Businessman cleans up Howard County road kill

Mechanic finds 2nd job removing dead animals

January 25, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With his long ponytail, passion for Harley-Davidson motorcycles and a business that sounds like a '70s punk-rock band -- Dead Pet Pickup -- Tom Greenbank could easily be mistaken for a man rebelling against convention.

Far from it.

"I'm proud of the work I do," the Maryland State Police motorcycle mechanic said shortly after pulling a dead 100-pound deer from a ditch along Hall Shop Road near his Highland home in southern Howard County.

He quickly slid the frozen carcass into his low wooden trailer and tied the right hind leg to the trailer's side for the long ride to a rendering plant in Curtis Bay, at the southern tip of Baltimore.

Dead Pet Pickup of Howard County is the bearded, 47-year-old Greenbank's sideline -- a way to earn some extra dollars with a little old-fashioned country common sense, ingenuity, and a pickup truck. He has a contract with the county to pick up deer and other dead animals from county roads. He will dispose of privately owned pets for a fee.

"How do you make a successful business?" he asked rhetorically. "You find something that no one else does, and do it," he said, adding that he's bidding for a similar contract in Montgomery County.

For those squeamish about seeing -- much less touching -- lifeless, sometimes bloody animals, he has a simple message: "Death is a part of life. Get over it."

He's not callous, though.

"I am essentially a pickup and delivery service and a nice, nice guy," he said.

His business card says "We care for your loss." And he does -- he's just not overly sentimental.

Even Greenbank agrees that the job isn't always pleasant. He talks about "butcher drops": people who home-butcher deer and dump the remains in certain secluded roadside spots -- sometimes in bags, sometimes not. And the occasional deer hit by a large truck and run over multiple times before he retrieves it.

And then there was the snake. A 20-foot-long, 200-pound python dead along Dorsey Hall Road a few years back. Greenbank guesses the snake was a pet that died and the owner didn't know what to do with it -- or didn't want to pay for disposal. The snake was bigger than most deer, he said, showing a souvenir snapshot.

There are compensations, too.

The deer population has been growing as fast as the number of rural residents in Howard County, enabling him to earn more than $36,000 last year between his private and public dead animal pickups.

The volume can vary greatly from year to year, however.

He was called to collect 503 dead deer last year, he said, compared with only 144 six years ago. He's paid according to a combination of factors, including whether the animal was found where reported and the distance traveled. He gets a reduced fee, for example, if he's asked to retrieve a dead animal, but finds it gone when he arrives -- a common occurrence.

He says the job enabled him to spend more time with his two growing children than he could in his previous stint as motorcycle shop owner.

"I used to haul two kids around," he said. He made a comfortable nest for them in the covered bed of an older pickup, which he equipped with a bench for doing homework and even a small television.

"We got to stop and eat dinner as a family. How many families do that anymore?" he said, noting that he wouldn't allow his children to stay home alone.

A native Howard County farm boy who quit Atholton High School in 1969 to join the Marines, Greenbank sees life without pretention. He and his wife, Lynn, their dog Bandit and two cats live in a modest rancher on 57 acres left from his family farm, watching as the McMansion-style luxury housing developments eating so much of rural Howard County creep closer.

He learned mechanics as a boy, along with the work ethic, respect for law and the pride he talks about.

"I help people in need," he said about his animal business. "I am civic-minded."

Greenbank tells about how he lost the contract once to a lower bidder several years ago, but got it back several months later when the man refused to work weekends and left animals lying for days.

"They've never had a complaint about me," he said. "They had some about that guy!"

Brenda Purvis, county animal control administrator, agreed. "Tom does an excellent job for us," she said.

Greenbank calls the county animal control office each day before getting off work in mid-afternoon to get his assignments.

This month, he had a deer and a cat to collect. His trailer in place, he found the deer as expected, but the cat was gone. After making sure the Columbia woman who reported the dead feline was satisfied, he drove east across Route 100 to the Valley Proteins plant on Pennington Avenue, following one of its huge trucks -- deer hoofs and dog carcasses protruding from 55-gallon drums in the back. The whole errand took two hours.

"You can't make a living at this. And I'm not trying to make a killing," Greenbank added with an unintended pun.

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