Where The Wild Things Are
Updated: Jun 1, 2019
Written by Keith Gore Wiseman | Photographed by Joe Worthem
When things go bump in the night, an intrepid trapper comes to the rescue.
Critters don’t care about the status of a neighborhood, but they do care about location. Just as Oxford’s friendly neighborhoods and watering holes draw people into town from far and wide, they also draw wild animals.
Squirrels, opossums and ground hogs move into residential areas looking for a quiet place to settle down and raise their families — their own noise and mess aside. Predators like coyotes and bobcats come solely for the night life.
So maybe it’s not too surprising that a few years ago a coyote took up residence in the woods behind Lisa and Richard Howorth’s house just off the Square, probably drawn to the location by the neighborhood’s cats.
“Having a coyote right here in town seemed weird, but we live right by the cemetery and one of the bigger wooded patches, so we have all kinds of wildlife,” Lisa Howorth said. “Polina Wheeler who lived behind us discovered the remains of two pet cats. And then the sightings began.”
The coyote was wily of course, and what to do about him was certainly a quandary — until Howorth and her neighbor called Mike Merchant of Wildlife Resolutions.
A native of Scott County, Merchant has a degree in agriculture from the University of Tennessee at Martin, and previously worked as a wildlife biologist technician with USDA Wildlife Services. He founded Wildlife Resolutions in 2009, putting his lifelong interest in animals (and hankering for the occasional adrenaline rush) to good use. Affectionately known as “The Legend” to former clients, Merchant climbs to frightening heights, squeezes into tomblike spaces and occasionally endures a coyote bite to rid good folks of those pesky critters that move in uninvited and make bad housemates or neighbors.
“I like to wear the white hat, to be the good guy, and to people who are not accustomed to wild animals, I get to play that role,” Merchant said. “A little animal like a squirrel seems much bigger when it is scratching its way through your walls or chewing your electrical wires, so when I am able to relocate even such a small animal, people can’t seem to praise my work enough. They become friends, like family.”
While each job is unique, Merchant’s goal is always a quick response to limit damage, a safe relocation of the wild animal into an appropriate habitat and an end result of savings, safety and peace of mind for the client.
“Wild animals are opportunists, seeking access to shelter, consistent food sources and protection from predators,” Merchant said. “So, they will find or make openings in built structures as they would in a hollow tree or under a rock to create a dry safe space. Add a consistent food source nearby, and the animals will come.”
The coyote behind the Howorths’ house proved to be particularly difficult to catch. Merchant, who tried all that spring to trap the animal, said coyotes know how to avoid humans. They usually work at night, and catching one is not easy.
For three months, the elusive animal dodged the commercial lures and traps he set to attract the coyote.
“My ego was battered and my reputation on the line but worst of all, now some of [the Howorths’] neighbor’s pets were disappearing in the area,” Merchant said. “The coyote was becoming more bold, even being spotted some in the daylight.”
Indeed, summer came, and the coyote made a surprise appearance at a special event at the Howorths’ house.
“People kept seeing the coyote and keeping their cats inside,” Howorth said. “And then during our daughter’s backyard wedding reception, he came trotting up to the party along the catering line. One of the guests from New York said, ‘Look at that weird dog!’ And one of the Mississippi folks responded ‘That’s a coyote.’”
In the fall, Merchant got back on the case, and this time he had a new plan.
“Coyotes are territorial and mark their claims with urine,” Merchant said. “To draw this one for trapping, I had to mimic a competing male by marking over his claimed space so that he would emerge to reclaim and protect that space.”
Because the commercial imitations of male coyote urine had failed, Merchant instead collected the real thing from another coyote he had captured. Eventually, that solution along with a customized padded foot trap allowed Merchant to capture the animal, get him into a cage safely and relocate him far from town.
Merchant’s work is tricky, can be dangerous and is certainly not something the untrained should attempt. Additionally, there are laws regarding who can trap animals, and it is illegal to trap animals classified as game (including raccoons, opossums and squirrels) out of season unless the trapper has a nuisance wildlife relocation permit, which allows the removal of any animal anytime, except endangered species.
“People love wild animals, until they become bad housemates,” Merchant said. “They will chew just about anything, are noisy and smelly, sometimes carry disease, and affect a homeowner’s sense of security. At the same time, no one wants to see animals hurt, so I have to be very careful in catching, transporting and releasing them to satisfy the client and the animal.”
Howorth said reluctantly that it may be time to call Merchant again, because “Homer” the woodchuck has taken up residence nearby. Even more brazen than the coyote, Homer waddles up to eat plants in her yard — good ones like zinnias, hollyhocks and daylilies — and even saunters up the back steps to eat potted plants on the deck.
Whether Homer will be evicted remains to be seen, but it’s no surprise that Merchant’s business is booming. In its first five years in operation, Wildlife Resolutions served more than 500 clients, but in 2018 alone, almost 300 people called for help.
“Mike Merchant is professional and persistent,” Howorth said. “It may take a while, but he always gets his man.”
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