Animal Instinct Rules at Wildlife Removal Franchise

Extracting squirrels from chimneys and quieting raging bucks are all in a day's work for this 'Critter Control' franchisor.

"Sometimes mixing business and biology is like mixing oiland water," says Kevin Clark, president of Critter ControlInc. "It just doesn't go very well." However, thisconcern didn't stop the self-proclaimed outdoorsman frombuilding the nation's leading wildlife removal and managementfirm with more than 100 offices coast to coast.

Clark's days, and some nights, are filled with relocatingbeavers, raccoons, deer, rattlesnakes, bats and the occasional bearor alligator from people's homes. He admits he wouldn'thave it any other way. "Animals are such interestingthings," Clark says. "While we don't believe inanimal rights [to the extent] that cockroaches have the same rightsas 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 toscramble for work. Taking his father's advice, he became apart-time chimney sweep. "Back in the early '80s, woodburning in the north was all the rage," he explains. On thejob, he frequently received calls to remove birds, raccoons andsquirrels from the chimneys. Realizing his talent with thecritters, Clark began marketing himself to pest control companies,asking, "If you don't handle animals in chimneys, wouldyou refer me?" The references trickled in, and even the biggerpest control companies like Orkin began to know Clark as thechimney 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 twountil I sold two or three chimney jobs for the next day. So Ireally lived hand-to-mouth for months and months." In 1983,the animal removal idea took off and by 1985, Clark began openingbranch 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, whoreport in with trucks and equipment to get their routes for theday.

Clark gets into the office around 7 a.m. From there, the callsbegin. "It's a requirement that the traps are checkeddaily in most states," he explains, "so you want to callthat customer at 7:30 or 8 in the morning and say 'Is a raccoonin the trap? Can you look out the front door and see if there'sa skunk in the trap?'" If the traps are empty, the crew issaved a trip. With territories that span two to four counties,Critter Control employees cover a lot of miles, racking up about35,000 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 outroutes, so Clark knows where every team member is at any giventime. If he gets an emergency call, he can have a truck in thenearby area respond without a moment's delay. Clark says themost important thing to remember in his business is, "peoplewith an animal in their house don't care much-they care howfast!"

Though big emergencies are not everyday occurrences, Clark muststay on his toes. One evening, when he had already gone home forthe day, he received a message from his technician on call. A hugebuck had been spotted running through a residential neighborhoodearlier that day. Clark had patrolled the area earlier anddidn't see any sign of it. "This was about two in theafternoon," he said, "and I sort of forgot about it andthought the animal had gone back to the woods."

The buck had not gone back. Around 6 in the evening, it crashedfull-speed through an elderly couple's front window, sendingglass shards spraying through the living room. The husband, who wason an oxygen tank, his wife and two of their friends were sittingat the kitchen table playing a quiet game of cards when they heardthe explosion. "They thought a plane or a car had crashed intothe house or something," Clark says. They scrambled outsideand called Critter Control's emergency number.

By the time Clark and his technician arrived on the scene, thebuck had gouged its impressive antlers through the walls, ceilingand furniture, leaving holes and blood from its cuts everywhere.Clark recalled, "We went in and put two darts in it, and itsettled down. We were able to get a snare pull over one of itsantlers and then bulldog it to the ground, blindfold it, tape itup, hog tie it and pick it up. By then, there were three or four TVstations, three police cars, an ambulance, a fire truck and 150people from the neighborhood standing outside watching."

The Critter Control crew brought the buck deep into the woodsand laid it on its sternum, watching patiently until the drugs woreoff and it was well enough to walk away. "It was a great savestory of an animal that would have otherwise been shot," Clarksays.

When Clark is not working on site, he flies between his twomajor offices in Traverse City and Fort Lauderdale to overseeoperations. He also actively recruits qualified franchisees fromlocal universities and wildlife organizations. "We've hadfour franchisees with PhDs and a dozen with master's degrees inrelated fields. Most have at least a bachelor's in wildlife ornatural resources. So we're able to pool all thatknowledge."

Knowledge is key to Clark, who reads up on everything fromAmerican Veterinary Medical Association standards for euthanasia towild animal migration and birthing patterns, and proper bird wingrepair methods. He also serves as the president of the MontessoriIsland charter school board with programs to teach children aboutwild creatures by bringing touch tanks to parks and classrooms."We've done it for the last three years and plan oncontinuing," says Clark. "There are so many things youcan teach kids about wild animals."

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