There's No Haven Inside
If you thought you were safe indoors from what lives outside, think again. A house in need of repairs looks no different to a critter than a campsite in the woods. Fortunately, with careful inspection and a little bit of effort, you can turn your pad into an impenetrable fortress against aggressors of all sizes. Click through to see the nine worst killers that can get you where you live—along with how to keep them at bay. We've got tips for keeping alligators off your property, scorpions out of your shoes, and bears from turning your garbage into a free buffet—all with the hope of preventing potentially fatal bites, stings, and sharp claws from striking you dead in the place you call home.
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
How it kills: These diamondbacks aren't known for being the most aggressive rattlers on the block, but at up to 7 feet long, they're certainly the biggest—and the most venomous in the US, with bites that cause spontaneous bleeding, hypotension, and swelling that can lead to cardiac arrest. When threatened, they can strike a distance at least a third of their length and sink their fangs into your flesh repeatedly, often without rattling to give you fair warning to run. And how are they threatened? Well, say, when you bump into them in your own house!
How to get it before it gets you: Unfortunately, your basement or garage may be more welcoming than any burrow or nook outdoors, especially when it's hot and muggy. Seal all foundation cracks and any openings ¼ inch or larger. Close the garage door when it's unattended, and be careful when accessing crawl spaces. Keep your yard tidy so snakes have nowhere to hide.
How it kills: These guys aren't just desert dwellers—they're scattered throughout the southern half of the country, mainly west of the Mississippi River. If their territory is disrupted, they'll make themselves right at home in a folded pile of fresh laundry or, worse, inside your shoes or between your sheets. Scream at the top of your lungs, and these expert danger-sensing predators will sting, causing intense pain, tenderness, and tingling at the wound site. Though few species are dangerously toxic to humans, small children are particularly susceptible to the scorpion's venom, and untreated stings can lead to death by heart or respiratory failure.
How to get it before it gets you: Scorpions glow under a black-light bulb, but if you don't have one handy to find them, reduce infestation with these suggestions: Only bring firewood inside the house when you're ready to burn it, and keep grass mowed and branches cut back from your roofline. Also, install weatherstripping and sturdy screens around any loose-fitting windows or doors, plug foundation cracks, and caulk around pipes and roof eaves.
How it kills: Particularly a problem in the Sunshine State and the bayous of Louisiana, alligators can crush human bones—meaning your arms and legs—with a single bite. Like other wild animals, if you feed them, they'll associate food with humans, potentially turning you into dinner in your own dining room.
How to get it before it gets you: These guys are big, so there's not much chance of them sneaking into your place through a crack or hole. But leave a door open and they'll mosey on in, and they like a waterside backyard as much as you do. If they're abundant in your area, consider installing a wire mesh fence around your backyard, especially if you have a pond or pool. And remember: Don't feed them.
Black Widow Spider
How it kills: Unwanted but not uncommon house guests due to their size (less than 1/3 inch, at their longest), black widows build their loose, haphazard webs in dark places: the corners of rooms, under couches, and in basements or garages. Look out for adult females—brush up against a web the wrong way, and they'll bite, leaving behind a trail of cramping, nausea, respiratory pain, and possible paralysis at your expense.
How to get it before it gets you: Learn to identify a widow (shiny and dark; females have a reddish-orange hourglass mark on their abdomen), and periodically inspect the home hot spots listed above for webs while wearing gloves. Increase illumination in corners with artificial lights and by arranging furniture accordingly. Prevention is best, but vacuuming a widow and its web is safer than trying to crush it with a book, magazine, or hand.
How it kills: Sick bats won't think twice about entering your home, because like other rabid animals, they display decreased wariness around people. One's probably already turned your attic into a makeshift cave and is waiting patiently to bring pain with its infectious saliva-laden bite when you take it by surprise. Things get tricky—and deadly—if you don't seek immediate testing and treatment.
How to get it before it gets you: Avoid contact with wild bats, dead or alive. Bat-proof your home by repairing exterior holes and slits—think matchbook-size—that a bat can feasibly wiggle through.
Mice Infected with Hantavirus
How they kill: What's worse than seeing a mouse scurrying under your baseboards? Finding only the evidence of its visit in the corner of your garage—a pile of droppings. Remember that you're not dealing with Mickey and Minnie here. Infected deer mice, present in sizable numbers out West, excrete deadly Hantavirus in their waste; exposure comes through breathing contaminated dust while cleaning or discarding it. Once infected by the virus, flulike symptoms progress into fluid-filled lungs, and one out of every three people afflicted dies of respiratory failure.
How to get them before they get you: Seal up cracks and gaps in buildings that are larger than ¼ inch, including window and doorsills, under sinks around the pipes, in foundations, and attics. Keep garbage and pet food tightly secured. Most important, do not stir up a rodent-infected area by vacuuming or sweeping; clean up mouse waste with a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water, making sure to wear a mask and latex or nitrile gloves. Pour the solution over the area, let soak for 10 minutes, then use a damp towel to remove and discard. Reapply bleach solution to area, and disinfect gloves before removing. Then wash hands thoroughly with soap.
The Mold Stachybotrys
How it kills: It's definitely not a critter gone crazy infiltrating your house, but this particular species of mold—a greenish-black slime fond of growing on wood—produces airborne myotoxins suspected in a group of infant fatalities near Cleveland, Ohio, some 13 years ago. Though this link to the infants' bleeding lungs was never conclusive, stachbotrys myotoxins do travel through ducts and have caused difficulty breathing, nasal stuffiness, and eye and skin irritation when inhaled.
How to get it before it gets you: Luckily, stachybotrys is only found in about 2 to 5 percent of homes. But the best way to prevent any mold growth is to stop conditions favorable to it, including leaks, condensation, infiltration, or flooding. Cleanup depends on the surface where the mold is growing. Consult a professional if coverage is over 30 square feet. For nonporous surfaces: Use a nonammonia soap or detergent in hot water to scrub the affected area, rinse with water, and disinfect with bleach-and-water solution (½ cup of bleach per gallon of water). Let air dry to kill the mold.
How it kills: Emerging from their winter slumber, bears are especially hungry now and aren't above searching your garden, garbage cans, compost pile, or birdfeeders for a meal. They'll even stroll right into the house if the smell of grub is strong and access is easy. Sure, they prefer to avoid contact with humans, but get in the way of one raiding your pantry, and he could charge at you and maul.
How to get it before it gets you: Never intentionally feed a bear: Monitor your bird feeders, never put meat scraps or fruit in your compost bin, and put garbage out in a bear-resistant container on pick-up day. Clean up after entertaining outdoors, especially the grill. If you spot a bear in your place, never approach it. Run the other way, and call animal control.
Africanized Honeybees (killer bees)
How they kill: Found in Texas, California, and other parts of the Southwest, Africanized honeybees are slightly smaller than their European cousins but far more hostile. Apt to unprovoked attacks in response to disturbances up to 50 feet away from their nest, a swarm could fly into your home through an open window or door just because they don't like the sound of your radio or power tools. Running is the recommended defense, but unless you're an Olympic sprinter, that may not be enough to save you: The swarm will fly in hot pursuit for a quarter mile, catch up with you, and begin stinging in great numbers, which can be fatal to someone with allergies or pre-existing health problems.
How to get them before they get you: To discourage colonization on your property, seal cracks in your house and discard items that would provide shelter for a nest—such as tires or terra-cotta pots not in use. Look before you disturb bushes, flowers, and plants. Report any swarm found near the home to pest-control operators and/or beekeepers, and do not go near it or attempt to move it yourself.