Squirrels are cute. Unless you find two of them on the sofa in your historic downtown home, as one woman did. Fortunately, they bolted through the living room door when she opened it for them.
Ask Post and Courier readers how they've dealt with nuisance wildlife, and many will respond as reader Linda Compton does: "Wildlife is not a nuisance, wildlife does what it was intended to do and we are getting in their way."
But, as Parker Ford, owner of Ford's Wildlife Services, says, "Nobody has a problem with the animals until they have a problem with the animals."
Paula Buck would agree. She has had rats, squirrels and mice in her single-family King Street home.
"You can hear them," Buck says. "It's kind of creepy at night. It sounds louder then. You would think you had this monster crawling around in your walls or in your attic. You would never have convinced me it was a mouse or a rat. It sounds like they're trying to crawl through the walls and get me."
Rats are a problem for property managers as well.
"Try explaining ... to a tenant," says Jeannie Champlin, owner of Oyster Creek Properties, Charleston, "you've got a dead rat in your wall that we can't get out and you're just going to have to live with that for a week or two until the odor goes away."
Bats and snakes, too, can come calling.
Ford says he pulled 16 snakes out of an upper Summerville bathroom, eight of them in the tub. Apparently the snakes had slithered through gaps in the last project attempted by the husband, a do-it-yourselfer. And, although Ford says snakes are wonderful to have around because they eat small rodents, the lady of the house didn't see it that way.
"She didn't go back into that house for a week, and she kept calling me to come out and make sure no new snakes were found," Ford says.
Coyotes and alligators also show up uninvited. Raccoons, who like to build nests in attics, are common. And a protective mother raccoon is an upset raccoon.
"I had one the other day where a raccoon and four (older) babies ... fell through the ceiling in an office building. When we got there, they were all over, just a bunch of angry raccoons," says Kevin Murphy, owner of a Critter Control franchise in Mount Pleasant.
He says that mother raccoons can get particularly aggressive.
"We've had to deal with mama raccoons inside attics where you can't move except a few inches this way and that way. They're very protective of their babies. They charge at us in a tight area and you have to fight your way out or grab it or something. We wear protective gloves and boots."
Murphy and Ford are part of a thriving wildlife removal industry in the Charleston area. As development encroaches on wildlife, wildlife encroaches on homes.
Wildlife removal can cost anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on factors including the size of the house and the number of animals. Most services will provide free estimates.
Many of the services will install a device that has a one-way exit, letting the critters leave but blocking them from returning. They'll also repair damage and seal up entry points so the animals can't return. But some animals, like raccoons, will tear through roofs or walls just to get back in.
"Ask yourself why they do that," says Katherine McGill, who owns a wildlife removal service in Florida and speaks nationwide about animal protection. "Ninety percent of the time, if you have a raccoon in the attic, it's a female with offspring. What the industry doesn't say is, if you would just wait eight to 10 weeks, they'd leave as soon as the offspring is old enough to move around. Instead, they drive the mother away or they trap her and those babies are still in the attic, usually hidden where you can't find them."
The picture she paints of the abandoned babies and their death is not a pretty one.
What does happen to the animals once they're removed?
None of the Charleston wildlife specialists will say on the record. And, the state Department of Natural Resources doesn't keep records because wildlife removal specialists don't have to get a permit or report the wildlife removal as long as they're hired by a property owner to get rid of animals causing damage within 100 yards of the property.
"The law is kind of vague. It gives homeowners a lot of leeway and doesn't define what 'damage' is," says Jay Butfiloski, a furbearer and alligator program coordinator with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
"That 100-yard exemption covers a lot of the wildlife work. From an oversight regulatory aspect, there's not a whole lot that governs their activities."
"I always ask my customers, 'Do you want to know? Do you really want to know?' " Ford says. "And if they still say yes, I tell them yes, it is as humane as it can be."
Murphy advertises himself as a humane wildlife remover. But even Murphy says, "We do try to do it humanely, but because of the way our state laws are, it's so hard to do it humanely."
Murphy is talking about a state law that forbids relocating animals to another property.
"Most people don't want you taking a raccoon out of their attic and letting it go in their front yard," Murphy says.
Euthanizing the animals, it seems, can be kinder than taking them away and releasing them.
"You are taking an animal to an unfamiliar location where you don't know the species, you don't know territoriality issues. You don't know what kind of parasite or disease load this particular animal may have," Butfiloski says. "Where does it go, where does it find food? If it's truly a nuisance animal, you may just be transferring the problem to the nearest neighbor. It may get killed on the road trying to get back or trying to go somewhere else. The mortality rate of relocated animals tends to be fairly high."
The best solution, all agree, is not to let the animals in in the first place.
"For people who are willing to try, there are a lot of nonlethal alternatives," Butfiloski says.
"A lot of it involves keeping things shut and keeping food put away. For an animal that has to go out and hunt or find its food every day, if you make it easy, well, easy is easy," he says. "That beats chasing things through the woods. Animals typically look for food or places to hide. If you can mitigate those, you can take care of a lot of issues."