WASHINGTON – When Rodney Taylor begins the story of the elephant, it sounds like he’s setting up a bad joke.
“There was an abandoned elephant and a rhinoceros, a hyena and a tiger,” he said — in a trailer.
In fact, when the call came in 18 years ago to the Prince George’s County Animal Management Division, it was greeted with considerable skepticism until the caller held her phone aloft and an elephant’s loud trumpet echoed through the receiver. That’s when Taylor, division chief, knew this was no joke.
It may not be typical, but such are the calls received by animal control officers and resources like the Nuisance Wildlife Information Line, which have become the negotiators for the coexistence of humans and animals in an increasingly urbanized Maryland.
The solution for the safari animals that day was to send a team to the now-defunct Ponderosa restaurant on Oxon Hill Road where they found an abandoned circus trailer baking in the summer sun, and inside, an overheated rhinoceros, hyena, tiger and the alarm-sounding elephant.
The abandoned animals, the victims of a dispute over wages between a circus worker and the owner, were revived with water, divided up and placed in local zoos.
Oddly, even as the region becomes more and more populous, calls to the federal information line have decreased about 25 percent over the past 10 years, dropping from about 8,000 calls to 6,000 calls per year, according to data obtained by Capital News Service. However, calls to county and nonprofit animal services are climbing.
It’s unclear what’s caused the federal decline but experts say it could be the result of anything from increased public education and Internet usage to media oversaturation to a reluctance to use the resources available from the information line.
Reasons for the decline are also being investigated by Kevin Sullivan, state director of Wildlife Services at the Animal Plant and Inspection Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sullivan’s office runs the information line for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Sullivan cited increased Internet usage as one possible explanation for the decrease in inquiries. Much of the information provided over the federal information line is now available online.
Callers typically want information about a wildlife situation, so technicians are trained to ask, “a few diagnostic things quickly,” Sullivan said.
“I’ll talk to them and ask questions,” about the time of day, color and tail characteristics of the animal, said Brie German, wildlife technician at the USDA, who often answers the information line.
German can then provide information about the animal, and if there is a problem, some suggestions to fix it. She can also issue a permit over the phone for the caller to remove the wildlife or she can refer the caller to a list of local professional trappers.
One recent morning, German received calls about an attic-dwelling squirrel and a raccoon that had set up housekeeping in different attic.
“This time of year is . . . just about trying to find a mate and a place to live,” German said.
But even as the phone rings and German dispenses advice, populated counties are calling in less. Calls to the Nuisance Wildlife Information Line from Montgomery County have decreased more than 15 percent in the past 10 years, from 2,120 to 1,767, despite the county’s skyrocketing population.
Not all are surprised at the decrease in information line calls.
“It really depends on media hype,” said Ashley Owen, director of humane education and public relations at the Montgomery County Humane Society. During growing concern over West Nile virus, Owen remembers that at their local office, “We got an enormous amount of calls.”
Others blame the decline on the services the federal information line provides.
“It’s basically a referral service to a trapper,” said Chris Montuori, executive director of Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, although she admits she has “limited familiarity” with the service.
“When people come across a problem animal they don’t want it killed, they simply want it out of their attic,” she said.
An alternative resource for the animal-plagued is a hot line run by the Humane Society of the United States. This more benevolent-minded hot line suggests nonlethal means of removal, including putting out a bowl of ammonia and playing rock music to force a raccoon from a chimney, according to Laura Simon, field director for the Urban Wildlife Program at the society.
The Society’s national call volume is often higher on weekends when Maryland’s Nuisance Wildlife Information Line is unavailable, Simon said. Calls to the society’s national hot line have “risen dramatically over the years,” Simon said.
Not all Maryland counties show decreased calls to the Nuisance Wildlife Information Line. Harford County call volume, for example, has remained relatively steady over the past 10 years.
And calls directly to Harford County Animal Control are increasing, according to Pam Arney, chief officer at Harford County Animal Control. Fox calls in particular have been on the rise, she said.
“Their territory is gone due to all the building,” she said. Harford County has experienced about a 20 percent increase in population growth between 1990 and 2003, according to U.S. Census data.
Meanwhile in Talbot County, Nuisance Wildlife Information Line calls have skyrocketed 186 percent in the past 10 years, mainly because the Talbot County Humane Society, which also performs animal control functions, finally began referring callers to the information line about three years ago.
Previously, the society helped callers themselves, but in recent years it has “chosen to focus on pet adoption,” spay and neuter programs, public education and other activities a humane society typically provides, said Suzette Stitely, executive director.
Public education is the key to the statewide call drop off, according Prince George’s County’s Taylor. His division has a humane education program that serves schools and civic centers, teaching citizens about living with wildlife.
While not all calls to the information line are as exciting as Taylor’s abandoned elephant, they sometimes require a bit of creativity and finesse to help the public learn to deal with wildlife.
German recently fielded a call about a persistent cardinal continually flying into the same window.
German suggested the homeowner fly some Mylar balloons to try and discourage the bird from another painful and unsuccessful flight. It’s a classic example of the hot lines — teaching coexistence, one cardinal at a time.