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Nuisance animal control 101 

click to enlarge Josh Hankins Absolute Wildlife image

If you've lived in a freestanding house for awhile — especially an older home — chances are you've heard it at least once or twice: the disconcerting rattle of tiny toenails in the attic. Animals run on instinct, and for creatures like raccoons, rats, squirrels and bats, their instinct tells them that one of their top priorities in life should be to find a dark, dry space and make it their personal crash pad. Whether that's a hollow tree or the place you store your Christmas decorations all summer doesn't really enter their furry little heads.

Nuisance wildlife control is a multi-million dollar industry in Arkansas, with most of the calls coming from urban homeowners who don't feel comfortable dealing with the problem themselves, or who can't take the matter into their own hands because of various cities' regulations on not-so-PC solutions like traps, poisons and discharging a firearm. Though other states have varying degrees of licensure and regulation over the industry, like a lot of smaller, niche professions in Arkansas, nuisance wildlife control is largely unregulated. Those on both the business and government side of things say that can be a problem. Still, as with anything, there are ways to help make sure you get a company that will get those noises out of your attic or crawlspace without causing an even bigger mess than you were trying to solve.

Josh Hankins is the owner of Absolute Wildlife Nuisance Animal Removal, a 5-year-old company that travels all over the state, removing animals and making repairs to damaged caused by invading critters in both private homes and government buildings. Hankins is one of a handful of nuisance animal control operators in the state that hold both residential and commercial contractors' licenses through the state contractor's board. The residential license is required to repair any damage over $2,000. The commercial license certifies his company to repair damage over $20,000. As for the removal of the animals that has to take place before those repairs can begin, Hankins said that there is some basic regulation of the industry through the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (which oversees the control of fur-bearing animals) and the Arkansas Plant Board (which deals with issues related to the removal and relocation of unwanted honeybee colonies), but he believes there needs to be more. Lax regs, he said, open the door to "fly-by-night" operators who might not know what they're doing.

"There is no regulative body that watches over this industry in particular, and it's unfortunate because it hurts people like us who try to go in and do it right," he said. "It makes a bad name for the industry if a customer has dealt with two other companies that didn't do it properly."

In most urban cases, Hankins' company live-traps animals before relocating them outside the city limits. While people in rural areas generally handle the issue of nuisance animal control themselves in ways that would probably get PETA's knickers in a bunch, Hankins said that taking an animal issue into your own hands isn't always feasible, comfortable or wise. He's seen jobs, for example, where a homeowner patched an exterior entry hole and unwittingly sealed an animal inside an attic, with the creature then proceeding to either find a way to bust through into the living space or dying in there, turning a $300 problem into a stench that costs thousands to clear out.

"People will hear something in their attic and see a hole and think: Well, if I'll patch the hole, it'll fix it," he said. "I always tell customers: if you see a hole, the last thing you want to do is patch it if you've got any indication that there's something inside. A lot of the animals that we deal with are communal. If you go patching a hole, you could potentially trap hundreds of critters inside."

Blake Sasse is the non-game and furbearing mammal biologist for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and is in charge of what oversight there is of nuisance animal control companies in the state. He said that when it comes to the issue of animal removal, companies currently operate under the same regulations that any private homeowner would be required to follow. While Sasse said that others states do have tighter regulations on their nuisance animal companies and there has been some discussion in the past in Arkansas over whether there should be more regulation, the creation of any new rules wouldn't have much effect on the practices of the industry as it stands. New requirements would require an outlay of cash for new enforcement needs. He said he "personally goes back and forth" over whether there needs to be more regulation of the nuisance animal industry, but admits that without spending more money and manpower on administration and enforcement, it's hard to see the benefit.

"We just haven't seen much advantage to it," Sasse said. "We're already pretty liberal in what sort of activities we allow people to do to control nuisance animal problems. Generally a license lets you do extra things that normal people wouldn't be able to do. There just isn't much beyond what we allow now that would be of much help to [companies and customers]."

Sasse said that animal issues can become expensive quickly, depending on the species and how long it has been there. His specialty is bat colonies, and he said that while bats don't usually chew on things or damage exterior walls and roofs like a squirrel, rat or raccoon might, a quiet, long-established colony of bats in an attic can leave behind large quantities of guano. While the droppings aren't necessarily harmful, Sasse said old piles can begin to grow a fungus called Histoplasma capsulatum, which can infect humans (if you've ever been pregnant, you've probably heard of histoplasmosis. It's the disease that leads doctors to warn pregnant women against cleaning their cat's litter box). Sasse said most Arkansans have already been exposed to the fungus because it's common in the state, but it can have serious health complications for those with compromised immune systems.

For those looking to both get an animal out and fix the damage so an infestation doesn't reoccur, Sasse said homeowners should talk to the nuisance animal control contractor and make sure of their specialty. Depending on the contractor, he said it might turn out better (and possibly cheaper) to have the animal removed, then hire a non-animal-control carpentry company to come fix the entry points. "You might be basically hiring somebody who is really good at catching animals to catch the animals as well as fix the damage," he said. "There might be people who are able to fix the damage a lot cheaper who specialize in carpentry and home repair and all that. That's kind of a different ballgame. That might be like asking a heart specialist to give you your annual physical."

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission website has a list of about 100 nuisance animal companies around the state (which Sasse called "fairly comprehensive") as well as links to pages that help homeowners know what kinds of questions to ask to help find a reputable nuisance animal control contractor. For more information, go to www.agfc.com/species/Pages/SpeciesNuisanceWildlifeResources.aspx.

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