Shelter from the Storm

Kieran Lindsey

Kieran Lindsey | Mar 10, 2015

Winter may be loosening its grip but staying warm and dry can still be a challenge for anyone who has to be outside.

When the mercury dives, humans have options for fending off frostbite that are unavailable to other species.  For example, we can wear a heavy coat without having to grow one. We can poke our paws into wool mittens and socks, and drag a balaclava over our noggin.  Let’s not forget, we can also open a door, step inside our heated home or car, and start shedding layers like a molting Eider duck.

It's great, when can I move in? (Zhelen, Fickr)

But for those without closets, good credit, and opposable thumbs the warmth radiating from a recently parked car beckons like the aroma of chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven. Even when all that stored heat has dissipated there’s shelter from the storm beneath that cold steel hood. To human eyes, the engine compartment appear to be an impenetrable maze, but viewed from below through a non-human lens it’s a cozy and accessible place to curl up and nap.

Urban wildlife such as raccoons, opossums, squirrels, along with free-roaming cats, will all climb into engine compartments to get out of the weather. Unfortunately, that inviting little nook will become a chamber of automotive horrors when a key is placed in the ignition.

The only foolproof method for avoiding this scenario is to keep your car in a garage, and keep the door closed.  But, if you have to park outside there are some simple steps to reduce the risk of damage to both furry squatters and your vehicle. From easiest to most effective, they are:

  • Bang on the hood as you head for the driver’s side door. Who cares what the neighbors think? You might save some furry creature’s life! This is a simple habit to develop, although not a perfect solution. Startled animals are just as likely to freeze as to flee.
  • Pop the hood. Granted, this demands a few more steps before you start your car. But, when you consider how long you’ll recall the grim scene you might have to endure if you don’t, it’s actually not a bad trade-off. Just this one action can be effective, since most animals will naturally move away from the sudden source of light, dropping down to the ground and away from the vehicle.
  • Lift the hood and look inside. Okay, so this maneuver takes some time—just at the moment that you’re thinking that you’re going to be late to work. Again. But, for those of you who might spend the rest of your years in therapy coping with the sound you might hear, it’s still a bargain. Simply put, nothing beats a visual inspection to assure an all-clear.

For any of the above to work you’ll need to give the animal time to leave—take a deep breath, and listen closely to hear if anyone is on the move under your hood.

To many of you, these steps might sound excessive. After all, haven’t we just always started our car, jumped in, and driven off? Sure. But, the costs for wildlife have been high. This is one change that’s easy to make to your daily routine, and, if every driver kept it in mind, the result would be a lot less suffering in the world on the part of our wild neighbors.

Why pop the hood? Some animals can't get out, even if you give them adequate warning, like this opossum, rescued from a tangle of engine hoses by the South Burlington Police Department.

Keep in mind that once inside the engine compartment the animal may not be able to leave, even if it wants to do so. In that case, or if you find out after starting the car that an animal was inside the engine compartment and has been injured, please call your local domestic animal shelter or wildlife rehabilitation center for assistance.

If you’ve got a tip for keeping wildlife save around your car in the winter, or a story to share, add it in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One