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Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species

Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife

Death in Yellowstone

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    Animals Winning American Turf War
By Andrew Alderson in Los Angeles

Sunday, September 10, 2000

AS American urban development spreads, a war is gathering pace between humans and wildlife. People are increasingly ending up second best.

Last week, the Insurance Information Institute estimated that animal-related damage to property was running at more than £2 billion a year across the United States, and rising. "You have so many people living in areas not designed for human habitation," said Steve Goldstein, a spokesman for the New York-based organisation. "Sometimes people find themselves cohabiting with creatures they never planned to cohabit with."

While armadillos are a menace in Oklahoma, where they are destroying gardens, there are tales of wolves roaming near Minnesota homes, a cougar prowling an estate in Colorado and feral chickens pecking out at people in California.

Even when man loses patience and takes the law into his own hands, he is in danger of making a fool of himself. In Michigan, one local tried to shoot a possum invading his kitchen, but hit a gas pipe. The consequent explosion caused £31,000 of damage.

Raccoons are top of the troublemakers' list. One group did tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage to a property in Ohio, when they entered through the chimney as the owners wintered in Florida. They ate all the food in the cupboards, clawed their way through hardwood floors and soiled furniture.

Ask Sean and Lisa Rankin how they fared when a raccoon with attitude invaded their home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In short - not well. It broke into their kitchen, fought their pet cat for food and used their boat as a lavatory. When it made unfriendly advances towards their 11-month-old son Sydney, the Rankins fought back.

"I started throwing fruit from the tree at him," said Mrs Rankin. "He caught it. I pictured him going back to his raccoon friends and saying, 'You won't believe these stupid humans - they're throwing me breakfast'." Unable to win their own war, the Rankins turned to one of an estimated 5,000 US firms now helping home owners deal with unwanted pests.

Business is booming for Joe Felegi, whose Critter Control company handles 200 calls a day. He usually traps his prey in cages using bait. Then, depending on the species, he either kills them or releases them into the wild. Yet urban sprawl means that his release spots have dwindled from 30 to three over the years. "I'm trapping where I used to release," he said.

A generation ago, animal intruders might have been shot and eaten. Today, gun laws are tighter and animal welfare groups are on the side of the assailants. Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, urges home owners not to harm "innocent, defenceless" creatures. "The animals were there first," she said.

Many residents now resort to more humane deterrents, supporting a $250 million-a-year industry supplying everything from home-made traps to warning devices with intriguing names such as MoleBlaster and The Garden Cop. Disastrous tales of DIY critter-controllers abound. A Fort Lauderdale man who tried to exterminate a land crab by pouring petrol down its hole and lighting it had a much closer brush with death than his intended victim. Others have tried more old-fashioned measures, but with no more success.

Patrick Christmas, a lawyer, resorted to squirrel-bashing when they invaded the attic of his home in Washington DC and chewed through electric wiring. He dressed for battle, donning a hockey helmet, mask, gloves and padded jacket. He then pursued the pests on the roof of his three-storey house and started swatting. "All I could think of was being found dead at the bottom of my house, wearing a hockey mask and a ski parka in August," said Mr Christmas.

The squirrels are still there.

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