Who You Gonna Call?

Who You Gonna Call?

When animals cause a ruckus on the island, the wildlife response team leaps into action.

Photography by GABRIEL HANWAY

After the third report in a week, Yank Moore didn’t know what to do about the raccoon with a mayonnaise jar on its head. The animal, after rooting around in some islander’s garbage, had been spotted several times near the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) headquarters in the Historic District. Moore and his conservation team had set traps in and around the scene. Still, they couldn’t catch the beast and relieve it of its plastic headwear.

Luckily, the wily creature had figured out a way to get water inside the jar so it could drink. But Moore thought it far less likely that the animal could eat. If someone didn’t intervene quickly, then, the odds of the raccoon’s survival were slim.

In other words, it was just another day for the JIA’s Wildlife Response Team.

An American alligator found on the beach is secured and relocated.

The Wildlife Response Team works with the public on Jekyll to preserve and protect one of the island’s most valuable resources; its animals. Moore, JIA’s Director of Conservation, and his fellow biologists, land managers, ecologists, and rangers have a mission to look out for the island’s flora and fauna and keep them in harmony with the human residents. But the team can’t have eyes everywhere. That’s why visitors, businesses, and residents are encouraged to call or submit online reports regarding any incidents with birds, reptiles, mammals, or amphibians.

JIA Wildlife Biologist Joseph Colbert says team members don’t answer calls like they’re 911 operators, “but we listen to messages, take down everyone’s information, and figure out who the best person is to answer the call. Sometimes the response is a text, sometimes it’s a callback, and sometimes it’s in-person. Each call is different.”

The reports of the poor jar-headed raccoon, unable to squirm free of its predicament, called for expert intervention. “We tend to let nature be nature: This is a state park,” says Moore. “But if the injury is caused by [an interaction with] humans, we intervene and try to manage the situation.”  When the team got wind of a real-time sighting of the raccoon—treed near a JIA warehouse—and knowing that its life might be at stake, the Wildlife Response Team leaped into action.

Of course, not every call to the Wildlife Response Team is a matter of life and death. Once Moore and Colbert responded to a report of a guinea pig in someone’s yard to find that, sure enough, someone on the island had lost a pet. On another occasion, Moore rushed to the fishing pier to catch a cockatiel that had been released by an owner. It’s now a feathery ambassador for the JIA. 

Some reports end up as false alarms. “Some turn out to be what they claim to be,” says Moore. “And some are as far-fetched as you can imagine.”

Sometimes, callers can misinterpret what they see. The most common false alarms tend to be “wounded” birds that are probably just stunned from flying into a window, or raptors that are on the ground hunting prey. Those are usually gone by the time the team arrives. Inevitably, too, every raccoon sighted automatically is “rabid.” 

And when it comes to reptiles, the reported sizes tend to skew wide of the mark one way or another. People tend to underestimate the size of alligators, possibly because they are partially obscured by murky water or pondside vegetation, while snake sizes are usually exaggerated. “They see a two-foot snake and swear it’s some sort of 12-foot Burmese Python,” says Colbert. “It’s interesting what fear does to people.”

Raccoon trapped and safely relocated by the Wildlife Response Team.

The Wildlife Response Team takes every call seriously and always responds. It’s common courtesy and sound customer service, but it’s also to encourage people to continue reporting what they see. It takes an island to help the conservation team do its job. Every call or online submission could contain something helpful.

In general, calls tend to fall into one of three categories: an injured animal, an animal threatening a person and/or itself, or a rare or priority species that someone has spotted.

In the case of a wounded creature, the team can do only so much. If it’s a beached sea turtle, the team will pass on the information to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Otherwise, the team tends to let nature take its course, unless the injury is so serious that the animal has little hope of recovery. In those instances, the team may euthanize. “We don’t like doing it,” says Moore. “But you don’t want to see the animal suffer.”

Director of Conservation, Yank Moore with tools of the trade.

When it comes to human-animal encounters, the team has to deal with two primary invaders, both of whom are attracted to people who feed them against ordinances, and both of whom are considered dangerous for very different reasons. First, alligators dwell peacefully in the island’s freshwater lagoons or ponds, but they can get bold and tend to “beg at the table” like dogs. And if someone throws them a bone just once, they’ll come back for seconds. The more comfortable they get, the more likely they are to attack. The Wildlife Response Team is equipped to handle gators of all sizes.

The other common beggar is the raccoon, which is much cuter than its scaly neighbors but no less dangerous. Raccoons can carry diseases, like rabies, that can spread to pets and other people. 

If the team determines that a caller has been in contact with any suspect animal, they call the health department for guidance, which may include expediting testing.

When someone sees an invasive species (say coyotes or feral hogs, though hogs, so far, have been kept off the island), or spots a bobcat or a rattlesnake (which are subjects of a long-term predator monitoring program), those sightings are considered especially important. Those reports help Moore and his team keep track of new populations that might tip the delicate balance of the vibrant island ecosystem.

Team members measure an American alligator caught crossing a road.

The call about the raccoon with the jar on its head fell squarely into the category of an injured, in-trouble animal. If the beast wouldn’t allow Moore and Colbert to help, though, the two experienced outdoorsmen brought along a rifle. “We didn’t want it to starve to death,” says Moore.

Colbert spotted the little guy about 20 feet up in an oak tree, where he noticed a space between the top of the jar and the top of the raccoon’s head. Moore estimated that he was a good 40 yards away, and at an awkward angle, too. But the background and the surrounding area were clear of people. Moore got into position. “We knew the gun and ammo; we considered the aim and the angle; and we took our time,” Moore says. He squeezed the trigger.

Through his binoculars, Colbert saw that his partner had nicked a good two-inch chunk off the top of the plastic jar, enough that the raccoon could tear off the rest. “It scared the daylights out of the raccoon,” Moore says. “But by the time we left, we didn’t see a jar on its head.” 

Wildlife Emergency?

The Jekyll Island Authority Wildlife Response Team can be reached at 912-222-5992. Leave a message or text. The team is especially interested in sightings of rattlesnakes, coyotes, or feral hogs. You can also submit a detailed report online, including the location of your sightings. For any life-threatening contact with an injured or sick animal, dial 911.

This article first appeared in Volume 7 Number 1 of 31•81, the Magazine of Jekyll Island.

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