Tucson Salvage

A call to duty in pandemic lockdown

"Are you an expert in poop?"

"Of course. You have to be."

Eric Ivey rattles off differences in small animal turds, both scientific and layman, the squirrels and pack rats and ringtail cats, mice and roaches and so on. The poor lizards and their giant poops. "You don't want to be a lizard."

In this pandemic-lockdown era, where so many are forced to examine the interiors of their own lives or suffer, this guy works as much, if not more, than ever. A wild or deadly animal living in a house or yard is, to those who call in, an emergency.

He straps on his Velcro knee pads, pulls an alarmingly sized hypodermic needle from his bag of tricks in the back of his truck and chooses between jars of animal piss. He inserts the needle into the fox piss and sucks out a quarter shaft. He moves to the storage room, bends down into a dark recess over the dirt floor and squirts small amounts of piss around the holes. "Whatever critter is holed up in there," he says, "it won't come near it anymore."

We climb into his pickup, a red, sun-ripened GMC with ladder racks and Arizona Animal Experts emblazoned on its sides, the licensed company he works with, and roll to his next job. A Hispanic couple with two small children have been hearing noises in the attic of their house.

A dead gopher ripens in a zip-lock baggie in the back of his truck. A grim prize from a morning golf-course hunt at the Forty Niner Country Club, a Carl Spackler exercise in gopher exasperation. ("The only way to trap gophers is to kill them," he says. "I never seen anyone trap a live gopher.") Earlier he had produced a pen and a wood board and sketched out an underground gopher community, a marvel of endless underground tunnels and passages. He is not fond of killing animals. He catches and relocates them, as is the policy of his heart, and Arizona Animal Experts, as well as the company he owns, which is on the backburner now. Injured, sick or orphaned animals go to licensed wildlife rehabs, they don't separate mothers from babies. "I wouldn't do this if I had to kill animals. I never use poison."

But gophers are different, he says. Yes, coyotes and owls hunt them, snakes and skunks too. Several times he mentions a gopher's infinitesimal brain, perhaps as a way to deny their otherwise undeniable craftiness, which he seems wary to acknowledge, even after explaining how gophers regularly cover his neck-snap traps with dirt. He talks of golfers getting hurt and twisting ankles on gopher holes, recalling one who broke an ankle and successfully sued a local golf course. We laugh at the insanity of that. Not the gophers but the golfer. Essentially suing nature. I say let the gophers feast on the grassy fields, a mine field of burrows would make the golf game more interesting. Sure, gophers can carry virus' and diseases like other rodents, transmit fleas and ticks, and their sharp claws and monster teeth can wreak havoc on a house, kill gardens, rip apart underground utility cables and water lines and so on. The vegetarians feast on plant roots, which ravage the much doted-on, water-sucking green expanses. Considering this is a desert, such 18-hole acreage shouldn't be here at all, and one could argue gophers do their part to save what's left of the Sonoran Desert.

Yet, watching this guy work it is soon obvious he is at the very least, COVID-19 fear or no, concerned about maintaining the brute reality of the desert, and the critters who share it with us, even in the people-infested worlds of ranches and sub-divisions. Less animal life means a lesser world, or a dead one. He knows, man.

We arrive at the next job. The eastside place is a spacious, pricey and well-sealed gated-community stucco job. Its yard is professionally landscaped with brick paths and a swimming pool. Two giant air-conditioning units decorate either side of the home.

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage
Brian Smith
Eric Ivey: "You don't want to be a lizard."

The homeowner dad, who keeps his COVID-19 six-feet distance at all times, explains the scratch-and-drag sound heard above the ceiling. The house shows no detectable entrance points on the roof, the eves, the dark corners, where pigeons and doves and mice tend to collect. Ivey reasoned earlier it's probably a racoon or ringtail cat, his decades of experience catching all manner of creatures informs this opinion, and, besides, they can squeeze through damn near anything. Soon Ivey is crawling that narrow attic, its matrix of angled two-by fours, new-construction smell and itchy pink fiberglass insulation. It is suffocate-you hot, and it's not summer yet, but it is a 101-degree day in Tucson. Here is this "old man" of 72, a Nam vet in khaki Dockers shorts with sun-dial face crevices and gray hair, a retired copper-mine professional, father and grandfather, scaling a ladder into a small opening and tracking a pesky varmint in the house of strangers, face and arms wet with sweat. He calls himself "old man," I don't. Because a true old man would never navigate such an attic, much less stalk wildlife.

Ivey is a zoology autodidact, a quick-study wildlife biologist without the degree, working from an arsenal of earned wisdoms over decades of observing animal behaviors. He can determine the role of snakes, javelinas, bobcats and packrats in specific areas and ecosystems and how they interact with human beings. Can talk the rarity of diseases some animals may carry.

Some mice carry hantavirus, which can infect and kill you (38 percent fatality rate) if one breathes too much of the airborne turd particles while cleaning them up. The virus is not person-to-person spreadable, at least not yet. Scientists in China discovered certain bats carry more than 400 coronaviruses, though the direct human spillover is rare, so far. He is unaware of such zoonoses in Southern Arizona. "I've never heard or seen or know of anyone who has seen or heard of any diseases here from bats, not even rabies," Ivey says. "Right now, it's mating season for bats, so we don't remove colonies, if you move the adults, the babies will die. If someone calls with one in their house, I just take the bat outside and let them fly away."

His avuncular, homespun wisdom ("It's a damn hard life for the critters in the desert") mask a much deeper understanding of desert wildlife. There are no nests or holes, no interruptions—just the critter existences that have become so absorbed in him they've passed into familial bonds. It is who he is.

Ivey is pure 20th-century
Arizonan born into copper mining in Ajo, that haunted town 40 miles from the Mexican border. He is old enough to remember when Ajo had more bars than churches, was still a mine-fortified, Phelps-Dodge-headed boomtown, where sons followed fathers into the pit. For decades, his old man worked in the smelter, his uncles and brother worked mine-related gigs too, often pitiless but good-paying work. Both his father and brother died young of heart attacks.

As a teen, Ivey worked a Texaco station, learned to rebuild cars, bought his own too, had motorcycles. He owned a '50s Chevy convertible in which he'd take out Helen, his high-school sweetheart. (Those high-school sweethearts have now been married 52 years.) They'd idle the convertible and climb in back as it rolled slowly down the railroad tracks.

Phelps Dodge shuttered the mine in '84 in a mess of union worker disputes, plummeting copper prices and even murder. Ajo is now home to maybe 3,000, employees of U.S. border enforcement, societal dropouts, artists, cranks and retirees. A few dreamers too, Ivey says, still waiting for the mine to come back. Beyond Ajo toward Mexico lay the Sonoran dying fields of undocumented immigrants.

It is a dusty town immersed with a presentiment of some other lost world. These days, Ivey sometimes returns to Ajo, to visit the ghosts, the dead loved ones in the cemetery, occasional reunions with old high-school friends.

Was the mining in his blood?

"Nah, that's crap" he says.

He refused to work in the Ajo mine, entered university at UA to study metallurgy, but enlisted. Nearly four years in the Air Force, with a solid year of fighting in Nam.

"Growing up in Ajo, I didn't know anything else," he says. "I had to do something so I went into the service, Air Force. I didn't know better."

He witnessed horrors, the slaughter of friends, the Agent Orange that blanketed them. (The dead herbicide left no ill signs on him but he thinks his son, who is now disabled with a spinal problem, was affected.)

"There was no therapy then for what's now called PTSD. If you acted [traumatized] in any way they'd make fun of you, 'don't be a pantywaist.'" He shakes his head. "Fifty years ago, I came back on a commercial airliner by myself, had my flak jacket, my helmet, and my M-16 on the seat next me. In those days, you took the pin out of the gun and put it in your pocket and you were good to go."

He had that look, he says, "when you look at someone and you know they've been there. I had it for a few years."

He returned to Tucson rattled inside and out. He resumed studies at UA, working his way through college and grad school at the VA hospital. He earned a public administration MBA. Later he trashed his Nam keepsakes, black-and-white photos he'd snapped, uniform, everything. "I guess I was trying to forget it ever happened."

We roll along in the GMC. A Nam service medal pin in Vietnamese flag colors decorates his wool Stetson cowboy hat, and a matching symbol, inside an animal-face wildlife scene, embellishes the truck's back window. He harbors solidarity with war vets. The blue Mason ring on his finger signifies his Freemasonry, a 32nd degree. The not-so-secret society, he says, is about making a "good person better." In teacherly ways, he talks metallurgical engineering, chemistries of copper, the overburden, secondary crushing, exothermic reaction.

If Ajo copper mining wasn't bloodborne, it inhabited him:

He and Helen were "hurting" after college. Like his old man, he landed inside the Phelps-Dodge respirator-and-hard-hat playbook, in tiny Playas, New Mexico, a map dot smaller than Ajo. The Phelps Dodge company town housed its Hidalgo Copper Smelter and tract homes for its employees. He worked it, earned his way up to shift foreman. The smelter is gone now, wiped from the earth, a hideous black land scar in its place. (Playas is now an off-limits training grounds for first responders, counter-terrorists, and Border Patrol.)

Four years and a few resumes later, his family escaped New Mexico and landed in Peru. A veritable goldmine of copper, and he did well. He learned Spanish, adjusted to South American life in the seaside town of Ilo, where he and Helen raised their two children, and he worked 60-plus hour weeks.

When he left Peru, after 17 years, he had risen to general manager of two of Peru's largest copper operations, Toquepala and Cuajone, a boss to more than 3,000 employees. They'd had enough, and the family moved back to the simplicity of Tucson. His curiosity allowed a career shift to desert wildlife. Made sense because as a kid the desert was his backdoor. He opened a local franchise of Critter Control, and traveled to Kentucky for requisite classes. He read the appropriate books. Soon he was in business (doing the occasional mine consulting gig on the side). That was more than two decades ago. Critter Control lasted for several years before he went out on his own. Now he sub-contracts with Arizona Animal Experts.

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage
Brian Smith
Ivey explains baiting rituals.

"I had everything to make copper work for me," he says. "But if I had to do it over again I wouldn't." He missed too much of his son and daughter's teen years; they went off to boarding school back in Arizona. It was the most difficult thing he and Helen ever had to endure.

Ivey climbs unevenly
down on the ladder from the attic entry inside the house. No poop or signs of life up there. To compound the riddle, Ivey was out at this house several days earlier, placed live caged traps (with sun protection for the animals) on one end of the yard, and the marshmallows he positioned in and around the traps were all eaten, but no animals caught. Ivey is literally scratching his head. He has no answers beyond a chuckle-shrug. He steps out to his truck and returns with his disco lights ("I was never one for disco"), a strobe for the attic, which will drive any animal away. He climbs the ladder again, sets the lights in place, and he's done for now. No charge for the homeowner today; a revisit with nothing caught.

We roll homeward and Ivey talks bobcats. "They will run from you too. And Coyotes. I've never heard of or seen a bobcat attack a person." He shares one experience, a small bobcat with its head caught in an electric fence, its screams horrific as anything he's ever heard. Several feet away its terrified mother watched and paced. They eventually secured the cub's hind claws, and managed to cut it free and reunite it with its mother. This is the action of his work that rewards him. Rescuing animals caught in houses, how it frees minds of home owners, that rewards him. He could be retired, the Social Security, the pension. But why? Stuck home all day would drive him mad, a forced quarantine even more so. But there is something else, something blatant with need. Sure, if folks have animal emergencies during a pandemic, he's there, keeping distance, wearing a mask when asked.

I sense the animals or rodents he befriends are so known to him as to be inexpressible to another person. He tries to explain such connections to me—every fear in their eyes understood, every patterned fur recognizable from another, the particular personalities he ascribes to each little roaming and slithering creature.

I can see now the dead zip-locked gopher in back weighs on him.

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