Wanted: Alive

When critters invade people's property, it's Tom Scollins to the rescue -- usually of the animals.

July 10, 2002|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Tom Scollins pointed out one snake head, rising ever so slightly above the dense soup at the bottom of the swimming pool. Then he pointed out another. How many others were enjoying the decayed vegetation and tadpoles? How deep was that stuff? An investigatory poke with a tree branch suggested at least a foot deep, enough to be nasty.

The wildlife control specialist had not brought his waders to the abandoned swimming pool in Woodlawn; the woman requesting snake removal had assured him they wouldn't be necessary. She was putting in a new pool. What was left of the old one was dilapidated, crumbling and dry - except for that one spot in the former deep end teeming with God knows what.

The woman first realized she had a wildlife issue when she saw two snake heads shoot out of the water in pursuit of a low-flying bird. When she peered at the spot more closely, she noticed snakes everywhere.

"I could even see little baby snakes," she told Scollins. "I was so scared that I went inside, locked all the doors and started vacuuming."

Later, she started calling people: The Department of Natural Resources ("remarkably disappointing"), Patuxent Wildlife, a friend in the Audubon Society. Her search eventually led her to Scollins of TS Wildlife Control, a service providing "professional and humane wildlife removal and relocation" in Baltimore.

Now Scollins was staring at the mucky area, sizing up his options. He had six more appointments ahead of him, his waders were 30 minutes away, and he knew that any unprotected encounters with Northern water snakes would brand him with particularly heavy musk for the rest of the day. His colleague Holly, from the Maryland Herpetological Society, might be available for a possible snake rescue that afternoon, he told the lady, or he could return tomorrow with his waders. Or she could ask for help from the guys who had just arrived to knock through the rest of the pool. He decided to put this case on hold.

The 27-year-old zoologist climbed back into his Ford Ranger pickup. He faced another eight hours of bat calls, squirrel pick-ups and snake stops, a schedule that would take him to Howard and Carroll counties as well as Baltimore City. He would check traps for groundhogs, climb onto roofs and poke into the dark corners of basements and attics looking for tiny holes or cracks that critters could squeeze through. And he would listen for chirps, chitters and squeaks: It was the season of babies - birds, raccoons and bats. Humane treatment held that mothers not be separated from their offspring while they were still nursing.

It was challenging, unpredictable work. Sometimes it was possible to find and remove animals from people's homes, sometimes not. Scollins considered it his mission to convince at least one person each day that humans and wild animals could coexist respectfully. He liked to educate folks about the groundhogs and possums that occasionally wandered into their back yards, the bats that sought shelter in their homes. Not every snake was an unexploded bomb, not every raccoon was rabid.

Understanding animals better had become Scollins' lifelong pursuit. As a child in New York, he went to every educational summer camp at the Bronx Zoo, then worked as a volunteer when he was a teen-ager. Later, with an associate's degree in zoology, he worked in the reptile house of the Baltimore Zoo before starting his own wildlife control business in 1999.

One of the best parts of the job was rescuing creatures - especially babies - and turning them over to rehabilitators like Gerda Deterer. Founder and president of Wildlife Rescue Inc., Deterer is one of Maryland's best known animal advocates. She knew Scollins tried to persuade homeowners to give nursing mothers and babies a chance. She trusted his heart and respected his knowledge. If she didn't have time to look for a raccoon family in someone's attic, she would often call Tom.

All in a day's work

On his way to a noises-in-the-attic investigation, Scollins swerved to avoid a squirrel licking up salt in the middle of the road. Then he took an agitated call from a client he had visited the night before. The woman had found a baby bat clinging to the heat register in the ceiling of her Baltimore County apartment. Scollins had removed it and pronounced her apartment bat-free. Now he was telling her that she did not have rabies. The baby bat had probably crawled away from a colony somewhere within the walls of the complex and gotten stuck at the heat register, he told her. Because the bat could not fly and bite her, and because she had never touched the bat, he could assure her that she had not contracted rabies.

"Relax. Go have your hair done, have a cocktail or something," he suggested.

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