To the rescue: Wildlife group starts mobile patrol to remove critters from homes

The rescue and removal effort hopes to reduce the number of critters that have to be treated, including this opossum.
The rescue and removal effort hopes to reduce the number of critters that have to be treated, including this opossum. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Ever have house guests who didn’t want to leave? Eventually, they’ll get the message.

But if that guest is on four legs, slithers or is covered in fur, it’s hard to show them the door.

On Thursday, a wildlife rescue group formally launched a mobile critter removal service that focuses on the humane trapping of South Florida animals that show up in and around homes: birds, raccoons, gators, opossums.

South Florida Wildlife Center adds wildlife services for homeowners and businesses by providing a non-lethal method of resolving conflicts with wildlife. Video by Walter Michot / Miami Herald

The van is run by the South Florida Wildlife Center, an offshoot of the Humane Society of the United States.

The effort “provides a humane alternative to trapping and removing animals,” said Sherry Schlueter, executive director of the South Florida Wildlife Center at 3200 SW Fourth Ave. in Fort Lauderdale.

Instead of trapping, field workers give animals a one-way ticket out the door. They use a contraption dabbed with peanut butter or some other goody to lure a critter out of a home and back into its natural surroundings.

The door opens for an animal to exit — and won’t allow it back indoors. If there are baby animals remaining in the house, workers pluck them out and put them in a box to reunite them with Mom or Dad.

The cost of the service depends on the animal and the situation. An average job, which includes removal and plugging any holes the animals used to enter, is about $350.

Schlueter said the South Florida Wildlife Center treats more than 12,000 stranded animals a year. She expects the new removal program to reduce the number of animal orphans.

“What we try to do is reunite the mothers with their babies so that they can be reared by their mothers and not by us,” Schlueter said.

Ken Nirenberg, a field technician for Humane Wildlife Services, drives around in a lime green van equipped with fences, one-way doors and humane traps. On Thursday, he opened the back of the van and showed off the small wire boxes that are rigged to open for exit but block the animal from going back into a home or business.

Over the past year before Thursday’s formal launch, he said had responded to about 100 calls, mostly for raccoons and possums. Nirenberg said animals can find themselves indoors with the smallest of gaps in screening, vents or chipped concrete.

Finding an iguana in the attic was a bit of a “shocker” for Nirenberg, but he was able to fashion a funnel of sorts and get the big lizard back to its natural habitat.

John Griffin, director of the Humane Society of the United States’ Humane Wildlife Services Department, explained Thursday that animals don’t see the difference between homes and natural structures.

“They see everything as the same,” Griffin said. “They are just looking for a safe, quiet place to have their babies.”

Griffin, who runs the program in the Washington area, helped Nirenberg set up South Florida’s service.

Both men said every job is different.

Nirenberg said he got a call about six months ago from a Sunrise homeowner that a raccoon had taken up residence in the attic. A trapper came out and caught the female, but three days later, the family still heard noises.

The trapper refused to come back — and that’s when they called Nirenberg. He soon found three babies holed up in the attic.

Because the mother was nowhere to be found, he had to take the babies back to the South Florida Wildlife Center for care.

Todd Hardwick, who owns Pesky Critters, a South Florida company that has been responding to nuisance animals for more than 35 years, said that having another responsible group in town to handle critters is welcomed.

Animal removal from homes is a niche business, Hardwick said. Most calls involve wild animals roaming neighborhoods and backyards, menacing pets and people.

Hardwick said the new program focuses on “exclusion” — basically locking animals out of a home. That doesn’t help with critters lurking in neighborhoods like a coyote that recently shook up a Boca Raton community.

Schlueter said offering people a humane alternative is a win for everyone.

“We can reduce our intake, and the animals aren’t hurt in the process.”

Pesky critter removal

What: South Florida Wildlife Center’s Humane Wildlife Services.

Where: Serves the tri-county area.

Cost: Varies, depending on job. Average is about $350.

For information: Visit humanewildlifeservices.com or call 866-SOS-WILD.