Tales of a Pioneer Varmint Buster
by Chris Buckner
We've all feared it
since childhood: the rattle in the attic or the rustle in the walls caused
by some unknown creature in the night. Or maybe you've returned to your
home to discover that your phone is dead and your lights are creepily flickering
off and on. But before visiting a psychologist or calling an exorcist to
take care of a supernatural creature in your home, you might want to contact
a wildlife professional.
And Randy Wolfe is the person to call.
More than likely, that noise in the attic is simply a small
animal, such as a squirrel or bat, that has decided your home is the perfect
spot to get out of the cold or store food for the winter. And according
to Wolfe, if the noise and unsettling feeling of having an uninvited four-legged
visitor setting up camp in your home isn't enough, possibly the danger or
damage caused by such an intruder would be.
Wolfe, a 1978 UT graduate and wildlife biologist, owns
and operates Varmint Busters, a wildlife management service that specializes
in removing unwanted vertebrate animals in homes and businesses and serves
Knox, Blount and Anderson counties.
"This is a business of wildlife damage management.
Basically, we try to come up with the most humane, efficient solution for
people who have a problem with vertebrate animals in or around their houses,"
says Wolfe. "Most of what we do is remove animals from people's houses.
That usually involves setting some live traps, trapping the animal, and
transporting and translocating it."
It's a tricky process that requires time and an individual
approach to each problem. Each situation is as unique as the animal involved.
Wolfe has dealt with a variety of animals, but mostly sees a lot of squirrels,
skunks and opossums making themselves comfortable in human quarters, often
damaging a home and causing an increased risk for fires and wiring problems
for its owners.
Over the nine years Varmint Busters has been in business,
Wolfe has seen some unusual cases with extensive damage. In one house, he
found a fox that had crawled under the deck and gone through a hole in the
foundation of the house. After closer inspection, he discovered the fox
had given birth to a litter of kits, and they were living on the ceiling
of the basement.
"Imagine a dog pen with a bunch of pups in it. That
was what it was like in there," says Wolfe. "They tore up the
duct work, the electrical wiring and the phone system. They caused the owner
a lot of damage."
But Wolfe claims that it's a much smaller culprit that
he sees most often. "They are real cute and cuddly, and everyone wants
to feed them, but in terms of urban wildlife damage, squirrels are number
Not only do they cause damage but, according to Wolfe,
the havoc they wreak can be deadly. "There is no doubt in my mind that
squirrels can cause fires. I've seen 18-inch strips of wire chewed bare
of insulation in the attics of homes. If you've got a squirrel living in
your attic and you don't do anything about it, your house could burn down
and your whole family could perish," Wolfe warns.
After studying wildlife and fisheries science at UT, Wolfe
was the staff zoologist at the Knoxville Zoo for 11 years. It was there
that he gained respect for and knowledge of all types of captive animals,
learning about their natural environments and behaviors. Although he was
involved with a couple of escapes, Wolfe claims his work at the zoo was
completely different from his current dealings with animals.
"A zoo is a place of conservation, recreation and
education. Zoos are involved with captive breeding of animals with the hope
in some cases of reintroducing them in certain places. That's what their
main programs are," Wolfe says. "I'm not dealing with problem
tigers and cougars, but I have a good appreciation of when an animal comes
to your house and damages your property and causes economic loss. I'm able
to put it into perspective a little bit better."
It was through his work at the zoo that Wolfe initially
came up with the idea of starting his own business. He says the zoo constantly
took calls from confused homeowners who had no idea how to get rid of the
animals invading their houses. After consulting other local businesses that
received similar calls, he realized there were very few places a panic-stricken
person could contact to help alleviate such problems.
And Wolfe is quick to point out the differences between
Varmint Busters and pest control agencies.
"Most pest control people deal with insects and some
rats and mice, whereas most of our work involves going to someone's house,
identifying the problem, and setting traps and coming back. A lot of our
jobs can take from two or three days to two or three weeks. It's usually
a situation where we have to go back several times. We also don't use pesticides
or chemicals. And at the end of it, we've got some animal that we've caught
that we have to deal with and take somewhere."
The translocation of the captured animal is a crucial component
of Wolfe's work. He attempts to ensure that each animal is placed in a habitat
where it can survive, while assuring his customers that it won't return.
Wolfe uses about a dozen different places for relocation, including wildlife-managed
areas and some private land conducive to the survival of many species. He
even tries to make sure the animal doesn't have to compete with its co-habitants
already present in the area and claims the move can be particularly stressful
for them. But with some animals, such as those pesky squirrels, it is more
"Squirrels have a real strong homing instinct, and
sometimes they come back from 10 or 15 miles away," Wolfe says. "We
generally transport them 25 or 30 miles away and cross some natural geographic
barrier, such as a river or interstate. Not that squirrels can't get under
an interstate or swim a river; they could."
Wolfe also educates his clients about their "visitors"
and attempts to eliminate misinformation and fear, especially about snakes.
He is constantly surprised by the myths that people believe about reptiles.
Snakes, he says, are actually among the least harmful animals.
"We see severe damage from squirrels in people's homes,
but a snake will cause no damage. It's just that people don't like them.
Most of the time, we deal with people's misconceptions about snakes, and
we try to dispel the myths. The best thing people can do is know how to
tell a venomous snake from a nonvenomous one and try to appreciate what
a snake can do. If your knowledge of snakes is based on hearsay, you need
to check out the facts."
Wolfe continues to maintain his ties with wildlife and
fisheries experts at UT. "I look to them for technical advice on a
wide array of issues," he said. "UT is one of the greatest resources
of its kind anywhere in the country." Wildlife damage management is
a whole new field of opportunity for graduates in wildlife and fisheries,
he added. In fact, Wolfe has hired a number of students to work in his business
over the years. Now, he says, there are several UT graduates who are working
in this specialized area in other cities and towns across the United States.
"It may not be the perfect business for most people,
but it's the right one for me," Wolfe says with a big grin. "Leave
wildlife management to the experts," he advises.
And most of his clients gladly comply.