How to build a tree squirrel (opossum, skunk...) cage
cages are easy to build, easy to assemble, quick to break down, easy to
transport, easy to sell and easy to reconfigure and add on. I can move a
6'x6'x8' cage folded flat on the roof of my car by myself. You can also buy an aviary from here http://www.CaliforniaCageWorks.com
You used to be able to buy cages from them for less than the cost of mesh. Now they are very expensive. First look at craigslist.com under "pets" and "for sale" to find cheap cages. Search aviary, walk-in cage, large cage, kennel.
Hog ring pliers, spring loaded (you could also just use wire to wire the pieces together but it will take you longer, not look as good, get rusty besides hurting your fingers)
Wire mesh for top, bottom and sides, galvanized, heavy gauge
(you'll know how much you need after you plan the cage size and layout)
Bolt cutters (or saw-zaw if you will be using thick gauge mesh)
Drill with drill bit
DOOR: Wire mesh for door, either 18"x60" or 24"x60"
Door latch, door handle, trim, hinge (s), nuts/bolts, 1" wide metal washers to attach door to cage (or buy a pre-made door w/ frame which is $48 http://www.californiacageworks.com/doors/index.html )
I use 1/2" x 3", 1/2" x 1", 1"x1" or 1"x2" wire mesh to build my cages. I have even made "Frankenstein" cages out of different sizes of mesh. Put the ugly mixed pieces in the back, bottom or top if you do this. If you use 10-12 gauge, you don't need to make a frame. I have found that wild adult squirrels can chew out of rabbit wire mesh which is 1/2"x1/2". You also need to make a frame if you use the rabbit mesh as it's flimsy. A cage with a wooden frame is more difficult to make, costs more, is difficult to move, not as easy to clean and almost impossible to sell.
I make my cages based on the minimum standards requirements. For a squirrel or litter of juvie squirrels, that is 4'x4'x6'. Opossums use the same size cage. Skunks need longer cages. If you will also be doing bobcats, raccoons or coyotes and will be using the same cage for all, build the biggest you can so you meet all cage requirements. It's actually better to have separate cages for different species especially RVS animals that can carry round and pin worms.
Some states mandate double doors for mammals, some don't. If you need a double door, start planning it now. You will need to add on at least a 2'x2' section to your cage or just add an extra 2' to the length of your cage. If you will be building a few cages, you can plan for a communal double door entry. Here are some multi-cage layouts http://www.californiacageworks.com/walk-in/index.html
ahead where you will want your doors. The doors open out. It's best to put them
to one side and not in the middle. You can always move a door later. I like to
just cut the entire piece of mesh out with the door and frame then move it. Also
consider where you will want feeding doors, watering holes.
For the basic 4x4x6 cage which we will be constructing here, you will need 4 x (4'x6') sections for the four sides, 2 x (4'x4') sections for the top and bottom and 1 (18" x 60") or (24"x 60") piece for the door. If you will need to carry big carriers through the door or are a bigger person, make a bigger door. Get enough door trim for the size door you will be building.
3. LET'S START BUILDING
Cut the mesh
Remember this important rule, measure twice, cut once. You don't want to make a mistake which could cost you money. If you bought a roll of wire mesh, you will have to unroll it to cut the pieces. It will want to curl up on you so put something heavy on it while you are measuring and trying to cut it. I use bolt cutters to cut 12 gauge mesh. I use a saw'zaw to cut heavier gauge mesh. This is why I recommend 12 gauge, because it's easier to cut by hand. Be sure to wear gloves while handling the wire mesh or your hands will get cut up. If you're not strong, get someone at the hardware store to cut the mesh into pieces for you. Some like to powder coat the mesh green so it blends in perfectly with the garden. If you want to do this, it costs 50% of the price of the mesh. You must do this before you assemble the cage.
Lay out the pieces
Now you've cut your pieces of mesh, time to lay them out. I like to lay them out on the lawn or driveway so I can make sure everything will fit. I lay it out like so. Before I put it together, I make the hole for the door. This is important, the door must be bigger than the door hole so that it overlaps and can shut properly. My door and frame is 64" high x 22" wide. The door itself is 18" x 60". My door overlaps the door hole 2" all the way around. The door should not align with the bottom of the cage. I like to have it 4" off the ground and 4" from the top of the cage. If you're taller, move the door closer to the top of the cage. Either way you'll have to either stoop to get in or step over the threshold.
Build your door
It's easier and cheaper to buy a door but if you want to make a door yourself, here's how you do it. ***so don't get locked out...align mesh direction so it's uniform.
Put the pieces together
You've assembled the pieces, cut your door hole, time to start putting it together. I use a hog ring every six inches. Attach all the sides together, then fold two pieces over the other and attach the last side so you have what looks like a collapsed box. Attach the bottom to the bottom of one side.
Add your door
A pre-made door is sooo easy to just bolt on, so much easier too. Align the door up over the door hole. Start from one top corner, then do one bottom corner. The rest will now be easy. You could also put the door on before you assemble the cage while it's still on the ground. I find it easer to get the bolts in when I can easily get behind the mesh panel so I add mine after I've assembled the cage.
sure to drill a hole through the door right above the latch. You must attach a
wire to the latch, run it through the hole you drilled and have it come out the
inside of the cage. Attach a 1" washer to this wire. This is so you can
unlock the door from the inside when you close it behind you. Use wire only, no
string as squirrels will just chew that up. You don't want to get locked in
there, take it from me ;-) Pre-made doors generally have this hole there
Assemble the cage
I like to assemble my cage close to where I will be placing the cage so I don't have to move it far. They're a little tough to move by yourself when assembled though they can be dragged. Stand the pieces up, open up the sides to form a square. Sometimes it's easier to get in the box through the door hole to fold the pieces out. Flip up the roof piece. Hog ring the roof edges to the top of the sides. You can now flip the cage on it's side to make it easier to tie on the bottom. Hog ring the bottom onto the sides, flip back up. The cage is assembled!
Move cage into position
Some like to put down cement pavers under the cage to make cleaning easier. I always add a plywood floor inside the cage to make cleanup easy. Wire mesh floors are also tough on the feet. I don't feel that a dirt floor is hygienic. I like being able to scrape/sweep up food debris and poops then hose out whatever is left. You can only do that with a smooth floor. If you just hose out the food bits and poo, you then have to scoop up wet sloppy bits to put in the trash.
4. PROTECTION FROM SUN, WIND AND RAIN
always put a roof over the top of the cage. I've used acrylic panels but they're
expensive. Clear carpet runners actually work fine. Make sure you overlap them.
Also hang a little over the edge to make a little eave. There are clear and
colored fiberglass or metal corrugated roof panels which are also inexpensive. I
then like to hide my cages by planting vines, trees, shrubs around them so they
blend into my garden. Make sure there are no poisonous plants within reach of
the cage. Jasmine is great to cover the cage as it's safe and smells good.
Rosemary bushes around the cage smell good, give good cover and is edible.
Now comes the fun part, time to decorate! Go out to a forest area and find some downed tree limbs, branches, trunks and logs (if it's legal in your state). You can also just ask some tree trimmers for some branches or search in some trash cans. I like to wash them with bleach water first to kill all the bugs and such. Let it dry 24 hours before putting it in the cage. I drill holes in the ends of smaller branches them wire them in the cage vertically, horizontally and diagonally. I like to secure big trunks to the cage so they don't topple over and squash a squirrel.
I like to have a couple of wire mesh shelves in the cage. My shelves are 12" wide. Cut a piece of wire mesh 15" wide x the length of the cage. I also like to do one the width of the cage. Bend the last 3" over at a 90 degree angle. Attach this with hog rings to the cage. The bent part goes away from the wall. If you will have young squirrels in the cage, have the bent part face up. It will keep them from falling off the shelf. The bent part also gives the shelf rigidity. Remember to grind down any sharp edges. I put a grinding disk on my Dremmel but used a metal file once which also worked.
I also like to have wood shelves and plankways. They need stuff to chew on. Just go to some trash cans at your lumber yard or a construction site and pick out some unwanted bits of lumber, 3/4" thick, 6"-12" wide, as long as the cage. Do one shelf length-wise, one width-wise. As our cage is 4'x4', both shelves will be 4' long. Drill holes in the four corners of the shelf. Get a roll of wire from the hardware store. Cut off a six inch piece. Hold the shelf where you want it in the cage, put the wire through the shelf then attach that to the cage wall. Twist it down tight with pliers. Do this with all four corners.
If you're making a cage for skunks which aren't climbers, I like to give them a second level in the cage to stretch out and get extra cage space. I will build a wider shelf with a wood plankway to get to the shelf. I put outdoor carpeting on it so they won't slip. I attach the carpeting with a staple gun. This is also good for injured squirrels. I attach the ramp to the shelf by drilling holes on the end of the ramp and edge of the shelf. I attach them with wire.
Now to do some real decorating. Squirrels love to chew on things so I get them parrot toys. I get the ones that hang so they can swing on them and chew. I also get them one of those thick wires which I stretch across the width of the cage so they can practice crossing electrical wires. Sometimes I make squirrel toys myself. I break a sterilized dog bone with a hammer to get 1" chunks. I get some cow hoofs, hard mineral blocks, thick short chunks of wood. I drill a hole through the middle of all of these them make chew necklaces which I hang from the cage near the shelves. They love to sit and chew on these. After you put on a piece, make a big knot so the piece won't move, make a big knot 3" up, add a piece, make a big knot... I don't give toys to opossums. Skunks like small dog toys and greenies.
Squirrels do love hammocks but they also chew the hammock ties and clips. I use metal grommets, thin metal chain and "S" hooks to attach them firmly to the cage. They will still probably chew the ties off. It's best to make squirrel hammocks for juvies out of thick canvas. Opossums LOVE hammocks and don't chew them up.
Tree squirrels will jog on wheels. I get the 15" wire mesh wheels. I attach them to the inside wall of the cage and make sure they're secure. Don't get the solid wheels as they poop while they jog and will end up with poo everywhere. If you have a whole litter in there and they fight for the wheel, get them two wheels on opposite sides of the cage. I have the wheels on a very wide shelf halfway up the cage. Fox squirrels travel on the ground a lot. Eastern Grays may not enjoy them as much. Opossums must have wheels, generally more than one. That's their favorite activity. In fact, besides eating and sleeping, it's their only activity besides a little climbing. Opossums aren't as good climbers as tree squirrels so keep this in mind when designing their cages.
I get cockatiel nest boxes from Petco. I sometimes use smaller sized nestboxes. Just make sure the hole is 2.5" in diameter if you have Fox squirrels. 2" might do for Eastern Grays. I nail the lids shut then put some silicone glue in there to make them water-proof. I release my squirrels back where found in these exact boxes so I have to make them waterproof before I put them in the cage. You can also make nestboxes yourself. *Link to plans. I put these boxes up very high in the cage wired to the cage walls. They need to learn to enter/exit the boxes the same way they will once they are attached to a tree at release. Sometimes I make one of the shelves up high so I can rest a box on the shelf. I drill holes in the nestbox so I can wire the top and bottom to the cage wall so it doesn't wobble as much. Sometimes squirrels will chew the wood around an attachment hole so you want to have it attached in two places so the box won't fall off the wall and injure them. I put pieces of flannel, fleece, old t-shirts in the nest boxes 2/3 full. I use tupperware containers with a large entrance hole for opossums. I put their nest boxes one level up with a ramp. I use cat carriers with the doors off for skunks. I put their nest boxes on the ground.
Food and water bowls
They sell pre-made feeding trays. You can also make one yourself. * You could also make a feeding hole or door. Holes are easy. Just cut one bar out of your wire mesh and you can slide the food in there. Make sure their head can't fit out of the hole. I like to attach metal food/water containers to the sides of the cage so they won't tip over their bowls. If you place a piece of wood three inches above the bowl, they will not be able to stand on the bowl and poo/pee/step in it but will still be able to drink. Do the same with the feeding area. This will make cleanup easier. You can fill up the bowl just by pouring water through the cage bar if you make sure the bowl is near the front of the cage. I buy those metal squirrel feeders and make sure I always have dry food in there. The lid keeps it clean and dry and they can't chew the metal. Opossum food and water bowls must be on the ground, same with skunks. I get the no-tip puppy feeder bowls for skunks. They kind of look like doughnuts. It keeps them from dragging, tipping and fighting over the bowl.
Squirrels like to potty in the corners of the cage while sitting on a higher area. I place a high shelf in the two back corners of the cage and they do 90% of their pottying in these areas. If you have a shelf under this area, you can just scoop the poos up which makes cleanup easy. Opossums and skunks will use litter boxes. I have a low litter box in every corner of the skunk cage. I have two litter boxes in the corner of opossum cages. I use litter though some use water for opossums.
6. CAGE CLEANING MADE EASY
I feed my outdoor juvies twice a day during normal squirrel feeding hours i.e. after dawn, before dusk. After I've fed them breakfast and they've done the majority of their pooping, I go to clean the cage. I bang on the cage to scare them away from the door and me, then I enter. I use a metal scooper with a straight edge and I scoop up all the leftover bits of food and poo. I use this to make great compost. You can only compost herbivore poop, not animals that eat meat, or so I was told. After I've scooped, I then hose the cage from the outside. You should only be hosing squirrel urine out. Don't just hose the cage as you will have to scoop bits of poo and food out of the sloppy wet mess or your cage area will get flies and smell like heck. Once a week I go in there with cleaning products and scrub the shelves and floor, then rinse thoroughly with water. If they try to walk on a floor that you're cleaning, scare them away. They should be scared of you by the time they're in the outdoor cage. Skunks and opossums don't get food everywhere. They poo/pee in their boxes. I just clean the boxes then hose the rest of the cage, being careful not to get the litter boxes wet. You also don't want to startle a wild skunk with the hose ;-) If you ever use a skunk or raccoon cage for another animal, get a steamer. That's the only way to kill round worm eggs. I clean my cages with bleach water, anti-bacterial soaps, scrub all the wood until it's white then I steam for an hour, especially the corners where the skunks poop. I don't mix species cages but it's good to kill the eggs anyway. By the time my skunks are in the outdoor cages, they don't have worms.