Critters in the ‘hood

Foothill residents may be shocked to find raccoons and coyotes invading their homes, but the truth is we invaded their homes first.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The trapper’s outpost is piled high with the tools of his trade. Twenty-pound bags of Friskies cat food occupy one corner. Against another wall is stacked a tower of 4-foot-long wire cages—box traps waiting to be deployed in the wilds beyond.

But the trapper does not work in some secluded shack in the woods. Instead, Ron Bailey, sole proprietor of Animal Capture and Removal, works out of his garage in Dixon, a quiet suburb of Sacramento.

Four more traps are set on the driveway just outside the garage door, and they are occupied. Three hold dark-eyed raccoons, and two of the cages are set close together. The third raccoon is separated by a few feet from the others.

The fourth trap contains a frazzled opossum that paces the short length of his cage and periodically bears his pointy row of prehistoric-looking teeth. With his small eyes and rotund rodent form, he looks like some kind of animal anachronism, like a throwback to the first, ultimately unsuccessful mammals. The opossum is clearly nervous but appears not altogether aware of what is happening.

Not so with the three raccoons, who seem eerily perceptive. The raccoon pair was caught as its troop conducted a midnight raid on a newly laid lawn and tore up the sod to search for grubs and tasty bugs. One snakes his hand-like paw through the wire into his neighbor’s cage and presses it against her fur as if to say, “I’m here.” The third raccoon, trapped in a different neighborhood, seems annoyed with the presence of interlopers from his own species and occasionally growls at them, a deep rumbling grunt that makes it sound like something between a pig and a small bear. His own paws are in constant motion, probing the wire cage for some hidden means of escape. All the while, he keeps a close watch on his captor.

“Those hands have always got to be moving, don’t they Bubbles?” Bailey coos in a high, squeaky voice, as he peers into the cage. He is a stocky, muscled man with a crew cut of dark red hair, and he wears thick eyeglasses. A grown man, a former Marine, talking baby talk to a raccoon. The affection he shows is a little strange, given that, in a few minutes, he will have to kill this animal.

Bailey is a trapper. Not a coon-cap-wearing, grizzled frontiersman who peddles furs at some backcountry trading post. Those men barely exist anymore.

Bailey is one of the new breed of urban trappers who prowl backyards and rooftops in search of their quarry; who log hundreds of miles every week in their pickup trucks, cruising city boulevards and suburban cul-de-sacs with cell phones cradled between their shoulders and ears; who bait their traps with cat food, a favorite treat of the flourishing beasts of suburbia.

He is in high demand. The breakneck speed of urbanization in California and throughout the rest of the nation has broken up natural habitat everywhere and has created an ever-larger zone of conflict between humans and wildlife. In many cases, native species are struggling to hold on or even facing extinction. But other, more resilient species, such as the raccoon, have taken advantage of and even have thrived upon the bounty of the suburban fringe.

It is a problem that is hard to quantify, but ask any wildlife biologist, agriculture commissioner or wildlife rehabilitator, and he or she will tell you that humans and wild animals are getting increasingly tangled up in each other’s lives and that the frequency of “human-wildlife conflicts” has increased sharply during the last decade.

Ron Bailey is among a new breed of urban trappers.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In the young field of conservation biology, people use the term “edge effect” to describe the effects that increasing urbanization has on adjacent wild land. Now, observers of the urban-wilderness frontier are beginning to talk about “edge species” to explain the presence and brazen behavior of so many “wild” animals in our midst.

Some of the conflicts have an almost biblical tinge to them. A plague of tens of thousands of meadow voles—imagine short-tailed mice—overran a brand-new subdivision in El Dorado Hills and happily decimated all the new shrubs and landscaping that had been planted. Raccoons, skunks and opossums are showing up in communities where they were never seen before—letting themselves into our homes through cat doors, foundation vents and loose roof shingles.

Feral pigs, once confined to isolated pockets of the Coast Range of mountains in Northern California, have expanded their range dramatically by crossing the floor of the Central Valley and colonizing the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. For the last few years, gangs of the wild pigs have been found running amok in posh sections of San Jose, tearing up golf courses and gardens.

Although many of these encounters may be merely inconvenient or costly, they can be scary sometimes. Coyotes attacked a record 17 people in Southern California last year, none fatally. The increase in attacks is attributed to the increasing closeness of human and coyote populations and drought conditions that forced more animals to look for food and water near people’s homes.

Indeed, coyotes are perhaps the most clever at exploiting the suburbs. By giving up its normal life of scouring grassland and forest for wild mice, a coyote can thrive just by walking along people’s back fences and peeking into yards for an easy meal. As one coyote expert put it, “He’ll eat out of your cat’s dish, if it’s available. And he’ll eat your cat, if that’s available.” Others just get by on charm, eating handouts from folks with soft hearts (and, arguably, soft heads). Of course, feeding animals like coyotes can blunt their natural instincts and make them ever more reliant on human kindness. More frightening is that the animal may lose its fear of humans and become aggressive when an expected handout isn’t forthcoming. One study suggests that the biological carrying capacity for coyotes in a California suburb is 20 times greater than in the wild.

And, since the mid-1990s, biologists and government officials have become increasingly nervous about robust populations of mountain lions that may be growing more comfortable around humans.

“It’s not just that there are more people, pushing farther and farther out,” explained Terry Jenkins, who heads up the Folsom City Zoo, a rescue zoo that specializes in saving animals on the losing end of human-wildlife conflicts. “It’s that the animals are pushing back. It’s as if all the animals had a meeting and said, ‘What we’ve been doing is not working. Let’s invade!’ ”

This has led to quite a bit of hand wringing in the human settlements over what to do about the critter invasion. Many of the folks who have built their dream homes in the foothills are learning the meaning of “be careful what you wish for.” That 50-acre ranchette seems idyllic, with the deer gingerly tiptoeing outside your kitchen window, until you realize the deer ate your rosebushes, raccoons have torn up the ductwork under your house, and something ate most of your terrier.

“They think, ‘Oh, won’t it be wonderful to live out in nature?’ But, when nature appears, it’s often a different story,” said Dr. Desley Whisson, a biologist and vertebrate-pest-management specialist at the University of California at Davis.

And so, a lot of money is being made trapping and exterminating this wave of so-called nuisance wildlife. But concern about the humane treatment of animals and an increasing popular distaste for the old methods of trapping and removal have complicated wildlife-management efforts. And wildlife biologists are worried about what the increasing number of human-wildlife conflicts portends for the long-term health of wildlife. Some say it is a sign that natural ecosystems all over the West are becoming seriously out of balance.

The free market, always ready with a quick solution, has given us men like Bailey, the trapper, just one of thousands of entrepreneurs who have stepped in to help suburbanites with their critter-control issues. These urban trappers often are called Nuisance Wildlife Control Operators (or NWCOs, pronounced like glucose). They are, according to Alan Merrifield, president of the California Nuisance Wildlife Control Operators Association, a sort of hybrid between the urban exterminator and the rural fur trapper.

This orphaned mountain lion is one of five now living at Folsom City Zoo.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Bailey has been in business about five years, which makes him an old veteran by NWCO standards. It can be exciting work; Bailey’s son J.J., an employee, is particularly fond of rattlesnake hunting. He gets steady work in the summer—crawling through the storm drains of downtown Fairfield. The pipes do a great job of collecting water runoff from the new suburbs up in the hills, but they also provide an expressway for upland-dwelling snakes to come into town.

In an unsettling-if-true indication of how some wildlife is adapting to human presence, Bailey said he had read that even rattlesnakes are changing their behavior around humans and are learning not to rattle. Indeed, he said, he has come upon many a silent snake.

Surprisingly, neither Bailey nor his son has been bitten or injured on the job. Bailey did have a close call once, when a bobcat that had gotten into a chicken coop surprised him. He happened to have his rifle pointed right at the cat when it leapt at him from its hiding place; Bailey killed the cat in mid-air. The bobcat, stuffed, now adorns Bailey’s home-entertainment center.

Though injuries are rare, the men do suffer certain indignities. J.J said he once was sprayed eight times in the course of a single day by two skunks he had captured. He even took shots of skunk musk in his eyes and mouth. The stuff stung his eyes badly, but he was surprised to find the taste to be minty.

It is lucrative work. If you can’t handle a “nuisance” animal on your own, expect to pay a hefty price. Bailey charges $75 just to come out to your house and find out what your problem is. It’s another $100 if he has to go under your house or go crawling around in your attic. And then there’s the $50 a day just to come out and check the traps. If he catches something, its $100 for each animal caught. And then there’s the $20-per-animal disposal fee. That’s right, the disposal fee. When a human and an animal don’t get along, the ultimate price is almost always going to be the animal’s life.

Department of Fish and Game regulations require Bailey to release the animal on the site or kill anything he catches. Bailey said he’s always clear about this with his customers and that they rarely want to release any animal that they spent a small fortune getting trapped. And, as appealing as it may seem, releasing skunks into your neighbor’s yard is against the law.

Bailey clearly is uncomfortable talking about how the animals are killed. Demonstrating is clearly out of the question. “I’ve got enough problems,” he said, explaining that anyone in his business is keenly aware that his job comes with a built-in image problem. “All the trapper magazines tell you, ‘Don’t tell the reporter what happens to the animals.’ ”

And many of the other private trapping companies in the Sacramento area are extremely shy of the press. Robert Bruno, who runs Nuisance Wildlife Control in Roseville, declined to allow a ride-along and explained it this way: “This is sensitive work. When you have a situation where you have to destroy an animal, some people don’t understand that.”

Still, Bailey finally agreed to show the carbon-dioxide chamber that he uses to euthanize animals.

In his garage, next to the wall of box traps, is a long, metal box with a rubber hose leading into it. Attached to the other end of the hose is a small, steel tank of carbon dioxide. One by one, he said, animals like the raccoons sitting in his driveway are lowered, cage and all, into the metal box. Then, he clamps the lid on the box and turns on the gas, suffocating the animals to death. Bailey said this method is considered humane, although even he isn’t entirely comfortable with it. The animals struggle and scratch at their cages as they are asphyxiated. But using a gun is out of the question in an urban area, and, so far, people in his business aren’t allowed to handle lethal-injection drugs such as those used at animal shelters.

Because people don’t like the idea that animals are being killed, especially cute, clever-looking animals like raccoons, Bailey is often attacked for what he does.

After a coyote grabbed a Chihuahua from a public park in Folsom, city officials put up these signs.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“Especially in Davis for some reason,” Bailey said, people like to call him a monster. “People will just come up to me and say, ‘You are a cruel person. I hate people like you.’ ”

“It really gets to me sometimes,” he said. He called euthanizing animals “the disgusting part” of his job and explained that if he could release them, he would. But Fish and Game regulations, put in place to stop the spread of diseases like rabies and raccoon roundworm, prevent it, and he could go to jail. Bailey said people are usually surprised when he tells them he belongs to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and a host of other animal-protection groups.

Another way to measure increasing conflicts between humans and wildlife is to look at the numbers of animals, particularly large predators, that are trapped and killed by our federal government. Though skunks and raccoons are mostly the quarry of the private NWCOs, the USDA’s Wildlife Services agency handles the bigger predators, such as coyotes and mountain lions.

Created in 1931 under the Animal Damage Control Act, the agency’s mission historically has been to deal with the damage animals do to agriculture—predation of livestock in particular. But, in the last 10 years, the agency increasingly has shifted its focus to problems related to urban wildlife and the control of so-called nuisance animals.

The federal agency’s No. 1 enemy has been the coyote. In 2001, the agency killed more than 88,000 coyotes. Nearly half of those were killed by aerial gunning, which hasn’t been used in California for several years. No one is sure how many coyotes there are in the state, but the Department of Fish and Game estimates the number at anywhere between 150,000 and 750,000.

And the Wildlife Services agency is killing more mountain lions, or cougars, than in the past. In the last decade, there has been a steady increase in the number of mountain lions killed under depredation permits issued by the state Department of Fish and Game. In California, an average of 130 cougars are killed every year—usually treed by dogs and then shot—because they have killed a pet or livestock like sheep or goats. Officials are also nervous about the increases in mountain-lion attacks on humans during the last decade. Although cougar attacks are incredibly rare, the vast majority of incidents in the past century occurred in the 1990s, including the death of a jogger on a forest trail just 40 miles north of Sacramento.

The agency has come under fire from animal-rights activists who say the public doesn’t know that tax dollars, both federal and local, are being used to kill wild animals.

Supporters of the Wildlife Services agency say that, no matter how people manage their property or their livestock, there always will be some problem animals. Especially when there is a public-safety concern, the federal government has the resources and expertise that a property owner does not. Supporters also point out that the agency spends millions of dollars on researching non-lethal methods of wildlife management, such as chemical repellants, electronic devices to scare predators away from livestock and even surgical sterilization for coyotes.

Wildlife Services officials refused to let SN&R observe any of the work that is done by the federal trappers in the area. The agency would not even reveal what counties it has contracts with and what those contracts cost taxpayers. USDA spokesperson Larry Hawkins said that the refusal was because of a federal-court injunction prohibiting the disclosure of such information. The injunction came about because of a lawsuit involving the Farm Bureau, several Texas ranchers and a group of animal-rights activists. According to Hawkins, animal-rights activists in Texas were using the information to target ranchers and trappers for harassment.

The local governments were somewhat more forthcoming. In Yolo County, the county government pitches in about two-thirds of the salary for the county’s single federal trapper, about $42,000 a year. In Sacramento County, a little more than $80,000 is contributed to Wildlife Services. Placer County contributes a whopping $200,000 to the program, but that includes the services of a federal trapper as well as three trappers who are county employees. These trappers are on call to handle anything from beavers to bears. Hawkins said that 99 percent of the time, the federal trappers provide property owners “technical assistance.”

“Most folks have problems with nuisance animals because they have provided some kind of attractant,” Hawkins said. That attractant can be anything from pet food or unsecured garbage to something on the property—a neglected woodpile or hole in the house—that the animal wants to make into a home.

Proposition 4 banned leghold traps, but now the courts may throw out the law.

Courtesy Of the Animal Protection Institute

Still, the agency routinely kills tens of thousands of predators and nuisance animals every year, and there has been a backlash in some communities.

Through the efforts of the Animal Protection Institute, San Benito and Marin counties ended their contracts with federal Wildlife Services. “When people learn about the program, they do not want to see it continue,” explained the API’s Camilla Fox. Her group, along with the Marin County Animal Control Department, has been experimenting with a system of dealing with so-called nuisance animals non-lethally. The focus is primarily on teaching people how they may be creating a wildlife conflict unintentionally.

Public opinion and lobbying by groups like API dramatically affected the Wildlife Services agency in another, indirect way, when California voters overwhelmingly passed the anti-trapping initiative Proposition 4, in 1998.

The state law banned the use of leg-hold traps in most situations as well as certain kinds of poison. The leg-hold trap, as its name suggests, is a pair of jaws that close on an animal’s leg when it steps on a trigger. Critics say the traps bring incredible force to bear on the animal’s body, often breaking bones and tearing flesh. The animal can harm itself further by struggling and twisting the pinned body part or by biting at the trap and breaking its own teeth.

The leg hold long has been the preferred method for trapping coyotes, which are simply too smart to walk into a box trap no matter how enticing the bait, and so the leg-hold trap has been one of the main tools of Wildlife Services.

“It has made it a lot more difficult,” said the USDA’s Hawkins. “The leg-hold trap was one of the few effective tools we had.” And, although there is little evidence to go by, many trappers say Proposition 4 has allowed the coyote population to get out of control.

But part of the law was overturned just two months ago, when the use of body-gripping traps was allowed by the courts in efforts to protect endangered species on federal lands. The case was unusual because it pitted pro-environment groups against each other. The case was brought in part by the Audubon Society, which argued that banning the traps allowed non-native red foxes to prey on endangered bird species. The Audubon Society was joined by the California Trappers Association and the National Trappers Association.

Trappers are still pursuing an effort to overturn the state law in court. They argue that it preempts the Interstate Commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution as well as the Federal Animal Damage Control Act of 1931. Animal-rights groups fear the federal government will soon be using leg-hold traps at will in California again.

Steve Torres, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, said he sees the question of how animals are trapped and killed as a side issue and a distraction from the bigger picture. He sees the current trend in human-wildlife conflicts as an indication that something is going seriously, and quite possibly permanently, wrong with the health of our natural ecosystems.

Torres doesn’t necessarily agree with the notion that just because certain species appear to be thriving in the presence of humans, that it is “good” for the animals. Instead, he thinks it is evidence that natural ecosystems are becoming severely disturbed. “You have an ecosystem that is artificial and [a wildlife] population that is no longer attuned to its native environment. What does that mean? Are they wildlife anymore?” he said.

Those species that are thriving are those that are adapting to a human presence, he said, inevitably in ways that really aren’t healthy for the species. For example, when wildlife populations become dense in urban areas, disease can wipe out vast numbers of animals easily, as happened recently in the deer population of Sacramento’s American River Parkway.

Federal trappers in California complain that the banned leg-hold trap was one of the few effective ways of catching the cunning coyote.

Courtesy Of the Animal Protection Institute

Torres noted that in much of the eastern United States, with the exception of parts of Florida, mountain lions have all but disappeared. The same is true of bears and other large carnivores. Torres said the dense settlement of the eastern United States and the relative lack of protected public land have led to a permanent loss of habitat for large predators. “You really don’t have large mammal systems at all anymore,” he said. He also worries that the large number of mountain-lion kills combined with the ever-diminishing cougar habitat may one day mean that the big cats will disappear in California just as they did in the east.

Torres said he believes we need to do a better job of planning our communities, trying to keep intact wildlife corridors where new development is planned and trying to reconnect corridors that have been fragmented. Habitat loss, he said, is the primary issue facing wildlife biologists in the 21st century. These border skirmishes that people are having with their wild neighbors should be a wake-up call.

“To me, these conflicts are a red flag—a warning that we need to maintain these ecosystems in as best a wild state as we can.”

Name an animal that is native to California that comes into conflict with humans, and you will probably find one of its kind at the Folsom City Zoo.

There’s Fisher, the black bear whose mother was killed when he was a cub because she raided a fish-cleaning station in Bridgeport. There’s Rosemary, the coyote who was dumped anonymously as a pup, who wags her tail when spoken to and who gamely “sings” when prompted, setting off the wolves (formerly illegal pets) who also live here in a polyphonic chorus of howls that is both spooky and beautiful to hear. There are raccoons that have been hit by cars or that have been taken into people’s homes as babies, a bobcat found orphaned in an old barn, and a group of hyperactive foxes that were raised for the movie industry. The zoo is also home to five mountain lions, all orphaned when their mothers were killed by cars or killed by government trappers for attacking livestock. Willow is the one exception.

Willow, 120 pounds and almost 10 years old, is the son of the cat who killed and partially ate Sacramento woman Barbara Schoener in 1994, just a few miles north of here on the Auburn Lake Trails. Willow’s presence here typifies humans’ mixed feelings about these predators.

After Willow’s mother was killed, Jenkins, the zoo superintendent, took him with her every night because she feared someone would try to hurt him if he was left overnight in the zoo. After all, Willow had probably tasted human flesh as a kitten, and people in this community were understandably alarmed about Schoener’s tragic and unexpected death. And yet, it was reported in the local media that people donated twice as much money for Willow’s rehabilitation than they had to a fund for Schoener’s two children. That probably wasn’t true. At least not after radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh went on the air with an appeal for the children.

Attacks like the one on Schoener have some people worried that mountain lions and other native predators are beginning to lose their fear of human beings. Jenkins shares that fear but also thinks we’ve lost the respect we owe to our wild neighbors.

A year ago, after a coyote grabbed a pet Chihuahua in its mouth and ran off with it in a well-lit crowded city park, Jenkins and others pressured Folsom city officials to put up large, yellow signs in public parks to warn people to be mindful of area wildlife. Whether on public land or in their own backyard, Jenkins believes, “more often than not, people are encouraging the conflicts. Our mission here is to promote responsible behavior toward all animals.”

After the Chihuahua incident, Jenkins said, many Folsom residents were stunned and angry, and some demanded a campaign of coyote extermination. But reflexively killing animals, she said, is not the answer. Only human awareness and common sense will allow us to co-exist peacefully with the burgeoning urban wildlife population.

“Our federal government kills hundreds of thousands of coyotes, and you and I are paying for it,” Jenkins said. And yet the coyote population has only continued to increase. The way she sees it, killing predators is just a way for trappers to make money. Indeed, many critics say the federal government could save money if it just paid farmers for lost livestock and stopped hunting down and killing predator animals.

“In my opinion,” said Jenkins, “Wildlife Services should be eliminated.”

In that spirit, her family just signed papers for 70 acres in the foothill community of Cool. She plans to do some hobby farming and raise some vegetables on her property. She also plans to keep a few goats to help keep the property clear of underbrush. Having grown up on a farm herself, she knows something about wildlife. She’s already begun to plan for mountain-lion proof enclosures to keep out the predators, and she likely will get a couple of trained livestock-guarding dogs to help. In this way, she said, she hopes never to have a problem with cougars or coyotes preying on her animals.

But conflicts will carry on, especially in places like the fast-growing community of Folsom. At the zoo, a woman visiting remarked that just a couple of months ago, a black bear was seen casually strolling down the street near her home in a heavily residential neighborhood on American River Canyon Drive. “It was a real nice neighborhood, too,” the woman added.

Nice neighborhood or not, animals are moving in because the city often beats their old digs. Trap them, shoot them or do your best to discourage them and get along with them, but you can’t blame them. It is not as if the animals are making moral decisions. They are simply doing what comes naturally in an unnatural environment.

“We aren’t these god-like figures over the animals,” Jenkins warned. “We are not above the food chain.”