Haul of the Wild : City Airlift Takes Animals Caught in the Urban Sprawl Back to Nature

Times Staff Writer

For months, Bob and Emily Collins wondered about the nightly pitter-patter across the roof of their Coldwater Canyon home. They also pondered the new divots that appeared in their lawn each morning and the sections of sod that were neatly rolled back. It looked almost as if a gardener were at work.

At first, they were afraid that their house had fallen victim to a rat or termite infestation, but inspectors found nothing.

Then one evening in early March, the Collinses spotted one of their cats staring through the front screen door at a raccoon, which was staring back.

Little did the Collinses suspect that within three months, the raccoon would join a shipment of wild animals on a helicopter ride to a new and remote mountain home, courtesy of the City of Los Angeles.

"I didn't want them caught and killed," Emily Collins said of two raccoons that were trapped in cages and removed from her Kimridge Road residence. "Thank God for the airlift."

Since the airlift began in 1969, the city has moved about 7,700 wild animals--including an occasional deer, fox, bobcat, great horned owl and nonpoisonous snake--to carefully selected locations north of the city. More than 700 animals have been transported from Los Angeles to the wilds during the past year. The airlift not only solves the problems created when development encroaches on the homes of raccoon, opossum and bobcat, but it also gives wildlife a second chance, said Thomas R. Walsh, who supervises the operation for the Department of Animal Regulation in the San Fernando Valley.

"If we had to discontinue the program, we would have to destroy the animals," Walsh said.

The city releases wild animals at more than a dozen locations, most of them in Angeles National Forest. To qualify, each site must have a year-round water supply, adequate food sources and foliage cover, Walsh said.

The department prefers to leave wild animals in neighborhoods because they play important roles in rodent and insect control, Walsh said. But raccoons can wreak havoc, digging up lawns and gardens for insects and burrowing through wood-shingle, wood-shake and composition roofs into attics, which serve as excellent daytime shelters.

"They'll chew through the roof and set up housekeeping," Walsh said. "By the time the rains come, the damage has been done."

Bobcats, although extremely wary of humans and pets, occasionally feed on poultry, he said. Opossums, in contrast, cause little real trouble, but often make up the bulk of an airlift because they suffer from a serious image problem.

Rat-Like Appearance

"The opossum scares people because it looks like a giant rat," Walsh said.

At least twice each month, animal control officers from the department's six animal shelters converge on the city hangar at Van Nuys Airport to deposit their caged collections. The most recent trip, June 12, included 19 opossums, six raccoons and a bobcat.

The West Los Angeles animal shelter contributed four opossums--captured in Westchester and Mar Vista--and a raccoon trapped at the Collins residence three days earlier. Opossums are surfacing throughout the Westside, but raccoons still live almost exclusively in hillside communities such as Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades and the Hollywood Hills.

As the veil of fog lifted from the San Fernando Valley, the officers preparing for last week's flight stacked 16 cages and boxes two deep in the cabin of the Bell Ranger helicopter. Then they carefully placed two more cages--one holding the bobcat and the other a light-haired "senior citizen" opossum--on top of the others.

The only moment of wild-eyed panic for the animals came as pilot Ray Schutte started the whining jet engine. But as the helicopter gained altitude over tract homes and swimming pools, the raccoons curled up in their cages and the opossums wrapped their tails around cage wiring and closed their eyes, apparently lulled to sleep by the rhythmic whoosh of the rotary blades.

Uncomfortable Ride

Only the bobcat remained defiant. Crouched in its temporary cell, the feline scowled, huffed, hissed and growled, and a line of drool dangled from its jaw. Weighing 12 pounds and about the size of a domestic cat, the bobcat had been captured in a walk-in trap in Woodland Hills, Walsh said.

Twenty minutes after takeoff, Schutte brought the aircraft into a clearing bordered by a stand of pine about 40 yards from a meandering, shallow creek populated by six-inch rainbow trout--a good food source for the raccoons. A gentle wind carried the fragrances of pine and sage.

"This is about as isolated as you can get," Walsh said as he surveyed the terrain. "Now we won't come back here for a couple months." The release point is about 50 miles northwest of the San Fernando Valley along the border of Los Angeles and Ventura counties and miles from the nearest paved road. Walsh asked that the exact spot be kept secret to protect the wild animals.

"The most dangerous thing for them out here is guy with a six-pack of beer and a .357 magnum," Walsh said.

Sought Shelter

Animal control officer trainees Annetta Reeff and Eric Gardner set the cages and boxes on the ground in a rough semicircle about 10 yards from the helicopter. Gardner lifted the doors to free the opossums, but many preferred the cages to the new surroundings. Coaxing didn't work, so Gardner carried out the reluctant ones by the tail, and they wandered off seeking shelter in the brush.

Next to go were the raccoons, which dashed one by one across the clearing toward the water, where, Walsh said, they probably would wash before climbing nearby trees.

Finally, the bobcat stepped into freedom, eyed its captors and loped off. Walsh tossed a small stone in its direction, and the bobcat bounded over rocks, jumped the creek, trotted up the far side and disappeared.

Half an hour later, as the helicopter returned to civilization and cruised into a brown layer of smog 800 feet above the San Fernando Valley floor, Walsh offered an observation on the intercom.

"We put the animals out in the fresh air, and then we come back to this," he said. "There must be a moral there somewhere."

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