- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2000

LOS ANGELES The uninvited daytime guest, weighing nearly 400 pounds, was hungry when he climbed into Rick Marrone's lakeside home through an open window. His mood deteriorated when he took a bite out of some fruit and found it was artificial.

The black bear then went to the refrigerator, cleared the contents onto the floor and enjoyed an impromptu picnic. The identity of the intruder would have remained a mystery if a neighbor in New Jersey had not seen him escaping across the garden.

This particular clash of interests between man and beast ended as it often does these days in a victory for the animal. As American urban development spreads, a war is gathering pace between humans and wildlife. People are increasingly ending up second best.

Recently, the Insurance Information Institute estimated that animal-related damage to property was running at more than $1.2 billion a year across the United States and rising.

"You have so many people living in areas not designed for human habitation," said Steve Goldstein, a spokesman for the New York-based organization. "Sometimes people find themselves cohabiting with creatures they never planned to cohabit with."

While armadillos are a menace in Oklahoma, where they are destroying gardens, there are tales of wolves roaming near Minnesota homes, a cougar prowling an estate in Colorado and feral chickens pecking out at people in California.

Even when man loses patience and takes the law into his own hands, he is in danger of making a fool of himself. In Michigan, one local tried to shoot a possum invading his kitchen, but hit a gas pipe. The consequent explosion caused $18,000 worth of damage.

Raccoons top the troublemakers' list. One group did tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage to a property in Ohio when they entered through the chimney as the owners wintered in Florida. They ate all the food in the cupboards, clawed their way through hardwood floors and soiled furniture.

Ask Sean and Lisa Rankin how they fared when a raccoon with an attitude invaded their home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In short: not well. It broke into their kitchen, fought their pet cat for food and used their boat as a lavatory. When it made unfriendly advances toward their 11-month-old son, Sydney, the Rankins fought back.

"I started throwing fruit from the tree at him," said Mrs. Rankin. "He caught it. I pictured him going back to his raccoon friends and saying, 'You won't believe these stupid humans they're throwing me breakfast.' "

Unable to win their own war, the Rankins turned to one of an estimated 5,000 U.S. firms now helping homeowners deal with unwanted pests.

Business is booming for Joe Felegi, whose Critter Control company handles 200 calls a day. He usually traps his prey in cages using bait. Then, depending on the species, he either kills them or releases them into the wild. Yet urban sprawl means that his release spots have dwindled from 30 to three over the years. "I'm trapping where I used to release," he said.

A generation ago, animal intruders might have been shot and eaten. Today, gun laws are tighter and animal-welfare groups are on the side of the assailants.

Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Va., urges homeowners not to harm "innocent, defenseless" creatures. "The animals were there first," she said.

Many residents now resort to more humane deterrents, supporting a $250 million-a-year industry supplying everything from homemade traps to warning devices with intriguing names such as MoleBlaster and The Garden Cop.

Disastrous tales of these critter-controllers abound. A Fort Lauderdale, Fla., man who tried to exterminate a land crab by pouring gasoline down its hole and lighting it had a much closer brush with death than his intended victim.

Others have tried more old-fashioned measures, but with little success. Patrick Christmas, a lawyer, resorted to squirrel-bashing when they invaded the attic of his home in the District and chewed through electric wiring.

He dressed for battle, donning a hockey helmet, mask, gloves and padded jacket. He then pursued the pests on the roof of his three-story house and started swatting.

"All I could think of was being found dead at the bottom of my house, wearing a hockey mask and a ski parka in August," he said.

The squirrels are still there.

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