Jim Sheffield, a licensed animal trapper, thinks that Berrien County's Animal Control Department is "killing with kindness."
And when you do that, Mother Nature takes over and not-so-nice things can happen, according to Sheffield, who operates Awesome Critter Gitters in Niles.
"There's more to it than hooking up a trap and setting it out," Sheffield said. "You can't go into someone's house with pets and children and not know what you're doing. And I guarantee that no one in the county knows what they're doing."
Lt. Joe Thayer, with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, disagrees, and says that Berrien County animal control officers are capable of handling most wildlife situations.
Berrien County Animal Control has a DNR Wildlife Damage and Nuisance Control Permit.
Obtaining the permit requires additional training for officers, Thayer said. "You have to prove you know what you're doing."
He said that the training is more rigorous than what would be required for a nuisance control company just starting up.
"They're more than qualified," Thayer said of the Berrien County officers.
The DNR permit allows animal control to "upon verifying a complaint of damage or nuisance, effect control measures at any time of year within ... the dwelling house, associated buildings, and associated yard used for domestic purposes."
It allows animal control officers to remove "bats that are not threatened or endangered; coyote, fox, weasels, mink, raccoon, skunk, opossum, woodchuck, badger, muskrat, squirrels, ground squirrels, rabbits, English sparrows, feral pigeons, starlings, and crows."
The permit further states: "All animals, which the permittee is authorized to take, shall be taken and disposed of in a manner to ensure humane handling or killing."
Sheffield, who has been trapping animals since he was a teenager, does not think that county employees are qualified or equipped to do that job adequately.
One of the unintended consequences of trapping animals, such as raccoons, is that the mother could be removed, leaving the babies behind to starve and dehydrate, Sheffield said.
Sheffield explained that he and his crews have the experience and the equipment to go into an attic and discover whether offspring remain.
He uses a $4,000 infrared camera to detect, through body heat, anything living inside walls or under floorboards. "I can see termites with this."
A probe with a camera at the end Sheffield calls a "sea snake" can see under boards and other tight spaces.
Another handy device is useful in finding dead animals.
"We use our noses for that," Sheffield said.
He shared that he has a method for getting the mother to bring the baby coons out of the nest, that he declined to reveal as a proprietary trade secret.
If the young animals are found, Sheffield said he releases them together with the mother in one of six designated areas he uses that provide enough food and water.
The DNR's Thayer said he is confident that Berrien County's officers know how to respond to a complaint without leaving any animals behind, and he was not aware of any problems along that line.
Vote of confidence
Along with the DNR, Berrien County Animal Control and its director, Val Grimes, have the full confidence of county Administrator Bill Wolf.
Wolf said he trusts the judgment of Grimes and her fully deputized officers, some of whom he said are "extremely experienced."
"I value Val in that she uses her discretion and does it well," Wolf said. "She doesn't need someone looking over her shoulder. She's good at taking care of people and has a love of animals."
In his 11 years on the job "I haven't been surprised or disappointed" in Animal Control, Wolf said.
At the request of county commissioners, their attorney, James McGovern, reviewed the ordinances dictating the functions of the animal control department.
McGovern reported in a memo to county commissioners that the animal control ordinance adopted in 1996, and amended in 2004, does not specifically require or authorize removing wildlife or feral cats in response to citizen complaints, but it does not prohibit it, either.
McGovern noted that "it is important to know that there are no state or federal statutes that prohibit Animal Control from responding to citizen calls for capturing, relocating, or taking in feral cats or wildlife."
Wolf commented that Berrien County's animal control "is a little more of a robust operation" than other counties, and does more things. "I've come to see how much the public appreciates these services."
McGovern is working on an update of the animal control ordinance, but Wolf said that is not likely to affect general operations.
Staying the course
Many Michigan counties also have gotten out of the wildlife removal business. Thayer said that Berrien is the only animal control department in his 11-county district that responds to wildlife complaints.
"Most counties have decided they have enough to do and would rather not deal with it," Thayer said. "Some counties respond on a limited basis, but they are not as proactive as Berrien County."
That means more calls to his office, Thayer said. They refer about 90 percent of those residents to licensed and insured private companies, particularly if an animal has gotten into an attic or foundation.
For some of the counties, animal control officers operate under the supervision of sheriff's departments, and shelters are managed by the health department.
This fall Wolf recommended that Berrien's animal control officers should only trap wildlife that is sick or injured, or an animal that has injured a person or someone's pet.
Five counties that Wolf surveyed - Kent, Muskegon, Allegan, Jackson and Kalamazoo - do not pick up wild animals or stray cats.
Wolf questioned why the county should continue to bear the expense of catching and euthanizing these animals "and suffer the wrath" of those who advocate for a no-kill shelter, if it is not required.
But Grimes disagreed, and the Board of Commissioners opted not to make any changes.
Barring a budget downturn, Wolf does not anticipate that Berrien County will change its animal control operations any time soon.
"We will continue to take care of our citizens, as long as we can afford it," Wolf said.
"Berrien County has been helpful, there's no doubt about that," Thayer said. "We have a good working relationship with Berrien County, and they are always happy to work with us."
Contact: [email protected], 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak