When Wildlife Gets Too Close To Home

By Michelle Theriault
BELLINGHAM, WA–Raccoons hang out on mailboxes. River Otters slither under the foundations of houses. Squirrels burrow into attics.

When habitat and homes intermingle, wildlife bumps up against settlement and cute animals become urgent problems. That’s when Dave Vinke gets involved: he’s the guy you call when wildlife gets too close for comfort.

As a nuisance wildlife control operator licensed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Vinke runs interference between wild animals and humans.

“With our urban sprawl, it’s a big old mess for everybody,” says Vinke. “They’re cute and cuddly until they’re causing problems.”

Requests for special trapping permits are expected to reach 1,000 by year’s end, up from 789 in 2005, according to Sean Carrell, who issues special trapping permits for Fish and Wildlife. The increase is an indication that nuisance wildlife complaints are on the rise, says Lt. Richard Mann.

Today, Vinke is barreling down the road in his beat-up Toyota 4Runner, on his way to save the day for three traumatized homeowners.

His job involves some unpleasantness—like fending off angry Raccoons and spending time in crawlspaces filled with animal feces —but it allows him to be outdoors and among the wildlife he often finds as breathtaking as his clients find problematic.

“I love my job,” he says. “Well, most of it, anyways.”

Tools of the trade
In the back of Vinke’s SUV are the essentials he needs to do his job.
They include a biohazard suit, rubber gloves, marshmallows, granola, Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul brand dog food, a cooler full of tilapia fish, Fig Newtons, cages and a vial labeled “otter scent.”

Vinke, who lives “out in the county” near Ferndale, is a tall rangy man who has the weathered looks of someone who spends a lot of time outdoors. He has giant, calloused hands that look too big for his skinny frame and a loud, kind manner that puts his clients at ease. His career as a trapper started on his grandpa’s farm in Omaha, where he’d get Pocket Gophers that were wrecking mowers and harassing cattle.

He’s one of five nuisance wildlife control operators licensed in Whatcom County to take care of problem wildlife, which is defined as an animal causing damage to private property or posing a threat to public health, says Mann.

Vinke and other nuisance wildlife control operators don’t work for (Washington) Fish and Wildlife but are licensed by the agency, which means they’ve taken courses in trapping and animal control. They charge a fee for their services but are not paid by the state.

A day’s work
A bunch of River Otters have been terrorizing a Birch Bay waterfront home, his first stop of the day. River Otters are the most commonly found type of otter in the Northwest. They’re cute, but they can cause more damage to a home than almost anything else. These homeowners have been complaining about smells and sounds coming from underneath their house.

“Otters, if they travel, are bad news,” Vinke says.

After checking out the perimeter of the home, Vinke puts on his bright blue hazardous materials suit, slips on gloves and a respirator to protect him from the fumes, and folds his lanky body into the crawlspace under the house.

“This is a giant otter toilet,” he says, muffled by his respirator. He disappears completely under the house. After a few minutes, he comes out.


After inspecting the slope from the water up to the deck, he finds the otter’s route. He baits a cage with a dangling rubber duck toy and spears a whole tilapia, arranging the trap where he thinks the otter is entering the yard.

“They’re smart,” he says. “But I’m smarter.”

Vinke gets paid to remove the animals. In accordance with state wildlife laws, that often means euthanizing them with the same lethal injection method that dogs and cats are “put to sleep” with. It’s the part of the job that Vinke hates, but he says it’s necessary.

“We do not authorize relocation of nuisance wildlife,” says Mann of Fish and Wildlife. “The reasoning for this is that we don’t want problem animals just moved to a new area to create the same problems. (That) does not benefit the wildlife already filling those niches.”

Meanwhile, Vinke leaves the house, hoping the otter will take the bait.
At the second house, also in Birch Bay, a neighbor has been feeding Raccoons fat saucers of dog food for years, and now there are 12 or 13 around. Others in the neighborhood want the Raccoons gone and say they’ve been threatening their dogs.

They also worry about disease and the Raccoons seem to have become more brazen, with whole families walking across the street like the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. Some perch on mailboxes or hide in trees. Homeowner Brock Barron says a Raccoon jumped out of a tree at her miniature poodle, Marco.

Vinke sets a trap with Fig Newtons and stops to smoke a cigarette. Neighbors watch from the street.

Suddenly, a head pops up with the unmistakable bandit eyes and alert ears of a Raccoon.

“Already,” he says. It smells the trap and wiggles up. Vinke is pacing and the Raccoon is snuffling the ground. If this animal is trapped, it’ll be euthanized. Many animal problems such as this are avoidable, says Mann.

“It’s a tough one with the growth in our state,” he says. “People ask, ‘Why do you have to kill them?’ Well, they wouldn’t be with us if they had other places to go. We fill their habitats, and they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

In the end, the Raccoon takes the bait.

“He’s in the trap!” Vinke says.

“Oh my gosh, he got one already!” Barron cries, clutching her poodle in her arms. “I don’t want Marco to see it. I don’t want him to think it’s OK to go near those.”

Vinke carries the cage over to his truck. The Raccoon lunges and growls and nearly bites him. It’s breathing fast.

“I’m sorry little guy, I really am,” says the neighbor, Liz Keith, whose driveway they stand in. “But that’s the way life is.”

“If I didn’t have dogs, I wouldn’t care,” says Barron.

Everyone looks at the Raccoon, which has backed himself into the corner of a cage and is baring his teeth. Vinke sighs. “This is the part I hate.” — Bellingham Herald