest in escape-proof containers, and while they're at it they need to make sure the container is secured inside the vehicle so it doesn't slide or bounce or tip over when the car clips a curb.

CAR TALK SAYS

So you're saying we should have called you an hour ago.

DR. KIERAN SAYS

If common sense is something you experience in brilliant flashes of hindsight, I'm afraid you may be in a bit of a pickle because you may need to disassemble some or all of the vehicle.

Each situation is different, but I can offer one helpful hint: do NOT close up the car and walk away for a little while, thinking your little friend will calm down and be waiting for you on the back seat when you return. This approach only gives the escapee more time to find a REALLY good hiding place, preferably one that is easy to crawl into and nearly impossible to be pried out of. Keep your (or at least someone's) eyes on the prize – once you stop the car, of course – and then use your cell to call for an assistant. And tools.


STU HORNER

CAR TALK ASKS

Spiders dangling from rear view mirrors have been known to cause 19-car pileups. How do we keep them out?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

My specialty is animals with a backbone (vertebrates) rather than those who wear their skeleton on the outside (invertebrates), so I turned to Dr. Mike Merchant, Professor and Extension Urban Entomologist for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service for help with this one. He reminded me of an old saying: "No matter where you are in the world, you're never more than 5 feet from a spider." So chances are you often drive around with spiders on board and only occasionally do they make their presence known by hanging from the rear view mirror or chilling out on the dashboard.

CAR TALK SAYS

That's not what our arachnophobic readers wanted to hear.

DR. KIERAN SAYS

Dr. Mike also explained that cars are not usually a good habitat for spiders. The presence of a spider, or several spiders, in your car might be a sign that public transportation would be a better choice, but there are other possible explanations as well, such as:

  • You parked below a tree or in a building that recently served as a spider nursery;
  • It's the season during which a particular species of spider is dispersing – which they do by crawling or "ballooning" on strands of web that catch a breeze and can carry the arachnid for miles;
  • You parked your car in a lot with lights that attract insects at night; or
  • You often leave your windows open, allowing both spiders and the insects upon which they feed to come and go at will.

Regardless, unless you have a major infestation, spider control is simple. For those kind-hearted souls among us who wouldn't hurt a fly, or a spider, you can capture Charlotte using a glass and a piece of cardboard or a credit card and simply set her free outside of the vehicle. You can also gently – or not so gently – catch the spider using a tissue. The spider can then be released or dispatched, as you see fit. A vacuum can also serve as a spider capture device. Remember, the vast majority of spiders in the U.S. are not venomous, but be careful nonetheless. And I did ask Dr. Mike if anyone has ever developed a spider repellant. In spite of what you might read on the web (the Internet – not the Charlotte – kind), the answer is no.


CAR TALK ASKS

Should you buy a used car from someone whose apartment is infested with bedbugs?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

Only if you or the current owner is willing to have the car treated prior to purchase, or even prior to a test drive, for that matter. Or if you want to hear the pitter-patter of thousands of tiny, tiny feet in your own apartment. But I won't be driving with you on that late night run to White Castle.

CAR TALK ASKS

Can bedbugs live in cars?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

Yes. But unless you do a lot of driving at night you may never know it. That's because bed bugs are most active in the dark.

CAR TALK ASKS

Thanks for the nightmares, Doc. How do you get rid of them?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

There are pesticides, of course, but most people don't like the thought of filling their car with toxic chemicals – and understandably so. According to Dr. Mike Merchant, Professor and Extension Urban Entomologist for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, bed bugs are extremely sensitive to heat and cold. The latter may be an option if you live in Fargo, North Dakota, where your car may naturally be subjected to below zero temperatures for the two weeks necessary to kill all life stages of the insect. Heat may be a better option for most car owners, but there are challenges to overcome for this technique as well. Exposing bed bugs to 120ºF for 60 minutes will do the trick, but it isn't easy to get the entire interior of the car to that temperature.

Rather than attempt something dangerous or ineffective, it's best to contact a professional exterminator.


HAVAHART.COM

CAR TALK ASKS

Havahart® traps: Great? Pointless? Won't the squirrel or snake just return to your car after you humanely release him?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

While certainly better than kill traps, when it comes to wildlife live traps aren't really all that humane or effective. The main difference between kill traps and live traps is how long it takes for the animal to die.

If you trap an animal, remove it from your vehicle, release it in the backyard and don't take any steps to make the car less attractive as a denning site, it will probably just come back. That's because to you it's a car, but to the animal it's home.

When people decide to address this problem the animal will sometimes be taken on "a nice long drive." To the human this seems like a win-win solution – no more boarders in the Beamer and the critter gets a nice new home in the country. Problem is, it doesn't look like home to the critter. Or rather, it looks like someone else's home. Because if the new location is a good place for that squirrel or snake to live, you can bet there's already a squirrel or snake living there and the current residents won't take kindly to squatters. So your animal is going to immediately try to get back to his or her own home territory. And that's surely going to be a long trek that involves trying to cross a lot of roads, and escaping detection by predators that are far more familiar with the neighborhood. So the mortality rate for animals that are trapped and released somewhere other than their home territory is pretty high.

Since there's no such thing as a vacant lot in nature, if you don't take steps to change what made the car attractive in the first place, all you've really done is open up space for someone new to move in... and the whole process starts again. Sorry to sound like a broken record, but:

  • Clean up the garage or parking area
  • Remove all the food sources
  • Give the car a thorough and regular vacuuming


CHRISTEN V. MCLEAN

CAR TALK ASKS

Our favorite animal caller wanted to electrify the outside of his car, like an electric fence, to train his goats not to leap onto the vehicle. How can we discourage animals from leaping onto cars and denting and scratching with their hooves, or claws?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

As someone who dreads getting zapped by static shock when I wear a particular pair of shoes and then touch my car, the idea of purposely turning the car into an electric fence – if it's even feasible – sounds like one of those scenarios where the cure is worse than the disease. On the one hand – a scratched and dented car; on the other hand – electrocution. No thanks!

There is a third way, however. If we're talking about wildlife, it might help to use humane-but-scary discouragements like lights and noises. If, however, the animal in question is particularly brave or a domesticated animal that's comfortable around people and their stuff, we'll probably need to take it up a notch. There are several types of training devices available in pet stores and online, but two are especially well suited for our needs:

  • Sofa Scram is a battery-operated device made of foam rubber, Styrofoam and nylon. Place it on any surface and with a touch it emits a series of 85-decibel beeps. That'll get your attention... and the attention of your neighbors, so unless you live on a decent-sized lot you may want to consider...
  • The Scat Mat is a variation on the same theme – and one that should appeal to our budding electrocutioner. Instead of sound, these battery-operated devices use harmless, low-power electronic pulses similar to static electricity. Both of these devices are affordable and low-maintenance.


CAR TALK ASKS

On cold days, cats will crawl into the engine compartment to nap. Then, the unsuspecting motorist fires up the engine and all fur breaks loose. How can you keep cats from napping in your engine?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

Who can blame an outdoor kitty for being drawn to the toasty warmth of a recently parked car or as sanctuary from a threatening predator? But combining cats and car engines can create something far more serious than flying fur – there's a very good chance it will result in a serious injury or even a feline fatality.

You might think this is only a concern for drivers who park their car outside, in a driveway, parking lot, or on the street. But cats have been known to find their way into a garage – especially if mice have found a way in first. Some homeowners deliberately leave their garage door open slightly so their outdoor cat can take shelter inside. And in the morning rush to get to work on time Felix may not be the first thing on your mind.

Of course, the easiest way to keep cats from getting into the engine is to keep them indoors. Not only is it safer for the cat – outdoor cats have much shorter lives, on average, than exclusively indoor cats – it's also safer for wildlife. Don't believe me? Check out the American Bird Conservancy's Cats Indoors! campaign.

CAR TALK SAYS

Try telling that to my neighbor!

DR. KIERAN SAYS

For those of us who don't have any control over the presence of free-roaming or feral cats, there are some simple habits you can develop to reduce the risk. You can pop open the hood, bang on the hood or honk the horn a few times. Keep in mind that a cat won't always be visible from above but the sound of the hood opening and closing may help to flush the cat from its hiding place. Then take a few deep breaths and give the kitty time to exit. You'll begin your day in a better frame of mind and you'll probably drive more safely as a result. You could save a cat's life... and your own.


JIM STROUP

CAR TALK ASKS

We recently had a question from a caller who is legally blind. She puts her guide dog at her feet in front of the passenger seat when she rides in a car. Will the dog be safe there if the airbag deploys?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

I knew I was going to need some help on this one so I spoke to Yvonne Martin in the Puppy Department at Guide Dogs of America. The organization has been providing guide dogs and instruction in their use, free of charge, since 1948. Of course, there's potential for injury to both the human and dog passengers in any automobile accident but Yvonne assured me the airbag does not endanger the dog when it deploys, and in the 10 years she's been working with guide dogs, she's never heard of a single incident in which the dog was injured in this traveling position.

By the way, I couldn't help but wonder, why do guide dogs travel at the feet of their person rather than in a crate or using a canine seatbelt? I could see the need when riding on public transportation, but there's always another person to assist in a passenger car – namely, the driver. Yvonne explained that, under normal circumstances, the dog and human are never separated; they function together not just as a team, but almost as a single individual. Part of the guide dog's job would be to help their human after the accident. The dog can't do that if it isn't close at hand.


CAR TALK ASKS

What's the best way to keep birds from pooping on your car?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

When it comes to random strafing, I don't know what to tell you other than everybody poops, including birds, so everyone's car gets hit now and then! But if your car regularly looks like it's been playing paintball, the easiest solution may be to find a new place to park, if you can. There are several urban/suburban bird species, such as starlings and grackles that congregate in large flocks – a behavior called communal roosting. And while they're hanging out they... um, process... the day's meals all over anything below.

If there's nowhere else to park and you're dealing with serious quantities of birds and poop, there are some humane techniques for encouraging the birds to roost elsewhere. However, you'll need to work with state and/or federal wildlife professionals. All of our native birds are covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which means if you take matters into your own hands the excrement is really going to hit the fan.

CAR TALK ASKS

What's the best way to clean up after a flock has targeted your car?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

My professors didn't cover bird poop removal in wildlife biology school, so I put in a call to Renny Doyle, founder of Attention to Details Ltd., for advice. He explained that droppings are acidic, so it may take one or more steps to remove them from paint or glass. First, use a mild car shampoo and a soft microfiber cloth to wash and dry. Don't use circular motions – follow the direction that the air travels across the vehicle's surface. If the dropping persists or the paint looks etched, apply a light mist of isopropyl rubbing alcohol to the area and wipe with the microfiber towel. Then, wash the area with clean, cool soapy water and towel it dry. If the etching remains, contact a professional automotive detailer for help.


CAR TALK ASKS

Skunks: Where can we find someone who can supply industrial size barrels of tomato sauce?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

I don't recommend tomato sauce, and neither does my detailing guru, Renny Doyle. For the vehicle's exterior, a good washing with a high-quality car shampoo or dishwashing soap and soft microfiber towels should do the trick. Renny explained that exterior surfaces, with the exception of tires, are non-porous and should respond to the dish soap. He also cautioned that dishwashing soap will strip away any wax, so once the odor is removed the car will need a new coat of wax or paint sealer.

For skunk stink within the interior of a vehicle, you'll need a product that serves three important functions:

  • Captures and eliminates odor molecules.
  • Attaches to and destroys the odor causing bacteria.
  • Contains biological excretion killers.

Renny says most commercially available odor eliminators do only two of these three but he generously offered his own home remedy.

    Renny's Odor Eliminator Recipe
  • 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide (NOTE: peroxide may cause bleaching so apply to a test spot first)
  • 1/4 c. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. dish detergent
  • 1 tbs. household odor eliminator, such as Nature's Miracle

Make sure all affected areas have a moderate to heavy layer of odor eliminator on the affected area. In other words, soak the carpet and upholstered areas and then dry thoroughly. Wipe other surfaces (dashboard, leather and plastics) with a soft rag soaked with the odor eliminator.

JIM STROUP

CAR TALK ASKS

How can you keep larger animals from urinating in or on a car? And if it's too late, what's the best way to get rid of the stink?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

If your car gets tagged now and then on a mostly random basis, there's probably not much you can do to prevent it. If, on the other hand, your car has become the neighborhood pee-mail café for the four-legged set the easiest solution is – no surprise – to park somewhere else and keep the windows rolled up.

Removing urine smell is basically the same as the process described by Renny Doyle for getting rid of skunk stink. The main difference is that when a skunk and a car meet, the skunk stays on the outside. Urine may be directly applied, shall we say, to the carpet or upholstery by an excited family pet, an outdoor cat looking for temporary shelter, or a wild creature who has decided to move in. If the urine is "fresh" you'll need to start by absorbing as much of the wetness as possible by blotting with clean cotton towels. Then proceed as described for removing skunk stink. If the urine has dried simply follow the instructions above.


CAR TALK ASKS

What's the oddest story you've ever heard about cars and wildlife?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

Although I've answered lots of wildlife questions over the years I'm new to my role as Car Talk's animal-vehicle biologist. Ask me again in about three months and I bet I'll have some doozies to share... including, perhaps, YOUR story.


CAR TALK ASKS

How do we keep the raccoons from having another litter in the back of Tommy's Fiat?

DR. KIERAN SAYS

Two things would help: (1) If Tommy could keep the Fiat running it wouldn't be as appealing as a denning site – raccoons prefer a nursery that stays put; and (2) if Tommy didn't bear such a striking resemblance to a raccoon the poor things wouldn't be confused into thinking they're living among their own kind.

RUTHANNE ANNALORO

DR. KIERAN SAYS

I rest my case.


ED CLARK

ABOUT DR. KIERAN

Kieran Lindsey (Ph.D., Texas A...M University) has answered thousands of questions about living with wildlife over the course of her career – as director of a non-profit wildlife center in Houston, Texas (1997–1999); as a columnist for the Houston Chronicle newspaper (1998–2001); as the producer, writer and host of Wild Things Radio!, aired by public radio station KUNM-FM in Albuquerque, NM (1999–2001); on her blog, Next-Door Nature; and at every social gathering she has ever attended since becoming a wildlife biologist. Dr. Lindsey teaches wildlife management courses for the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech. She is also the editor of the Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, co-author of the seminal textbook on Urban Wildlife Management, and has been licensed to drive a car for over 30 years.