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Wild in the Streets 

Kevin Allman on this spring's population explosion of wild critters in New Orleans

click to enlarge Raccoons on the porch of a boarded-up-house in Mid-City. - PHOTO BY BART EVERSON

Squished armadillos on I-610 and St. Charles Avenue. Flocks of wild chickens in the 7th Ward and the Bywater. The famed Uptown coyote. (Well, there's more than one Uptown coyote — and one of them is a hermaphrodite. But more on that later.) And, everywhere, raccoons. Adult raccoons. Baby raccoons. Adorable raccoons. Destructive raccoons. Roundworm-ridden raccoons. Lots and lots and lots of raccoons.

If you think you've noticed a wildlife population explosion in New Orleans lately, it's not your imagination.

"Just today I had a customer with raccoons out on Paris Avenue (in Gentilly)," says Russell Tanner, a longtime exterminator with Orkin. "It was the first case I remember in this area, and the customer had a whole nest of raccoons. It just seems like the last four or five months have been massive," he adds. "More than any time in the 14 years I been dealing with (raccoons)."

At the Audubon Zoo, they might all have ask'd for you, but a raccoon or opossum doesn't ask you jack squat before setting up housekeeping under your newly raised house, under your air-conditioning slab — or, worst of all, in your attic, where they treat your insulation like a Jazz Fest portolet.

The current population explosion is real, and the reasons are complex, according to Rick Atkinson, curator of the swamp exhibit at the Audubon Zoo. "First of all, it's a good mast year," he says. ("Mast" is defined as "the botanical name for the nuts, seeds, buds or fruits of trees and shrubs that are eaten by wildlife.") "Oak trees are producing tremendous crops of acorns, so everything that eats seeds is very happy. We expect raccoons and 'possums — that's no big surprise — but many of them come in from the river levee, and we're seeing more of them since the river is so high." A third factor, Atkinson says, is the construction of levees in St. Bernard Parish, which has driven birds like the purple gallinule into Orleans Parish, where they're finding abundant supplies of food.

It's also the rising Mississippi River, Atkinson says, that's largely responsible for sightings of coyotes in the city (as well as ducks and other waterfowl pushed out of their habitats). The wild canine has been spotted at Audubon Park and on the posh streets of Audubon Place. There are also anecdotal reports of coyotes on the Lakefront. "It's not such an amazing thing," Atkinson says. "There's quite a pack of them down on the river by the Riverbend. But the famous Uptown coyote is actually one of a pair we've seen up close. They seem to have been thrown out of their packs for uniform violations, because they're the scraggliest-looking animals." The zoo captured and euthanized one of the sick Uptown coyotes; Atkinson said it had been outcast from its pack because it was a hermaphrodite.

Coyotes have been around New Orleans for a while, says Dr. Jerome Howard, a behavioral ecologist and professor of biological sciences at the University of New Orleans (UNO). "Around the country, they've been expanding their range into areas where they were not historically found," Howard says. "Because of all the abandoned houses and lower population density (following Hurricane Katrina), opportunistic animals like coyotes and raccoons are likely to have benefited a lot."

Should Uptown pet owners be worried that Fluffy or Fideaux might become coyote chow? "The coyotes we observed were focused on birds," Atkinson says. "People keeping pet chickens are going to have to keep a closer eye on their animals. But coyotes tend to be the kind of animals that ..." He sighs and says, sarcastically, "You know, 'Get the alarm sounded! Hunt for Frankenstein!'"

When there's something strange in your neighborhood — who you gonna call?

Not the Audubon Zoo.

"We do not come out for animal calls," says Rick Dietz, vice-president of the Audubon Institute, in a stern and extremely weary tone. "We will come out for a venomous animal, or if the police ask for our help ... but we do not come out for animal calls."

Nor will the Louisiana SPCA help you evict an unwanted armadillo. "We deal with domesticated animals — dogs, cats and sometimes chickens," says Katherine LeBlanc, the agency's communications director. "In our archives, I've seen contracts showing that decades ago we dealt with raccoons and other wildlife, but we just don't have the resources now. Any of the nuisance animals we direct to rodent control (companies)."

The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) used to do the job. In the 1970s, the NOPD established a three-man "ecology squad." The squad had canoes, flatboats, a four-wheel drive vehicle and other specialized equipment to deal with wildlife ranging from wild hogs to stray alligators, and spent much of its time at what is now the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country — exactly 16 miles from downtown New Orleans — but the squad also dealt with wild animal calls in the metro area. Today wildlife control and removal is done primarily by private operators and companies licensed by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries (LDWF). The state agency also won't come out and catch a pest, but it does maintain a list on its website of "nuisance wildlife control operators," searchable by parish.

Fritz Borden grew up in New Orleans, but he learned the art of trapping at his family's camp in Port Sulphur. He's been trapping unwanted animals in New Orleans for more than a decade, and now owns his own company, Acadian Rodent and Animal Control. "I used to get a lot of calls in New Orleans East, Eastover, Lakeview before Katrina," Borden says. "Now I've got a big influx of calls from Lakeview since people have come back. You had four or five years when the population was a lot less, and the critters were able to multiply."

Animal populations in New Orleans soared in the year after Katrina as people returned and faced off with the critters that had colonized the evacuated city. "Between February and June of '06, we had a major outbreak of rodents because people were gutting houses," Tanner says. "The rat population from New Orleans East to Uptown was unreal. Even the hotels downtown were inundated." Tanner says the checkerboard nature of the Katrina recovery had much to do with large populations of opossums and raccoons; with empty houses and occupied houses right next to each other, animals used the empty houses for nests and foraged around the occupied homes for food. This was a particularly good deal for raccoons, who don't tend to roam.

Raccoons have been spotted around New Orleans seemingly forever, of course, but January through March is when they get busy, and their 60-day gestation cycle means lots of raccoon kits come late spring. Since raccoons are omnivores, they'll eat nearly anything — small creatures, nuts, fruit ... and the contents of your garbage can. They're also prone to nesting in attics or between floors of houses.

click to enlarge Robert Westley has found that more urban wildlife means more fleas.
  • Robert Westley has found that more urban wildlife means more fleas.

Just ask "Rosa" (who didn't want her real name used in this article). She and her young daughter, who rent an apartment near Bayou St. John, have been sharing space with a family of raccoons in their attic for weeks now. "We hear them every night," she says, "but our landlord won't do anything about it and says they'll go away eventually."

Bad idea. Besides being able to cause thousands of dollars in damage, urban varmints can carry diseases. Armadillos (the state animal of Texas) can spread Hansen's disease (aka leprosy) to humans who handle the animals, a finding reinforced in a study published in April in the New England Journal of Medicine. A scientist at the National Hansen's Disease Program based in Baton Rouge found more than one out of five armadillos carry the bacteria that causes the disease. Most of the American cases were concentrated in Louisiana and Texas. Atkinson pooh-poohs the leprosy talk, saying someone would have to handle "thousands" of the animals to be at risk. He says armadillos are vastly more dangerous to the slab under your outdoor air conditioner, a favorite burrowing spot for the leathery mammals.

Raccoons are no better. Many, if not most, carry a specific sort of roundworm and shed the eggs in their feces, where they can be ingested by pets or (ew) people. In rare instances, raccoon roundworm has led to blindness and brain damage in humans.

Urban nuisance animals can also carry rabies, scabies — and, of course, fleas. And a population explosion in wild, warm-blooded mammals brings with it a concurrent population of fleas.

"I only wear white around the house," says Robert Westley, narrowing his eyes at his kitchen floor. "That way, if I see a flea, it can't hide."

It's a 90-degree day outside, but he lifts his pant leg to expose a pair of long johns.

For Westley, a law professor at Tulane University, it began as a puzzle: He had no pets, but the beautiful, immaculate Mid-City house he'd spent two years renovating had a flea problem. He first tried a "citrus organic" treatment from a health food store, but it did nothing, so he called in an exterminator — who has been to his house five times in three months. Traps were set, which caught a stray cat, as well as opossums and raccoons. But the flea problem persisted, baffling Westley, who says his house had never had fleas in the more than a decade since he bought it. He spread eucalyptus mulch — a natural flea repellent — in his side yard. It didn't help.

Westley shows the bites on his legs, his forearm. "They got me on the chest, too," he says. "The insect repellent I buy now has DEET in it, and they jump on me like it's nothing." His next solution: spreading diatomaceous earth (a mineral dust that dessicates fleas) in his side yard. If that doesn't work, Westley says, he'll take up the side yard completely and pour concrete instead: "It's that bad."

Do fleas (and mosquitoes) prefer some people's blood over that of others? It's common folklore, but Howard says there's no scientific proof. "All we know for sure is that people's body chemistries differ," he says. "That said, my wife gets bitten and I don't," he adds, laughing.

Raccoons, opossums and fleas, though annoying, aren't particularly scary. Not so Louisiana's feral swine, which were a problem in the untamed backwoods of New Orleans City Park after Hurricane Katrina. Lisa Laraway, director of recreational services for the park, says the porkers are all gone today. But feral hogs — which grow to 150 pounds and can weigh as much as 500 pounds — are still spotted in eastern New Orleans and around Bayou Sauvage, according to UNO's Howard. Wild swine can be nomadic, but "I haven't heard of them invading the 9th Ward," Howard says, and Borden says none of his calls about wild hog have come from the metro part of the city.

Hogs in the state are such a problem — a 2010 report by the LSU Ag Center says hog populations can double in four months — that in April the Louisiana House of Representatives voted unanimously to allow year-round hog trapping, no permit required. (Hunting the animals is still regulated by the LDWF — and hunting in Orleans Parish, even with a bow and arrow or slingshot, is illegal at any time.)

Then there are the exotics, usually kept by someone as a house pet, creatures that sometimes manage to escape and create chatter for a few days. In 2009, New Orleans met the famous Mardi Gras Serval, a African wildcat that escaped from its owner and was spotted Uptown near the parade routes. Borden was once called out to trap a wayward ocelot (he declined). Atkinson remembers a call the zoo received after Hurricane Katrina, when some people were going through a flooded house in eastern New Orleans and came across an Indian cobra.

click to enlarge Rick Atkinson of the Audubon Zoo says rising river levels have driven many animals off the levees. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Rick Atkinson of the Audubon Zoo says rising river levels have driven many animals off the levees.

"I have learned over the years not to discount anything," Atkinson says. "Once a woman called up and said she had a dragon in her backyard — a dragon — and she described an enormous black lizard. Well, she lived close to the zoo, so we went over and checked it out, and it turned out to be a rhinoceros iguana, someone's pet that had gotten out." Another woman in the French Quarter got a bigger surprise when she was puttering in her courtyard only to find a 24-inch black and white tegu lizard emerging from her drain like a scene from a horror movie. The tegu — which can grow to three feet in length — is native to Argentina, but this one hadn't somehow swam from Buenos Aires to the sewers of New Orleans; it was another escaped pet.

There's not much that can be done about the current population explosion of yard pests, but the exterminators and animal experts agree you can take precautions — starting with securing your garbage can and recycling bin. Don't leave pet dishes outside. ("There's at least one person on every block in New Orleans who feeds stray cats," Atkinson says.) Tanner urges trimming branches or foliage that might serve as highways into your attic. Borden suggests sealing up any holes that might allow unwanted animals inside, but cautions that it's not a good idea if you suspect you're already infested — you might be sealing in a litter which will eventually starve, die and stink. Howard of UNO points out that an increase in nonvenomous snakes in your yard is both good and bad; snakes are nature's exterminators, but it also means you've probably got a rodent problem.

And if you spot an ocelot? You can call the Audubon Zoo. But only then.

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