US Drought Driving Wild
Animals Into Urban Areas
By Deborah Sharp
USA Today

Add another problem to parched lawns, stunted crops and water restrictions: Drought is driving wild critters into the suburbs.
Snakes are slithering in North Carolina. Bighorn sheep are munching lawns in California. Ducks are dousing themselves in swimming pools in the Midwest. Did we mention the rats in the mansions of Beverly Hills?
If the rich ''are different from you and me,'' as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, does that mean their rats are, too? ''Maybe they have a better diet, but they're really just your average rat,'' says Guy Duplantier, owner of Good Guys Exterminators in Long Beach, Calif. ''They're not uppity or anything. It's not like they realize they're in Beverly Hills.''
About two-thirds of the nation is gripped by drought or unusual dryness. Some experts say the increased animal sightings are due to scarce water and the resulting shortage of natural food sources such as plants, berries and insects. Development, widespread fires and wildlife management policies also play a role.
''By necessity, animals begin to wander farther, showing up in places you wouldn't normally expect them,'' says Doug Inkley, senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. ''The drought is indeed stressing animals.''
Stressed, too, are ''suburbus sapiens,'' or humans unused to the wild world. Just ask Kevin Clark, president of Critter Control, a nuisance-animal removal company based in Traverse City, Mich. If a coyote is stalking the family's Chihuahua, or ducks are turning the swimming pool into a septic tank, chances are one of the national chain's 116 franchises will get a call.
Business is up about 20% this year, Clark says. But some nuisance calls actually drop in dry weather. For example, lawn-destroying moles move deep underground. The burrowers are still searching for moisture-loving grubs and worms, but surface signs are minimized.
Bill Clay, deputy administrator of the U.S. Agriculture Department's Wildlife Services, isn't convinced animals are peskier because of the drought. Calls to his department dropped 10% last year -- to 52,483 -- according to the latest numbers available. There were drought conditions then, too.
''Regardless of a drought or not, wildlife causes significant damage in urban and rural areas, and the urban people are getting their share of it,'' Clay says.
He estimates the national damage toll from these unwelcome animals is $22 billion a year.
News accounts are rife with critter encounters:
* In the affluent suburbs of Los Angeles, calls complaining about rats are up 20%, exterminators say. The creatures aren't newcomers to ritzy neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills, but they normally stay hidden in dense foliage. In recent weeks, six restaurants along Third Street Promenade, a pedestrian-only street filled with shops and clubs in Santa Monica, closed temporarily because of rat infestations.
* Bears have been sighted in suburbs nationwide. In Banning, Calif., a couple encountered one of the creatures in their maple tree. It was holding a partly filled juice bottle it had dragged from the trash.
* The Carolinas Poison Center reports an 18% increase in snakebites in North Carolina this year over last, up to 104 from 88.
John Proctor, 6, was bitten in Raleigh during July Fourth festivities, most likely by a copperhead. He spent a day in intensive care and was unable to walk for several more days, police said. The youngster recovered, and no fatal bites have occurred.
Experts say sightings are far more common of non-venomous snakes than of poisonous species.
Says Eric Stine, a herpetologist at the Nature Museum in Charlotte: ''You've still got a lot more to worry about from your neighbor's Rottweiler than you do from a snake, no matter where you live.''
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