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Wildlife Control: Out of Control

Published 06/15/04
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 35 Number 2, Summer 2004

In December 1999, the day after an exhausting and fretful search for Soccer, the Gendrons received the phone call every companion animal guardian dreads. The family’s twelve-year-old cat was dead, his neck broken by a Conibear kill trap set by a “pest” control trapper in a residential community in California’s East Bay. A neighbor had hired the trapper to remove a raccoon who was raiding open garbage cans.

Three weeks later, in a neighboring community, another cat, Michael, was found crushed to death in the vise-like grip of the same type of trap. The manager of a homeowners’ association had hired the same “pest” control company to trap and remove raccoons and skunks.

Dr. Marybeth Rymer, a veterinarian, had been Michael’s guardian for six years. Dr. Rymer told advocates about an event that occurred not long after Michael’s death:

One evening a week later, several of us standing on the boardwalk helplessly watched in dismay as a screaming raccoon frantically fought a trap on his leg. As he stumbled across the boulders, he fell into the bay and drowned. We have also heard the heart-wrenching sounds of raccoons trapped and dying while sleeping at night.

That same month, a woman was out walking with her dog, Jimmy, near where the two cats had been trapped. As the woman stopped to talk to her neighbor, her dog wandered through a nearby open gate. Suddenly, she heard a loud, terrified howl. She found her dog’s head locked in the jaws of a metal device that she had no idea how to open. She screamed for help. Luckily, with the assistance of nearby residents, she was able to remove the trap before it could kill Jimmy.

All of these traps were set by a man who advertised himself as an “animal damage control” trapper. He charged approximately $200 for each “animal removal” service provided. According to local activists, within two months, this trapper had killed three cats and injured one dog, in addition to the numerous raccoons, skunks, and other “target” animals killed during the same time period.

Unfortunately, the use of Conibear kill traps, strangulation neck snares, and steel-jaw leghold traps is legal in most U.S. states, in rural, urban, and suburban areas alike. Stories of non-target animals falling victim to body-gripping traps are commonplace, and the frequency of such incidents is rising in tandem with the increase of human/wildlife conflicts in urban areas.

Communities can take action to stop the needless deaths of animals. For example, reports about companion animals killed and maimed by traps generated enough public outrage and media attention to compel the Pinole (CA) city council to ban the use of body-gripping traps within city limits. The council embraced API’s own model ordinance about traps following emotional testimonials from those who lost their beloved furred companions.

A Lawless Industry

“Animal Damage Control” or “pest” control trappers — also known as Wildlife Control Operators, or WCOs — number in the tens of thousands nationwide. Individuals and businesses contract with WCOs to resolve conflicts between humans and wild animals. State and federal wildlife agencies have traditionally left resolution of such conflicts to individual initiative, and allow people to hire private wildlife control businesses that typically charge a fee for wildlife removal services.

Wildlife damage control is one of the fastest growing industries in the country. As urban sprawl increases, so do interactions between humans and wild animals. This has led to greater demand for WCO services, despite the fact that many conflicts between people and wildlife can be mitigated by simple changes in human behavior.

Two franchises — the Nuisance Wildlife Control Operators Association (NWCOA) and Critter Control — dominate this lucrative trade. According to a Critter Control newsletter, the company boasts more than 110 offices in 38 states and claims annual growth of 15 to 20 percent.1 In addition, thousands of “mom-and-pop” WCO businesses operate throughout the U.S., run by one or two employees who may have no training in wildlife biology or animal care and handling. Such businesses can be found in any Yellow Pages under the heading “pest control.” According to The Wall Street Journal, “Hundreds of companies have sprung up to get in on the hundreds of millions of dollars now spent annually dealing with nuisance [sic] wildlife that were once harvested as a renewable resource [sic].”

Oversight of wildlife damage control businesses has lagged behind the industry’s growth. State agencies have been hesitant to regulate the business practices of an industry they see as largely commercial in nature, although the wildlife control operators affect hundreds of thousands of wild animals annually. As a result, many states have almost no regulations providing proper oversight or defining humane care and handling of wildlife impacted by this trade.

In a survey of all 50 states, Dr. John Hadidian and his coauthors found wide variability in how states regulate the wildlife damage control industry, and little codification of laws, policies, and practices.2 Many states, for example, do not regulate how animals causing property damage are killed, and therefore allow inhumane methods as drowning and injection of chemical solvents such as acetone (which is essentially nail-polish remover and is commonly used to kill skunks).

Clearly, current state laws and regulations are woefully deficient. As the wildlife damage control industry grows, agencies that are generally concerned with regulating recreational or commercial killing of wildlife through establishment of “game seasons” and “bag limits” find themselves attempting to regulate an industry that has very different biological, ecological, sociopolitical, and geographical parameters and impacts. Few wildlife agencies have proactively sought policy reform to regulate this trade adequately.

Deadly Incentives

Some of the problems with wildlife damage control are inherent in the trade itself, and the ways in which lethal control methods are favored over less inhumane alternatives. WCOs profit by resolving wildlife conflicts; this usually involves removing an animal from where it is not wanted. “Removal” too often means killing, as many states do not allow relocation of wild animals (relocation is sometimes not a biologically or ecologically viable action, as some species of wild animals can suffer high mortality rates, displace existing animals, and transmit infectious diseases). In addition, killing an animal or animals may be the most simple option for the WCO who likely has many service visits to make each day.

Most states allow WCOs to sell the furs of the animals they catch. Pelts may even be sold from animals killed for damage control purposes outside of established fur trapping seasons. The potential for a “double” profit provides further incentive for WCOs to opt for lethal control methods. Thus, while chimney-capping may provide a more humane long-term solution to the problem of raccoons in chimneys, there is economic incentive for the trapper to kill the animals, sell the pelts, and anticipate future business when the next raccoon family moves in.

Customers of WCOs may have the expectation that they will see concrete “proof” that their concerns have been resolved. The issue of a raccoon eating the cat food left outside and raiding the poorly-secured garbage can may be best addressed by the human resident making a few simple behavioral changes. The WCO, however, may be hesitant to tell a client that if she simply brought the cat food in at night, securely contained her garbage, and placed the garbage can out on the day of collection instead of the night before, her problem might easily and cheaply be resolved. Advising clients about such simple, humane mitigation techniques could mean the loss of a potential $200 job (and, possibly, a $15 pelt).

Capturing the “offending” raccoon ensures that the WCO gets his money. The client is likely to think that her problem has been removed. Unfortunately, however, the root cause of the conflict — the easily available food source — remains; another raccoon or a different animal is likely to move in and take advantage of the free evening supper. And the WCO will profit from yet another service call.

The animal damage control industry’s reliance on killing as a method of conflict resolution raises many concerns for API and humane advocates. By reflexively utilizing lethal control, WCOs often overlook or outright ignore opportunities for humane resolutions to conflicts between humans and wildlife. Further, killing adult animals means that young animals are orphaned, a situation that burdens the local animal control agencies and wildlife rehabilitators called upon to care for the orphaned animals.

Cruel and Usual

The methods WCOs use to kill animals can be shockingly cruel. This is particularly true of body-gripping traps. Far too often, WCOs employ “kill traps” and other body-crushing devices, as they are easy to use, provide the appearance that the problem is resolved, and ensure payment for services rendered.

By their very nature, however, traps are non-selective and do not guarantee that the “problem” animal is captured. Far too often, an animal who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time becomes the victim of a trap set for another species — and loses his or her life as a result.

Many fur trappers have entered the wildlife damage control business and they often employ the same traps used in commercial fur trapping. These body-gripping traps, including leghold traps, neck and body snares, and Conibear kill-traps, can be extremely dangerous in populated areas, posing a hazard to domestic dogs and cats, as well as to humans. Few states, however, limit the use of these traps in such areas, so thousands of non-target animals die in their grip each year.

Even when WCOs address conflicts through “live-trapping,” animals may die. Too often, clients are told that animals trapped will be released elsewhere. Not only would such a release be illegal in many states and localities, but WCOs freely admit that this is the accepted line provided to appease clients before an animal is removed and killed — out of sight and after the check is written.

Killing methods have become a hot-button issue in recent years, with animal advocates forcing WCO associations, such as NWCOA and Critter Control, to address the subject head-on in their newsletters and annual conferences. Few states regulate how animals causing wildlife damage are killed and thus do not require humane euthanasia guidelines for urban wildlife conflicts. Indeed, wildlife damage management is one of the few fields impacting animals that do not, in general, have baseline criteria addressing animal welfare. Other industries in which animals are used or appreciably impacted, including education, food production, and research, are significantly advanced in how they address animal welfare concerns, compared to WCOs.3 Pressure from animal advocates, however, as well as from those WCOs concerned with public sentiment and the humane care of wildlife, are forcing a public dialog on this issue through proposed legislative and regulatory reform.

In 1996, an appalling incident — and subsequent media coverage — opened many people’s eyes to the animal welfare concerns associated with traditional urban wildlife management. Several people watched in horror as a Connecticut WCO took a cage-trapped raccoon and drowned the animal off the end of a dock in a public marina. The WCO was reported to the local animal control agency and ultimately arrested on animal cruelty charges.

Although these charges were later dropped, the case garnered national media coverage and dramatic public outcry. The presiding judge in the case noted that she had received more mail on this issue than any of the other cases she handled in her twenty-year career.4 Animal advocates took advantage of public outrage to push through the Connecticut legislature the nation’s first comprehensive bill on urban wildlife damage control. The bill established training and licensing requirements for WCOs in the state and requires that WCOs only employ euthanasia methods approved by the American Veterinary Association.

While the raccoon-drowning incident in Connecticut highlighted the strong emotions and controversy that surrounds the mistreatment of animals, tens of thousands of wild animals continue to be drowned and inhumanely killed by WCOs each year. These cruel practices remain legal in many states.

Wildlife damage management publications are rife with discussions on the quickest and cheapest methods for killing animals. An article in Animal Damage Control magazine titled “Alternatives for Nuisance Animal Disposal” recommends that WCOs be deliberately unclear when clients ask about how the trapped “problem” animal will be killed: “Often times I will be as vague as possible and simply say that if I am successful anything that is trapped will be ‘relocated.’”5

The author of the article then goes on to say that suffocation and drowning are his killing methods of choice: “The large (25 gallon) air tight buckets that swimming pool chlorine is packaged in is [sic] the perfect tool. Once the animal is put inside and the top securely locked in place it will just be a matter of time before the air runs out.” The advantages of this method, the author notes, are that it is “cheap,” “takes up very little space,” and reduces the chances of getting sprayed by an ornery skunk. The same author recommends drowning raccoons, specifically in a water-filled drum that can be transported on the back of a truck. The method allows for “some privacy while dispatching wildlife.”

Intentionally drowning, kill-trapping, or suffocating a cat or dog would violate animal cruelty laws in most states. The archaic laws and regulations that allow such cruelty toward wildlife in animal damage control must be changed. Reform in this area, however, can be extremely difficult to achieve, as opposition from those vested in traditional wildlife management can be fierce and well-financed.

Fortunately, animal advocates have many allies in this fight, including wildlife rehabilitators and those enlightened individuals in the wildlife damage control business who recognize that proactive public education and non-lethal control techniques are the wave of the future. Progressive biologists working within state wildlife agencies can also be partners in reform efforts.

Ultimately, as society places greater value on wildlife and the humane treatment of all animals, cruel traps and other management methods known to cause undue pain and suffering will no longer be condoned. Recognition that our wild neighbors are here to stay and that our own behavior is very often at the root of wildlife conflicts is the first step toward educated and peaceful co-existence.

API Takes Aim: Working to Improve Oversight of Wildlife Control

Through regulatory and legislative reform, API is leading an effort to improve oversight and regulation of the wildlife damage control trade. We’re starting our reform campaign in our home state of California.

Currently, WCOs face little regulation in California, where they can operate without adequate training and testing in non-lethal conflict mitigation techniques and the humane handling of animals. Thousands of wildlife damage control businesses operate in the state. Legislation backed by API and other animal advocacy organizations that was signed into law in 2002 requires that California WCOs obtain a license and pass a competency exam. It also prohibits the sale of furs taken by persons providing trapping services for a profit, thereby reducing economic incentive for lethal control methods.

API has been part of a public task force established by the California Department of Fish & Game to address deficiencies in the regulations regarding wildlife damage control. API submitted a detailed proposal to the Department with recommendations for improving oversight of the wildlife damage control trade. Among other objectives, API, with support from other wildlife advocates, is seeking to restrict WCOs’ use of body-gripping traps, to improve humane care and handling of wildlife, to reduce orphaning and abandonment of young, to mandate humane euthanasia guidelines, to require adequate training and testing of WCOs, to mandate reporting of wildlife handled by WCOs, and to promote consumer education and public awareness.


  1. Critter Chatter, newsletter of Critter Control, Fall 2002 Vol. XII. No. 4.
  2. Hadidian, J., M. R. Childs, R. H. Schmidt, L. J. Simon, and A. Church. (2001). Nuisance wildlife control practices, policies and procedures in the United States. In R. Field, R. J. Warren, H. Okarma, & P. R. Sievert (eds.), Wildlife, Land and People: Priorities for the 21st Century, 165-68. Proceedings of the Second International Wildlife Management Congress. Valko, Hungary: The Wildlife Society.
  3. Fisher, P., and C. Marks. (1996). In P. Fisher & C. Marks (eds.) Humaneness and vertebrate pest control. Victoria: Government of Victoria.
  4. Hadidian, J., L. J. Simon, & M. R. Childs. (2002). The “nuisance” wildlife control industry: animal welfare concerns. In R. M. Timm & R. H. Schmidt (eds.), Proceedings 20th Vertebrate Pest Conference, 378–82. Davis, CA: University of California Davis.
  5. Cea, John. Alternatives for Nuisance Animal Disposal. ADC, April-May 1996, 11-12.

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