We all know the drill: A javelina or a bobcat or an angry rattler pops up in somebody's suburban yard, and holy hell breaks loose. Law enforcement swoops in; TV crews pump the hysterical homeowner; and our nonhuman perp is trucked off to parts unknown and—odds are—an unhappy fate.
These animal removals are sometimes conducted by state game-and-fish biologists or local fire departments. But more often, they are handled by commercial wildlife-service operators touting varying levels of experience and ethics. It's an industry that raises plenty of questions about the humane treatment of animals, methods for relocating them and the threat of disease, as creatures are shuttled from one population to another.
Dave Purwin is the owner of Desert Wildlife Services, a nuisance wildlife company on Tucson's westside. While fly-by-night wildlife handlers come and go, he says most local operators are experienced and responsible. And he argues that his biggest chore is enlightening customers about what really happens when animals are removed.
"Relocation generally doesn't work," he says, "and that's something we always have to educate our customers about. The animal is going to be out of its home range, and it's probably going to die. It's probably going to be killed by its own kind, killed by other predators, or it's going to starve to death."
According to researchers, the risk of spreading disease is also raising more and more red flags. "Government agencies have concerns about where these animals are being released," says Kieran Lindsey, co-author of the book Urban Wildlife Management, and director of the Natural Resources Distance Learning Consortium at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
Those worries involve "both the health of the wildlife at issue," she says, "and the health of humans and their companion animals or other domesticated species."
Disease is just one item on a list of problems surrounding wildlife removal. For example, taking an animal from its territory—whether an attic or a backyard—simply opens space for other animals to move in, unless the areas are blocked off, and lures such as pet food are eliminated. From a wildlife-management perspective, relocating an animal to new territory also creates a fresh set of challenges.
"If (an animal-relocation spot) is a good habitat for that species, there are already members of that species there," says Lindsey. "That puts stress upon the animals. It makes them more vulnerable to disease and parasites. There's also the potential to introduce a disease into a population where it wasn't before. From a standpoint of immunity, that population where the animal has been released isn't prepared to deal with the new disease. It can have a potentially devastating impact."
Those diseases can swing back to affect people, their pets and livestock—which makes close monitoring of wildlife-removal services critical, she says. "Should there be an outbreak in a wildlife population, you can then go back—theoretically, anyway—and see whether an animal released in that area had the potential" to introduce the disease.
Such potentials are also on the national-security radar, says Lindsey. "There's a concern at the federal level about the potential for weaponizing zoonotic diseases (contagions that can be transmitted from animals to humans), and using wildlife populations as a way of spreading those diseases. It's serious enough that the Department of Homeland Security put some money into studying this."
On the ground, steady oversight appears to be key. In this state, wildlife-removal companies are licensed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and there are approximately 15 of them in the Tucson area, according to Robert Fink, wildlife program manager for the department's Tucson region.
Those licenses aren't just freely handed out, Fink says. "There are requirements that you demonstrate certain levels of experience for the species or groups of species that you intend to provide services for. There are also annual reporting requirements for the species that you have handled. In addition, the Game and Fish Department has the authority to add stipulations to a license that specifies additional factors that we want considered when handling certain wildlife."
Javelinas are a good example. Until three or four years ago, commercial companies weren't allowed to handle them. A decision to reverse that policy wasn't reached lightly, says Fink. "The two Game and Fish regions that typically have javelina issues—Tucson and Phoenix—met and extensively discussed how we were going to implement the handling of javelinas by wildlife-service permittees."
It was a shift largely driven by necessity, he says. "Arizona's population has grown dramatically, which means the number of wildlife conflicts has grown dramatically. But nobody thought, 'Hey, we'd better throw a bunch more money at Game and Fish so they can hire more people to address this issue.'
"Some of these wildlife-service permittees have shown a great deal of skill and experience in decision-making and relocating animals. We felt the time was right that we needed their help in some of these cases."
While Game and Fish keeps tight reins on where javelina can be released, Fink concedes that his agency can't verify what happens to thousands of other animals removed by wildlife-service companies each year, from snakes and bats to packrats. "There is no way we can do that," he says. "But part of the process in someone becoming a wildlife-service permittee is the completion of an application. And that application documents their level of experience in handling these particular animals."
For his part, Purwin typically euthanizes animals as necessary with a blunt force or a bullet to the head, "whichever is quickest for the animal," he says, adding that his company follows American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines for humane treatment.
But Lindsey urges even stricter regulation of wildlife-removal companies. The alternative, she says, carries a nightmarish potential. "Releasing an animal to a certain area and then seeing an outbreak of a certain disease can have an obvious effect on the public."
But even healthy animals that are relocated rarely face a pleasant fate. "Taking an animal to a whole new location isn't very humane, because chances are, it's going to die," she says. "It's just not going to die in front of you."