"Sometimes mixing business and biology is like mixing oil and water," says Kevin Clark, president of Critter Control Inc. "It just doesn't go very well." However, this concern didn't stop the self-proclaimed outdoorsman from building the nation's leading wildlife removal and management firm with more than 100 offices coast to coast.
Clark's days, and some nights, are filled with relocating beavers, raccoons, deer, rattlesnakes, bats and the occasional bear or alligator from people's homes. He admits he wouldn't have it any other way. "Animals are such interesting things," Clark says. "While we don't believe in animal rights [to the extent] that cockroaches have the same rights as humans, we certainly care about their welfare and being safe, humane, effective and environmentally responsible."
Clark began his business in 1983 in Traverse City, Michigan. When the advertising firm that he worked at folded, Clark had to scramble for work. Taking his father's advice, he became a part-time chimney sweep. "Back in the early '80s, wood burning in the north was all the rage," he explains. On the job, he frequently received calls to remove birds, raccoons and squirrels from the chimneys. Realizing his talent with the critters, Clark began marketing himself to pest control companies, asking, "If you don't handle animals in chimneys, would you refer me?" The references trickled in, and even the bigger pest control companies like Orkin began to know Clark as the chimney critter remover.
A makeshift Critter Control office was born in Clark's home. "I would sit there on the phone every night for an hour or two until I sold two or three chimney jobs for the next day. So I really lived hand-to-mouth for months and months." In 1983, the animal removal idea took off and by 1985, Clark began opening branch offices in other parts of Michigan, Ohio and Florida.
A typical day for Clark begins in an intimate office setting. The average office is still limited to about 15 employees, who report in with trucks and equipment to get their routes for the day.
Clark gets into the office around 7 a.m. From there, the calls begin. "It's a requirement that the traps are checked daily in most states," he explains, "so you want to call that customer at 7:30 or 8 in the morning and say 'Is a raccoon in the trap? Can you look out the front door and see if there's a skunk in the trap?'" If the traps are empty, the crew is saved a trip. With territories that span two to four counties, Critter Control employees cover a lot of miles, racking up about 35,000 miles per truck per year.
From there, the Critter Control crew draws up its battle plan. They set up a laminated map of their territories and sketch out routes, so Clark knows where every team member is at any given time. If he gets an emergency call, he can have a truck in the nearby area respond without a moment's delay. Clark says the most important thing to remember in his business is, "people with an animal in their house don't care much-they care how fast!"
Though big emergencies are not everyday occurrences, Clark must stay on his toes. One evening, when he had already gone home for the day, he received a message from his technician on call. A huge buck had been spotted running through a residential neighborhood earlier that day. Clark had patrolled the area earlier and didn't see any sign of it. "This was about two in the afternoon," he said, "and I sort of forgot about it and thought the animal had gone back to the woods."
The buck had not gone back. Around 6 in the evening, it crashed full-speed through an elderly couple's front window, sending glass shards spraying through the living room. The husband, who was on an oxygen tank, his wife and two of their friends were sitting at the kitchen table playing a quiet game of cards when they heard the explosion. "They thought a plane or a car had crashed into the house or something," Clark says. They scrambled outside and called Critter Control's emergency number.
By the time Clark and his technician arrived on the scene, the buck had gouged its impressive antlers through the walls, ceiling and furniture, leaving holes and blood from its cuts everywhere. Clark recalled, "We went in and put two darts in it, and it settled down. We were able to get a snare pull over one of its antlers and then bulldog it to the ground, blindfold it, tape it up, hog tie it and pick it up. By then, there were three or four TV stations, three police cars, an ambulance, a fire truck and 150 people from the neighborhood standing outside watching."
The Critter Control crew brought the buck deep into the woods and laid it on its sternum, watching patiently until the drugs wore off and it was well enough to walk away. "It was a great save story of an animal that would have otherwise been shot," Clark says.
When Clark is not working on site, he flies between his two major offices in Traverse City and Fort Lauderdale to oversee operations. He also actively recruits qualified franchisees from local universities and wildlife organizations. "We've had four franchisees with PhDs and a dozen with master's degrees in related fields. Most have at least a bachelor's in wildlife or natural resources. So we're able to pool all that knowledge."
Knowledge is key to Clark, who reads up on everything from American Veterinary Medical Association standards for euthanasia to wild animal migration and birthing patterns, and proper bird wing repair methods. He also serves as the president of the Montessori Island charter school board with programs to teach children about wild creatures by bringing touch tanks to parks and classrooms. "We've done it for the last three years and plan on continuing," says Clark. "There are so many things you can teach kids about wild animals."