After taking a close look at the service animal policy on campus in our previous print issue, The Campanil decided to extend the magnifying glass and look into how Mills College handles wildlife on campus.
The wild animals mentioned in this article do not include the cats that live at Mills as they are considered “feral” rather than “wild” — they had at one time been domesticated before they ended up on campus.
Skunks and raccoons — referred to as “furbearers” by the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife — can commonly be found throughout the United States, and the grounds of Mills are no exception.
These furbearers can be highly destructive to campus grounds and are also considered “vectors” for being “capable of spreading diseases” such as rabies, as confirmed by an SF Gate article on vector control published on October 22, 2008.
For the past 15 years, Mills has used the services of a humane animal trapper to reduce the rapidly breeding furbearer population on campus. Brent Tolliver started his company B&M Trapping in 1982 and does live animal disposal; he has more than 30 years of trapping experience under his belt, and said he has never been bitten or directly sprayed.
“This is a young one,” Tolliver said of the raccoon he recently caught, quietly wiggling around in his trap. “It’s this year’s baby. His mom [would] let you know right off: ‘I’m not to be dealt with.’ The moms would be hissing so bad, attacking the cage, would make you jump over there.”
It should be noted that Tolliver was not wearing gloves when he held up the cage because he “naturally knows what to do” after years of trapping. He said he likes being hands-on.
Every day of the year, including holidays, Tolliver or either of his two employees drive
onto campus in the early morning, just as the sun is about rise, to pick up all the traps they have laid out across campus the previous night before. They come back later in the afternoon to lay out 8 to 10 new traps which they would pick up the following morning.
Linda Zitzner, the associate vice president of operations who overlooks both building maintenance and grounds staff such as Campus Facilities, said skunks are highly destructive because “they can burrow under foundation and move into buildings” along with having a strong, unpleasant odor.
“I had rocks and stuff there last night. Do you see how [that skunk has] dug out a hole in there? That’s where he’s digging in the floor underneath,” Tolliver said, showing the scattered rocks he had previously piled in front of a deep hole carved out of the foundation underneath the B Wing of Ege Hall — which is a “hot bed for skunks.”
for raccoons, Tolliver said they “are the number one nemesis on this campus because… they are a nuisance, they carry fleas. They get into the wall. They get into the ceiling. They create havoc.”
Raccoon tend to inhabit attics and not only tear apart the insulation but also use the space as
a bathroom. Their urine and fecal matter can erode the sheet rock, discolor the ceiling into a brown color and leave behind a smell reminiscent of a dumpster. In the worst-case scenario, Tolliver said, “over time, the weight of the feces [can drop] into the unit” and “the last thing you would want is for a student to be in the dorm and a raccoon comes crashing through the ceiling. They’re very aggressive, they will bite you.”
Tolliver recalled an experience a few years back when raccoons were found in the ceiling of one of the Mills dormitories.
“You could hear them scratching. We had to cut the ceiling open to get in there and get them,” Tolliver said.
Since state regulation allows people to capture furbearers by “a firearm, bow and arrow, or with the use of dogs,” Tolliver’s methods are considered humane because he utilizes standard metal cage traps that would not cause the trapped furbearer stress or injury. To further eliminate adverse effects on the furbearers, he also tries to place traps in locations that would not be exposed to direct sunlight since the animals he specializes in capturing are nocturnal.
Working off of work orders sent to Campus Facilities by the Mills community, Tolliver sets traps in places where there has been the most recent skunk and raccoon activity. In every trap, Tolliver leaves behind a little plastic bag of dried cat food. Dried cat food has less of a smell than wet cat food that would not be carried off into the wind and attract nearby animals other than the specific target.
Sometimes a raccoon is clever enough to shake the cage to spill the food out — one such raccoon did that to a trap located underneath the stairwell at Reinhardt Hall. To prevent this, Tolliver simply weighs down the trap with something heavy so the raccoon would be forced to go inside the cage to feed.
Aside from cage traps, Tolliver also employs a long, mint-green cylindrical tube with a metal door flap for skunks that prevents him from being sprayed — he recently planted one of these in the front yard of the President’s Home. If a skunk were to be trapped in one of his cages, Tolliver uses a simple method of holding up a long towel to hide his appearance and not startle the skunk. He then slowly approaches the cage until he is able to cover the entire trap with the towel to eliminate chances of being skunked.
When asked about what happens to the furbearers after they have been caught by the animal trapper, Zitzner said they are taken off campus grounds to another location to be “humanely euthanized.”
While that may come as a shock for most students, it is illegal, according to state law under Fish and Wildlife, not to kill the trapped furbearer or immediately release them on site. The Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM Online) website run by U.C. Davis also specifies that the same regulations “prohibit the relocation of raccoons and other wildlife.”
B&M Trapping is responsible for humanely euthanizing the furbearers they have trapped. Veterinarians contracted with B&M provide the chloroform which Tolliver’s company uses to suffocate the animals. Tolliver said he has to do the euthanasia many times himself.
The furbearers, whether they are sick or healthy, are indiscriminately euthanized. Tolliver said the California Dept. of Public Health considers the furbearers’ diseases to be hereditary and now requires no testing, unless people have reported being bitten or injured by a furbearer.
Tolliver’s cages recently captured one skunk behind Mary Morse, another at Ege Hall, and a young raccoon in a bush next to Ross House. He said that three animals per day is his average catch; The Campanil calculates that with three furbearers a day, B&M Trapping will have captured 93 animals by the end of October, 1095 furbearers this year, and an average total of 16,425 furbearers in the past 15 years he’s worked at Mills.
That is not counting the largest amount of animals Tolliver said he had ever trapped in one day which was “an excess of 10 or 12.” He said he sometimes caught two to three young raccoons in the same cage after their weaning stage.
While Tolliver follows trapping procedure to the letter, he said the strict state guidelines have been a huge source of internal conflict for him as a trapper. Tolliver expressed great sadness and distress about euthanasia since he does not want to be considered a “killer” and has always regretted having to euthanize the furbearers he has trapped.
Tolliver said he does not “personally” feel that he should kill all the animals he has caught just because the furbearers had been unfortunate enough to end up in one of his traps.
“No one wants to be in the business of killing animals,” he said.
Tolliver said the reason he started B&M Trapping in 1982 was because Animal Control, where he worked from 1974 to 1991, was no longer the “public service” he once knew that helped both animals and people. Tolliver said he continued to be an animal trapper because he was “one of those guys who wanted to be a public servant” and hoped the law would change some day.
In a perfect world, Tolliver said his company would ideally “try to take [the furbearers that are not sick or injured] back into the hills to an area where it’s conducive to their lifestyle so [they] can at least have a second chance at life as opposed to being euthanized.”
As stated in the 2008 SF Gate article on vector control, the law maintains that furbearers like raccoons are “already everywhere” and “moving them can spread animal diseases to new areas.”
When asked about the exception on UC IPM Online that allows relocation of furbearers with “written permission of the Department,” Tolliver said he would be more than happy to comply and help “petition” for those changes.
Unfortunately, Tolliver does not know where he would relocate the trapped skunks and raccoons because no one would “let them [into] their parks” and there is no sanctuary to house and raise them.
Squirrels and opossums are also considered furbearers but both Zitzner and Tolliver are not as worried about them. Tolliver said squirrels do not tend to be inside buildings and are content being in the trees.
Tolliver is also not that concerned with opossums because “they would just fall into a trash can and wait for you to pick them up.” He said opossums are foragers and do not create the same problems as skunks and raccoons.
Many students have often said there is an overpopulation of squirrels on campus and rumors have floated around about squirrels being euthanized, but Zitzner said in an email that she is not “aware of any squirrel reduction plan” and is “not even sure” how Mills could do that.
Native wildlife such as ducks and the California quail have both struggled over the years to survive at Mills College, where their populations once thrived.
Susan Spiller, associate professor of biology and a member of the Sustainability Committee, said she had not seen quails in a while and noted that the “pair of Mallard” ducks — usually seen dabbling at the Turtle Pond next to the Music Building — have struggled to take care of the 13 to 15 duckings they birth every year. Predators like the red-shouldered hawk and feral cats quickly snatch up both duck and quail hatchlings within a matter of days.
Tolliver also theorized that raccoon overpopulation had destroyed many of the quail habitats.
Efforts from both students and faculty have been made to repopulate the ducks and quail over the years, such as the restoration at Lake Aliso, located behind Founders Commons. This project was an effort not only to reestablish the lake’s proper irrigation (it still has to be drained every year) but also to help provide safe breeding ground for the birds.
“There was an idea… in the Lake Aliso restoration plan that there’d be something like an island that would prevent cats from getting to the ducklings,” Spiller said.
John Harris, a now-retired biology professor and bird enthusiast, and several students initiated the Quail Project around 2008 with hopes of bringing back the quail to campus. Spiller said the students researched “successful restoration efforts” such as the Presidio in San Francisco, where the natural quail habitat had been restored, which they hoped to emulate on campus by bringing back “brush piles” to help quails get away from predators. However, Spiller noted that “there’s sometimes conflict with safety” because brush piles are vulnerable to fire.
The Quail Project had even made contact with the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, where quails are raised. Spiller said that the Museum gave quail chicks to repopulate “areas that would’ve had quail,” such as Mills, which would have been “a great quail habitat in former times.”
“Those projects have not gone anywhere, unfortunately,” Spiller said.
Spiller said the faculty involved in the restoration projects have “been close to submitting a Proposition 84 grant proposal” which would allow the state government to help fund efforts made for waterway and natural resource protection. However, financial problems in the state were “very acute” in 2008 which halted Proposition 84 funding.
Since then, the Quail Project had been discontinued.
There is a wild turkey that can be found in the area between the Children’s School and Prospect Hill and has been spotted many times by students. The turkey is also female according to the description given by AllAboutBirds.org, a website run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that noted the lack of a bristly “beard” on the chest in female turkeys that are commonly found on males which is the case with the turkey spotted at Mills. There are flocks of turkeys in the East Bay regional park system and that could be where the turkey at Mills came from.
“She’s just seen periodically, we don’t do anything,” Zitzner said. “She just does what she does.”
Zitzner also mentioned the female deer that can be found on campus roaming around the Corporation Yard, which is located at the end of Pine Top Road. Zitzner suspected that the deer came down from the creek bed at Lake Aliso and
said that the doe is generally left alone.
“I think [the doe] is up there a lot because my staff is growing a garden and so it’s easy pickings,” Zitzner said.
What you can do to help
The general rule is to avoid the wildlife at all times. As Tolliver instructed, there should be “no feeding, no getting close, no interaction at all.”
Tolliver cautioned students to “be aware…that these are wild animals. All they need is for you to feed them one time and now they’re hooked. They think everybody will want to feed them.”
Zitzner said students should avoid treating wild animals as “cute” pets. Tolliver said young furbearers are the ones students should avoid the most. A young raccoon, like the one he caught near Ross House, may appear “friendly” because “he’s young and he’s not sure what to do.”
“If I were to put my hand in here, he would tear it up,” Tolliver said.
Niviece Robinson, the Director of Public Safety whose department sometimes receives phone calls about wild animals, also echoes the same sentiment about leaving wildlife alone since human interaction can be both harmful to people and the animals.
“We noticed that some students…want to feed the squirrels…and it’s not good for the animal because they’re eating human food. We may have squirrels who [would] go into the Tea Shop…and it’s unsanitary,” Robinson said, wary of the contamination squirrels can cause and the diseases students could get, such as rabies.
If a student comes across furbearers, Zitzner advised that they should either send in a work order, message Campus Facilities at firstname.lastname@example.org, or email her directly at email@example.com by providing the specific location of the sighting.
“We set traps where we think [furbearers] are but it’s a lot better when people report a sighting to me and that way I can actually have [the trapper] set up in that area,” Zitzner said.
What Zitzner has been gathering a group of “animal detectives” to look for skunks and raccoons. She currently has about five staff members who walk across campus in the evening when nocturnal furbearers come out, and then report their sightings to her. Many of the staff members in the group live at Faculty Village and have dogs to help “ferret out” skunks and raccoons. The sighted animals are usually caught by Tolliver within a few days.
“I don’t have any students that are reporting right now but I would love it [if they joined in],” Zitzner said.
If the situation is avoidable, say a furbearer is in front of the doorway of a dormitory, Robinson advised students to just “wait” until the animal moves away on their own.
Tolliver said students should just walk away in the opposite direction and not show “any signs of aggression,” especially if they come across a group of raccoons.
“I’d hate for some student [to be] smoking a cigarette on the stump outside and the mama’s coming this way and you move and she thinks you’re after her babies and now we have an altercation,” Tolliver said.
In all his years of experience, Tolliver had never been directly ‘skunked’ but there were a few times in which he was the indirect recipient of a skunk’s residual odor, which can be carried by the wind and can cling onto clothing. If students were ever in a similar situation, Tolliver suggested letting the breeze blow past you for a little bit and the smell will dissipate.
But it is a different story if students ever get a direct hit.
“You’re gonna be smelling like skunk for the next couple of days,” Tolliver said, laughing. “I don’t care how much cleansing you do. You can do the tomato juice. Or you’re gonna be overly perfumed [but] Chanel No. 5 is just not going to cover it up.”
The precaution Tolliver said those students should have taken was staying away from the furbearers in the first place.
If a student is bitten, scratched or attacked in any way by a wild animal on campus, Robinson said they should immediately call Public Safety at 510.430.5555 so the officers could get in touch with the appropriate services to help treat the injuries.
If students are interested in environmental conservation and preserving natural habitats for native wildlife at Mills, the Sustainability Coordinator Britta Bullard said the Mills Sustainability Committee will be hosting a creek restoration event on Friday, Oct. 25 at 1 p.m. at the Leona Creek site near the Oval. Bullard said the calendar on the Sustainability webpage will be updated soon with more upcoming events, such as planting native shrubs on campus like the toyon.
Contact Bullard at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.