The Development of America’s Modern Private Nuisance Wildlife Control Industry

By Bob Noonan

America’s modern private nuisance wildlife control industry, which deals primarily with suburban/urban wildlife problems that for the most part affect private individuals and small businesses, came about because of a combination of environmental, cultural, and educational factors.

For most of its early history, America was predominantly rural. People were familiar with wildlife, and its use was widespread. In fact, wildlife was so extensively utilized that by the end of the 1800s many species were close to extinction. In reaction, in the early 1900s the conservation movement began. Laws were enacted, protecting many species by closed seasons, and in following years many species were reintroduced, and successfully re-established.

During this time, America became increasing less rural as people left farms to move closer to or into cities to find work. Abandoned, cleared farmlands gradually began to revert back to forest. After World War II returning veterans started the Baby Boom population explosion, and there was a serious need for housing. Rapidly growing Interstate systems allowed easy access to cities from the countryside’s abandoned farmlands, and post-WWII economic expansion caused single-family and apartment housing developments to literally explode out into these now largely wooded areas. A new word was coined for them: suburbs. By 1950 more Americans lived in the suburbs than anywhere else in the country. This development has continued unabated to the present, slowed only by occasional economic downturns that decrease new home construction. This housing has taken over so much of the American landscape that it is now commonly referred to as sprawl.

Many wildlife species found conditions in these suburban and urban areas ideal. There were new, almost endless human-created food sources: countless thousands of acres of lawns, cemeteries, golf courses, and road right-of-ways, planted to erosion control grasses and seed-bearing shrubs; millions of bird feeders; innumerable outdoor pet food dishes; mountains of edible garbage; and myriad flower and vegetable gardens, among others.

There were also ideal living quarters. Many suburbs and cities were interspersed with parks, and wooded ravines and swampland that could not be developed, and wildlife lived here, moving into adjacent settled areas to forage. But many species were adapting so well to the new environment that they were literally moving in with people, living in attics, unused chimneys, walls, basements, in sheds and outbuildings, under crawl spaces, in culverts and water drainage systems, and in dens dug in lawns and under slabs. The main species were raccoons, skunks, groundhogs, gray squirrels, white tail deer, Canada geese, and beaver, but others such as coyotes, black bears, and turkeys were also adapting and increasing. By now these were no longer wild animals; they had adapted so well to their new environment, rich in food and shelter, that they had become almost completely human-dependant.

From the 1950s on, as these conditions increased, America saw an astonishing wildlife population explosion of these species. Jim Sterba, in his ground-breaking, well researched book, Nature Wars, states: “It is very likely that more people live closer to more wildlife in the eastern U.S. today, than anywhere on the planet at any other time in history.” These conditions also exist in all heavily settled areas in America and Canada, and in fact nuisance wildlife in settled areas is a global issue.

Still another very important factor was in play. The vast majority of suburban/urban dwellers were several generations or more removed from their rural roots, and had completely lost touch with the realities of nature and wildlife. They were living what Sterba calls a “denatured life”. Their only understanding of animals came from unrealistic movies and TV “nature shows” that often anthropomorphized animals heavily, portraying them as almost human. Animal rights groups capitalized on and furthered these perceptions with extensive propaganda, and raised millions annually to stop the supposed “abuse” of animals by trapping, hunting, etc. As a result of these factors, many people came to see animals as small, cute people who had lifelong relationships with their “families,” who were intelligent and felt emotional as well as physical pain as deeply as humans, and who therefore should not be harmed.

Paradoxically, however, many people were also afraid of wild animals. Women in particular often felt violated, and were sometimes terrified, when animals moved into their homes. There was another major problem; these animals were also damaging homes and property, sometimes dangerously. Not only was damage like destruction of insulation, heating, and air systems costly, accumulated droppings and urine were sources of parasites and diseases, and chewed wiring sometimes led to fires.

This created a major conflict for the public. On the one hand they saw these supposedly wild animals as attractive, sensitive, sentient miniature people; on the other hand they wanted them out of their homes. But having almost completely lost contact with the natural world, they not only had no understanding of the reality of animal behavior, they also had no idea how to remove the animals.

This situation affected millions of people across the continent. It was the basis of what was to become the private nuisance wildlife industry.

The industry had its real beginnings in the 1980s. The only people with any knowledge of animal behavior and removal were fur trappers, and a handful of them had been removing animals for suburban/urban clients for some time. Since these settled areas prohibited the use of firearms, snares, foothold traps, and lethal bodygripping traps, trappers were limited to cage traps. These had been available for some time; Tomahawk Trap Company had been selling them since 1925, and the Havahart trap was trademarked right after WWII. But the methodology of cage trap use, especially its application to a wide variety of species, was not very widely understood. Many trappers had somewhat limited success, and their nationwide impact on nuisance wildlife problems at this time was minimal.

That was about to change. A number of people have been influential in the rise of the private nuisance wildlife industry as we know it today, but there is not room here to begin to name them all. There is an exception. Rob Erickson, a UPS employee who lived in a Chicago suburb, was so pivotal to the birth and growth of the industry that some refer to him as its godfather.

Erickson was a very successful fur trapper, and in June of 1978 his UPS supervisor told him that raccoons in his attic kept everyone up at night fighting, and asked Erickson to trap them. Erickson understood raccoon behavior well and told his supervisor it was probably a female with a litter fighting off males trying to kill the young. Erickson said he’d be glad to remove them in November, when coon pelts were worth $50. His supervisor promptly offered him $400 to do it then.

Erickson removed the female and kits, and his supervisor was ecstatic. So was Erickson; he’d just made $400 for an hour’s work. That’s when the light went on: Maybe there was money in nuisance wildlife!

Erickson’s supervisor told others, and Erickson started getting more jobs. The money was good, so he took business cards to police stations. He found they were inundated with nuisance wildlife calls, and were delighted to finally have someone to pass them on to. The rural areas Erickson had grown up in had been taken over by suburban sprawl, and were full of coon, skunks, groundhogs, and squirrels, and none of the suburbanites knew how to deal with them. His nuisance wildlife work quickly grew to where he had to leave his UPS job. As far as he could tell, at that point he was the only nuisance trapper in the entire Chicago area.

Erickson quickly discovered that conventional fur trapping attractors (baits and lures) worked to a degree, but since the majority of nuisance work is done in the warmer months, attractors have to hold up in the heat, and be able to compete with the abundance of natural foods available then. Also, they should attract only the particular species being targeted. For example, if the nuisance animal is a raccoon, you can’t afford to keep catching feral cats. It’s a waste of time, and Erickson was already well aware that time is money in this industry. He is an extremely innovative trapper, and began to develop baits and lures specifically for nuisance wildlife, that were species-specific, held up in the heat, and effectively competed with abundant natural food sources.

He ended up with a variety of different effective attractants for the major nuisance species, and in the early 1980s he began advertising them in fur trapping publications under the business name “On Target”, so called because they were species-specific. He got a good response; other fur trappers across the country were also trying their hand at nuisance wildlife removal. The field was very new, and methods and equipment had not been developed beyond the rudiments, and trappers calling Erickson with orders would ask for advice on baits, equipment, and methods for different species. Erickson now had several years experience and had a clear understanding of the nature of suburban and urban wildlife work, in particular in dealing with the public, both personally and politically. He had also developed innovative new removal methods; among many other examples, he was one of the first to effectively capture groundhogs in cage traps, euthanize skunks caught in cage traps without odor, and repel raccoons from attics without trapping. He spent endless hours on the phone sharing his knowledge with other trappers, and he gave away countless bait and lure samples. By the late 1980s his bait business was booming, and the phone calls wanting information were overwhelming. It was clear to him that nuisance wildlife work was rapidly evolving into a complete industry of its own, similar to fur trapping in some ways but very different in other, important ones. The knowledge base for nuisance wildlife work comes from the fur trapping trade, but this was a new game. There was money to be made, but first, trappers needed to be educated.

Erickson saw this field as a legitimate profession, and he knew it was important that clients perceive trappers that way. To his callers he stressed the importance of professional appearance and language, and encouraged them to present themselves as Wildlife Control Operators (WCOs), members of an established profession. He explained that people skills were equally as important as trapping skills. Clients were often conflicted and distraught about the fact that the animals needed to be removed, and in many cases euthanized, and the WCO often had to ease the clients’ emotions, be understanding, and treat the animals with respect. Another important part of the job was to eliminate the clients’ stress by relieving them of the responsibility for the problem, and assuring them that it would be successfully resolved by a professional. Erickson also reminded trappers that they might be the only real wildlife expert that clients would meet face to face, and trappers should take the opportunity to educate clients about the facts of wildlife behavior and biology.

He also pointed out that while fur trapping involves harvesting a natural resource and selling it, nuisance wildlife work is a service industry. The product is the service, not the pelt.

Erickson was not alone in developing a successful nuisance wildlife business and coming to these same conclusions; there were a few others here and there across the country. But at this point they were few in number, and there was little communication between them. Erickson may not have been the first to envision a national communication and education network, but he was definitely the first to act aggressively on it.

Others were also aware of this growing market. In 1983 Kevin Clark created Critter Control, a nuisance wildlife franchise, and it eventually became very successful and grew to have an average estimated 100 franchisees at any time. However, Critter Control did not provide any information or education free; you had to buy a franchise to get training, and sharing information with others outside the franchise was not allowed.

Erickson, however, wanted to see the necessary knowledge shared. He saw that this expanding industry could potentially provide others with an opportunity to participate in the American Dream: to support yourself and your family by owning your own business and doing what you’re passionate about. Erickson is a firm believer in free enterprise and capitalism. He knew many fur trappers didn’t understand the differences between fur trapping and nuisance wildlife work, and how to successfully make the transition, and he was anxious to help anyone who needed it. He was very concerned that this new industry would be dominated or absorbed by larger interests, like the pest control industry, franchises, or government agencies, and that would take away this opportunity for self employment.

Bob Noonan had been writing extensively for fur trapping publications since the early 1980s, and in 1992 he moved to Greenville, Pennsylvania, to work for Rich Faler, owner of Beaver Pond Publishing. Faler was aware of the rising interest in nuisance wildlife work, and among other work he wanted Noonan to help start a bimonthly magazine, ADC, for nuisance wildlife trappers. Noonan had seen Erickson’s On Target ads for years, and called Erickson for advice. Erickson said he felt a magazine was exactly what this new industry needed, and he immediately flew to Greenville, staying several days to explain to Noonan and Faler what he felt was needed. He was anxious to see the industry define its identity and have a communication organ, so to support the new magazine he bought the back cover ad space for a year, wrote their Q&A column gratis, offered free consultation whenever needed, and flew Noonan to Chicago for an intense 3-day immersion in what urban/suburban nuisance wildlife work was really like.

ADC was well received and began to grow, but unfortunately it ran into financial difficulties and began to miss publication dates, and it seemed apparent it would fail. In September 1993 Erickson started work on his own bimonthly magazine, Wildlife Control Technology (WCTMagazine, hiring Noonan as editor. The first issue of WCT Magazine was January/February 1994, and it was introduced at the University of Kentucky’s 2-day Nuisance Wildlife Shortcourse in January 1994.

The conference was academic in nature, and while educational it was of little practical use to trappers actually working in the field with nuisance wildlife. After this event Erickson decided to create a serious how-to seminar.

One of Erickson’s main promotional efforts for WCT Magazine consisted of obtaining lists of nuisance wildlife license holders from state fish and game agencies, and sending them complimentary copies of the magazine. Copies were also sent to officers and members of the newly formed Connecticut and Michigan state nuisance wildlife operators’ associations. Two thousand extra copies of each issue were mailed, and as a result of this widespread outreach effort, by the summer of 1994 communication between WCOs had increased dramatically. Some of these professionals began writing articles for WCT Magazine, and some were recruited to be presenters at an instructional seminar. After many months of preparation, in January 1995, the First Annual WCT Instructional Seminar was held in a Chicago conference center.

The event had been advertised in WCT Magazine and other trapping publications, and attendance was well over 200. The focus was on running a successful nuisance wildlife business, and presentation topics ranged from trapping methods and equipment for different species to business advice. After each presentation the halls were choked with WCOs excitedly exchanging information and experiences, and making new business contacts and friends. It was an explosion of communication and cross-pollination of ideas, and no one slept much for the entire two and a half days. The excitement was huge, and people were hoarse from constant talking. Many people in the industry regard that first seminar as the pivotal event in the beginning of a national network.

The WCT Seminars were held each year after that, and WCT Magazine continued publication. It’s impossible to overstate their importance to the growth of the nuisance wildlife field. WCT Magazine became the main communication organ for the industry, and as the field developed more writers shared their experiences and methods. At the date of this writing (November 2012) almost 2,000 articles have supplied information on every topic touching the industry, from how-to capture and removal methods, to business information, computer use, marketing, politics, legislation, public relations, and more. The magazine raised the consciousness of the industry, and created a cohesive, cooperative community. Supply dealers and manufacturers listened to what WCOs wanted and showcased new products in the publication, spurring development of both equipment and methods. This field has a high percentage of creative people passionate about their work, and the result has been a rapid development of the industry, on both a technical and methods level. There isn’t room here to discuss them all, but as examples, among them they include electronic trap checking equipment and sophisticated urban coyote control techniques.

Erickson also provided complimentary subscriptions of WCT Magazine to state fish and game agencies across the nation, giving the industry credibility and a professional identity. At the annual WCT Seminars, information continued to be shared and connections made, and attendees were also able to interact with an increasing amount of vendors, which spurred development of new technology even further.

By the late 1990s several other states had formed WCO associations, among them New York and Indiana. Several began holding annual one-day instructional seminars modeled after the WCT Seminars. At the present date there are at least 12 such state associations, many offering training seminars.

In 1997 serious discussion began concerning a national association, and at the1998 WCT Seminar, the National Wildlife Control Operators Association (NWCOA) was officially formed, with the goals of increasing communication between all WCOs, providing education, consolidating efforts to be more effective in legal and legislative arenas, and solidifying and promoting the industry’s identity. Tim Julien, president of the Indiana Wildlife Control Operators Association, became president of NWCOA.

Erickson offered NWCOA free advertising space in WCT Magazine and routinely ran editorials and articles promoting the association, and within three years membership was close to 1,000, where it remained for some time. Erickson and NWCOA also worked jointly on the WCT Seminars, with both finding presenters and arranging the program, and with NWCOA holding its large annual meeting at the event. Erickson and NWCOA next agreed to exchange four pages for NWCOA’s association news in WCT Magazine, in return for all NWCOA members getting the publication at a reduced subscription price. This close relationship between NWCOA and WCT lasted until 2010.

NWCOA achieved a number of important accomplishments. Among them was the writing of a Code of Ethics, creation of a Basics Wildlife Control Operators Training Course, and creation of a Certified Wildlife Control Professional (CWCP) status, that documented a minimum of three years of professional experience and a number of hours of formal training. The CWCP certification was well received, in particular by state agencies. NWCOA also worked with an insurance company, Christian-Baker, to create an affordable liability policy written specifically for WCOs. NWCOA helped individual states form their own state associations, helped states fight animal rights legislation, assisted states in writing regulations, and interfaced frequently with state fish and game agencies. They presented papers jointly with academics and others, and participated in or put on training seminars on goose control, deer control, and other topics. NWCOA also opened communication with Wildlife Services (WS), the federal agency that deals with nuisance wildlife, and that was competing heavily with private WCOs.

At that time NWCOA was inclusive; its purpose was to represent the entire industry, even non-members. All members, whether part-time or full-time, were treated as professionals, and had an equal vote. NWCOA also developed bonds with the fur trapping industry, opened dialogues with national and state trapping associations, and attended fur trapping association meetings.

WCT Magazine, the WCT Seminars, and NWCOA created an industry culture of sharing and mutual help. In essence, it was a community. And within that community, private enterprise flourished.

In 2010 a small group of people envisioned a different direction for NWCOA, and when they became elected officers and board members they changed the focus of the association. They severed the relationship with WCT Magazine, the WCT Seminars, and Erickson, and allowed only full-time, sole-source income urban nuisance wildlife businesses to become voting members. This small segment now represents the entire membership. Membership has dropped considerably, and it remains to be seen how effective NWCOA will be in issues affecting the industry as a whole. The hope is that they will maintain their original effectiveness.

Other institutions have been active supporters of the industry. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Natural Resource’s Cooperative Extension service has for some time published the large, extensive volume, Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage Handbook, updating it every several years. It has been the bible for WCOs for many years, and until the appearance of WCT Magazine and the various instructional seminars, it was the only source of researched information. More recently they have offered the very extensive Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, organized and managed by Dr. Stephen Vantassel. The university has also offered training seminars on controlling the damage of different species.

Also, in 1990 the Utah State University School of Natural Resources began an academic program under the newly created Berryman Institute for Wildlife Damage Management. The program offered specific courses and an undergraduate degree option in wildlife damage management. They also offered graduate courses and advanced degrees, including research, and provided continuing education and extension services in wildlife damage management.

Dr. Robert Schmidt, a professor who taught in this program, wrote a column for WCT Magazine titled “Professional Perspectives”, for a number of years.

Other universities have since offered programs under different venues. Purdue, for example, has taught wildlife damage management under its Forestry program, and Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension Service has a Wildlife Damage Management Program that participates in a partnership between state and federal agencies, and state universities, in 13 Northeast states.

As the number of WCOs grew, by the mid-2000s a demographic picture began to emerge. It was impossible to pinpoint exactly how many were working in the field, but some research by NWCOA, and WCT Magazine’s fairly consistent 2,000-plus subscribers, indicated that there were between 5,000 and 10,000 businesses operating nationwide that depended largely or completely on wildlife work. Using the generally accepted rule of thumb that about 10% of a given occupation usually belongs to an association serving that occupation, and given NWCOA’s almost 1,000 members, the number of businesses is probably closer to 10,000. The number of part-time WCOs is harder to track, but it is probably at least that many again. This includes only suburban/urban WCOs doing work for pay; countless thousands of the nation’s 200,000-plus fur trappers, mostly rural, are also involved, sometimes for pay but often for hunting or trapping privileges, or to create good will for their trapping associations, or simply as a free public service.

Surveys by NWCOA showed that about 80% of these businesses were small, one- or two-person sole proprietor businesses, often a family, usually with the man doing the field work and his significant other running the office, or with a son or daughter involved. These small businesses usually grossed from $30,000 to $100,000, with net profits ranging roughly from 30% to 50% of the gross. It was difficult to gross over $100,000 without hiring an extra technician or two, but some businesses did so, and some achieved gross incomes of $500,000 or more, although this was uncommon. In a very few instances large corporations were formed, with 10 or more employees, and these grossed in excess of seven figures.

There were other players in the wildlife field. The pest control industry had always been somewhat involved, usually taking care of animal problems as a service to their insect clients, but there was a basic difference in their business model. The pest control industry depends on repeat business; they want to return repeatedly to the same clients, for preventative maintenance, for example spraying the same property the same way for insects on a regular schedule, charging for the service each time. Their income is based on residual accounts; they want people calling back.

The business model of the nuisance wildlife control industry, on the other hand, is to solve the problem, do the job once, and through exclusion and/or removal, and/or modification of habitat and food sources, prevent it from recurring.

There was another significant difference. Insect and commensal rodent work is usually fairly straightforward; the main resolution technique is the application of chemicals, and almost all dwellings are treated basically the same way. A technician can quickly be trained, and can apply the same methods to almost every job. On the other hand, nuisance wildlife jobs can vary widely in their resolution. Animals are far less predictable in behavior than insects, and their behavior can vary depending on the time of the year (mating season, birthing season, foraging season, dispersal, etc.), and some can become wary of, or unresponsive to, some removal methods. Although there are basic methods, WCOs need a clear understanding of the behavior and biology of a number of different species, an intuitive sense of how animals will react to certain situations, and well developed observation, deductive, and problem solving skills, to know how to resolve problems. By virtue of their experience, many fur trappers/WCOs have these qualifications, while most pest control technicians, usually from urban/suburban backgrounds and with training only in chemical application, lack them.

In addition, nuisance wildlife work involves a sometimes bewildering variety of different species across the continent. While raccoons, skunks, groundhogs, and gray squirrels are so commonly dealt with that they’re referred to as the Big Four, many areas also have problems with beaver, white-tailed deer, coyotes, flying squirrels, bats, moles, snakes,  feral hogs, black bears, moles, and birds such as Canada geese, turkeys, pigeons, cormorants, and seagulls. A WCO in one area might deal mostly with beaver and skunks, another might deal mostly with moles and attic dwellers such as gray and flying squirrels and bats, and a third might deal with a dozen different species. WCOs are capable of adapting to the different methods and equipment needed, but the pest control industry depends on standardization of its approaches to make money. Besides the big pest control corporations like Orkin, there are thousands of small pest control companies, and many of these found nuisance wildlife work a poor fit.

The pest control industry has always been involved in nuisance bird work, and some state pest control boards have tried to exclude small private nuisance wildlife businesses from larger bird jobs, especially on public or corporate buildings. Recently, some state boards have also tried to get involved with urban wildlife regulations, initiating potential conflict with state fish and game agencies that see wildlife as their territory. As a general rule, the pest control industry does not understand animals, but it has a good understanding of business and selling services. Whether this impacts WCOs more negatively than it already has, remains to be seen.  But by and large the two industries have managed to coexist without serious conflict. In fact, many WCOs have developed mutually beneficial relationships with smaller, local pest control companies. When the WCO came across insect problems he would refer them to the pest control company, and that company would refer any wildlife jobs to the WCO. Both parties could then provide complete pest services to their clients.

Interestingly, there has been a trend among WCOs in the past decade to get their pest control licenses and add this service to their business. Many will tell you they prefer the challenge of working with animals, but the money from insect work is better. As a general rule, WCOs have proven to be more effective pest control operators that pest control operators have been WCOs. Superior observational skills and the ability to adapt give WCOs an advantage.

The major, and most serious, competitor with small private wildlife business has always been the federal Wildlife Services (WS) agency, a branch of the USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). They compete openly with private WCOs, especially for work with larger animals like beaver, deer, coyotes, and feral hogs, for large scale bird work with Canada geese, seagulls, and cormorants, and for all wildlife impacting airports. They have almost completely taken over all beaver work in some states. They don’t normally do small animals like raccoons, skunks, groundhogs, and squirrels, although recently they began doing, and advertising, residential work in California’s Sacramento County.

Competition from WS is unfair to private enterprise because WS doesn’t have to consider expenses; their equipment, travel, salaries, business and office expenses, etc. are paid for by federal money. Where a private WCO has to these costs into the job price, WS can ignore them, allowing them to do the work for a fraction of the cost. They also don’t have the legal restraints that private businesses do, and also can immediately issue themselves federal permits that take months for private WCOs to get. They have unlimited resources and can put together an unlimited labor force to take over, for example, almost all the beaver or feral hog work in an entire state. At this time many states are partnering with WS to do work that could be done by private nuisance wildlife control businesses. It remains to be seen how much they will affect the private nuisance wildlife industry, but currently there does not seem to be any applicable legal limit to what they can do, and this has led to their unregulated growth countrywide.

At this time the private nuisance wildlife industry is in good shape because of demand, and its ability to meet that demand. It appears to be in transition as far as its overall organization, and having a national voice that represents all its elements, but doubtless both those needs will be met.

References:

Sterba, Jim, Nature Wars. Copyright 2012. Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, New York, NY

Most of the information in this article comes from personal experience and communication with others in the nuisance wildlife field. I was editor of WCT Magazine from 1994 to 2010, and during that time I spent countless hours talking with literally hundreds of WCOs, biologists, fur trappers, and others in the field, and edited well over 1,000 articles on industry topics. While writing this article I also interviewed three of the industry’s major formative people: Tim Julien, Rich Daniotti, and Rob Erickson. I need to point out that Erickson avoids seeking acknowledgement of the impact he has had on the industry. However, I have felt it important to report Erickson’s part as accurately as possible, based on the observations of many others as well as my own.