Wildlife trouble-shooters come to rescue in suburbia

May 06, 1991|By Peter Jensen

It can be a jungle out there. Sometimes you need a man like William T. Bridgeland, backyard wildlife biologist.

On this particular day in upper Baltimore County he is hunting snakes. Big, nasty ones. Maybe even the venomous copperhead the homeowner claims to have spotted.

Carefully, Mr. Bridgeland scrutinizes the one-story, wood-frame house on the end of a cul-de-sac in Monkton. He digs up a compost pile, checks lint in the dryer vent, looks up the siding with a mirror. Inside the house, he shines a flashlight in the darker recesses of the basement and attic.

No snakes are found. But Mr. Bridgeland, anxious to please his client, fills in a gap in a brick strip where mice might lurk and fixes screens on top of a chimney where bats and birds have entered the house before.

At a gap in the foundation, he installs a roll of wire screen that serves as a one-way door: An animal may get out, but the snake, not known as a deep-thinker, will not be able to figure out how to get back in.

Chalk up another suburban homestead made safe from the great outdoors.

"One out of 10 of these calls I find a snake," said Mr. Bridgeland, an eight-year veteran of the suburban wildlife trouble-shooting trade. "It's one of the things I get a lot of calls about."

As Maryland's rural landscape continues to be chopped up under a steady onslaught of suburban tract housing, shopping centers and mini-malls, reports of man vs. wildlife encounters are on the upswing.

At a state wildlife biologist's office in Owings Mills, calls about problems with wild animals have increased 50 percent over the last decade. Across the state, as many as 20,000 such calls are expected to be logged this year on a new, toll-free telephone number in Annapolis.

"People are afraid of the unknown, especially when animals don't behave like they do on a Walt Disney program," said Marilyn Mause, a wildlife biologist employed by the state Department of Natural Resources for Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties.

"On the other hand, a lot of them have seen too many Stephen King movies and they think the animals are coming after them."

Take for instance the distressed family that called 911 in January report that they had seen "two foxes stuck together" in a field near their home.

"They wanted someone to come and pull them apart," Ms. Mause recalled. The husband and wife were unaware that the animals had been mating.

Or the elderly person who complained that a possum was vomiting in her yard, or the skittish mother who had seen a rabbit outside her door and refused to let her children outside lest they come face-to-face with the wild bunny.

"We generally hear about things that people have irrational fears about, especially snakes and bats," said Peggy Calnan, a district biologist for Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Calvert counties.

To illustrate her point, Ms. Calnan relates an encounter with wildlife that took place last year in Calvert County. It began early one afternoon on May 19, when Darlene Bowen spotted a black && snake by her bathroom door and rushed for help.

Though the black snake is neither poisonous nor dangerous, a neighbor came to her "rescue" and doused the reptile with gasoline.

Unfortunately, the fumes from the gasoline were ignited by a pilot light in the nearby water heater. The resulting blaze "not only fried the snake but it caused $60,000 in damage to the house," said Robert B. Thomas Jr., a deputy chief state fire marshal.

While such encounters seem bizarre, they are heard almost every day by Leslie E. Terry, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who, since January, has been contracted by the state to answer "animal damage" calls on an 800 number.

Mr. Terry's office in Annapolis is stuffed with such things as whistling

firecrackers (to scare away starlings) and balloons with ominous-looking eyes (woodpeckers hate being watched), and a gas-powered cannon (a few timely "booms" each hour and the Canada geese scatter).

In January, Mr. Terry fielded 241 calls from people anxious to rid themselves of some native fauna. Last month, the number swelled to 566 and he expects the number will only continue to rise.

"They all come from the metropolitan areas," Mr. Terry observed. "It seems like in rural Western Maryland or the Eastern Shore people either take care of these problems or don't have them."

Experts say that the rising number of animal nuisance complaints can be attributed to more than suburban sprawl. A variety of animal species have also adapted well to the suburban environment.

In recent years, populations of deer and beaver have swollen to record numbers. Raccoons, possums, groundhogs, squirrels and chipmunks are particularly fond of suburban habitat and food sources that include trash cans, unattended pet food, and bird feeders.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.