Wild kingdom in 'burbs

Encounters: Development increasingly puts people in contact with wildlife, wandering cattle and wanton emus.

July 15, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

If it had been human, it would have been charged with assault and theft.

But the emu that led Cpl. Robert C. Cromwell on an hour-long chase through a Mount Airy neighborhood of freshly built, single-family homes made a clean getaway - with a pack of the officer's Marlboro Lights in its beak.

"It looked like a big roadrunner, and it ran like one, too," recalled Cromwell, an officer with the Carroll County Sheriff's Office.

Law enforcement officers in rural and newly suburbanized places in the Baltimore area regularly do double duty as cowboys and zookeepers.

As housing and commercial developments usurp areas once populated by foxes, opossums and deer - and bump up against farms that raise emus and livestock - encounters with animals are becoming more frequent.

"This time of year we get more calls than at any time of year. Animals are having their babies and foraging for food," said Charlotte Crenson-Murrow, supervisor of the animal control division in Baltimore County. "We've built into their habitat and they have nowhere to go, so they're going to show up in our back yards or even garages."

Last year, her office answered 1,196 wildlife calls, including sightings of raccoons in attics, opossums under porches, birds in dryer vents, snakes under refrigerators and deer in garages.

Crenson-Murrow's office handled 1,100 calls just for deer last year.

Last month, she said, her office responded to a call from a Firestone dealership on York Road that had a deer. Trapped. In a restroom.

As the regions around cities become more developed, deer and other animals can be forced toward urban areas. Three times last month, deer startled city slickers in downtown Annapolis.

Right before hunting season, state troopers regularly have to shoot two or three deer that have been hit by motorists and left to die. First Sgt. Andrew Mays of the Westminster barracks said clearing the roads of dead animals is part of a trooper's repertoire. Being able to shoot an animal is a job requirement, he said.

Oh, deer

Sometimes, the animals manage to escape.

Mays remembered the night retired Trooper Larry Faries ended up with a dazed deer sitting in his passenger seat.

Faries, who is now head of security for Carroll County schools, was returning home to Hampstead when he hit the deer and it crashed through his windshield. When Faries stopped, he looked over to see the deer sitting in his passenger seat, legs up in the air.

"It's half knocked out, and Larry is thinking of reaching over to get his gun out of the glove box when the deer jumps out of the window," Mays said. "And it's standing on top of his car like a hood ornament."

Then there are people who seek animal encounters.

"You get a lot of people that grew up in the city and they get their dream home with 5 to 10 acres in the country, and the first thing they want to do is get a pony," said Allan Schwartz, co-founder of the Days End Farm Horse Rescue on the border of Carroll and Howard counties. "But they don't learn how to take care of it."

Stray emu

Emus, such as the one Cromwell encountered, should be kept behind fences at least 8 feet tall, said Diane Brown, owner of the Carlhaven Emu Farm in Howard County. They can jump over 6-foot fences if they feel threatened, she said.

One emu called an Eldersburg back yard home for a few days in December, but animal control officers eventually corralled and removed the bird.

Because there are only three people in the county's animal control unit to cover about 450 square miles, Carroll County police officers handle many of the 500 calls a year that come in about wildlife, said the Humane Society's executive director, Nicky Ratliff.

"There's a lot of indigenous wildlife in these neighborhoods," said Deborah Baracco, administrator for Howard County Animal Control. "It would not be uncommon to see raccoons and foxes, especially with as much building as there is in Howard County. It disturbs their natural habitat, but a lot of wildlife is very resourceful. They end up living near humans. We're a good food source - because of our trash."

Wily coyotes

Among the more resilient species to thrive in Maryland's populated areas is an animal familiar to Roadrunner cartoon fans.

"Coyotes habituate to humans real well, and if there's no danger, they're going to take advantage of it," said Robert Colona, furbearer project leader for the state's Department of Natural Resources. "They're in every county in the state."

Crenson-Murrow said her office has fielded reports of dens in Hunt Valley, Pikesville and throughout northern Baltimore County.

Colona said coyotes immigrated to the state 30 years ago and have grown steadily, especially in the western part of the state. The DNR has received reports of attacks on pets and livestock, he said.

Hampstead Police Officer Stacey Gaegler said raccoons wreak havoc in her town. On Mother's Day, Gaegler helped catch one that had holed up inside a central air-conditioning unit.

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