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Where the Wild Things Are

Possum in the basement? Skunk in the yard? Bill Andrews is the man to call.



By Rose Spinelli

It's 9 AM and Bill Andrews has already completed his first tour of duty for the day. A coyote is on the loose. Earlier, the Evanston Animal Shelter received four fretful calls from citizens who reported seeing it near Perkins Woods, just next to the playground at Lincolnwood School. To nab it, Andrews set a live trap with a whole chicken as bait. So far, he's only managed to snare a couple of hungry cats and an opossum.

Andrews's tan uniform is a little rumpled. His Blackhawks baseball cap is pitched severely forward, as if he's just emerged from groggy hibernation. Country music fills the morning air, and the caterwauling of hopeful adoptees provides a screechy harmony as he makes his way through a foyer lined with wall pockets, each containing flyers and newsletters with such titles as "Catnip" and "Animal Crackers" and heralding wisdom on such topics as "Declawing: Delight or Despair?"

Andrews has been chief animal warden for Evanston for the last 23 years. At 50, he's been doing this work for almost half his life. His job mostly involves patrolling the streets, enforcing city ordinances, and responding to citizens' concerns and complaints regarding all manner of wildlife and domesticated animals, dead or alive.

Indisputably dead is the condition in which he finds many of the hunted by the time he gets to them. Because our furry friends have never quite gotten the hang of sharing the road with the human interlopers who mow them down with such abandon, last year alone Chicago's Bureau of Road and Control picked up a reported 7,600 dead animals. Evanston's estimate comes in at about 600 per year. Considering Chicago spans 228 square miles to Evanston's 8.5, that makes Bill Andrews a busy man. "Roadkill, yeah," he says. "I think I got a dead dog in the back of my truck right now." A canine hit and run. They call them DOAs.

He heads into his office to resume his daily routine of newspaper reading and call taking. As protector of the community, Andrews is on call 24 hours a day, keeping a constant vigil to ensure that the streets and roadways remain well-groomed and critter-free. The balance of his efforts involves handling the necessary bureaucratic paperwork, a task he finds as unpleasant as most might find mollifying an irate skunk. Still, Andrews says about 75 percent of his work is public relations. Judging from some of the curious calls he fields as part of a day's work, that calculation could probably be ratcheted up a bit.

The phone rings and a petite blond woman wearing the same tan attire picks up. Andrews checks off his appointments for today. "Oh, let's see here," he says, consulting a yellow sheet of paper torn from a legal pad. "Looks like we got a raccoon trapped in a church basement and an opossum stuck in a--"

"What color is it, sir?" asks Linda Teckler into the receiver. She speaks loudly and enunciates like a first-grade teacher. "Does it have a white stripe along its back? Uh-huh . . . But does it have a white? . . . OK, I got that, but does it have a stripe? . . . It has a white stripe along its back? OK, and what's the address?" She takes the information down and hands it gamely to Andrews, who adds it to his list.

For 14 years Teckler has been Andrews's partner in the business of animal control. Before that she was a police officer working in personnel and hoping for a transfer. Though Teckler had no professional experience with animals to speak of, Andrews says he hired her because "she was the only one who passed the lie-detector test."

Though he's her supervisor, Andrews insists he's set up an egalitarian system of responding to calls, each doing at least one daily round solo and one as a team. Then they divvy up the rest of the calls. But now there seems to be an exception to this rule. Skunks are the largest carriers of rabies and by state law must be destroyed when captured. Without a word, it's understood that Andrews will do the dirty work.

He pulls out his .22-caliber revolver, puts a couple of slugs into the cylinder, and returns it to its leather holster. After some cajoling under an ample belly, he finds the right spot to snap it onto his belt. Mornings are hectic at the shelter, and before he has a chance to head out the phone rings again. This time Teckler probes a citizen on the particulars of a strange bird sighting in the city parking garage on Benson Avenue. She hangs up. "Woman says she saw a bird with a big body, long legs, and a tiny head." Sounds a lot like an ostrich, but Andrews makes a more sensible guess. "Maybe it's a crane," he says. Whatever it is, it looks like he's got his work cut out for him. Armed and ready, he leaves Teckler to her own paperwork and morning coffee.

Andrews heads through the back of the shelter--bustling with volunteers cleaning cages, placating yelps, soothing whimpers, and dispensing breakfast--to the Ford F250 pickup, the official limousine to the animal kingdom. Some serious business seems to be conducted out of this vehicle. All around lie the instruments of containment. There are leather leashes strewn in the backseat, a fishnet used to catch smaller animals like squirrels, a catch-all pole with a cabled noose, and a blowgun. A foot-long flashlight is at the ready and a stiff and soiled leather baseball glove sits mysteriously on the hump above the transmission.

A brief inspection of the back of the truck reveals a raccoon whose battle was likely lost to a Michelin, and a couple of dismembered squirrels, all lying lifelessly on the floor and looking remarkably like furry beef jerky. There are also a couple of buckets for the messier business. In a storage room behind the shelter there's a deep freezer that serves as a roadkill holding tank. Once a month a service comes to take the flattened creatures away for final disposal.

Soon Andrews pulls up to a vast stone church sprawled over a generous patch of property for his first stop, a raccoon eviction. He rounds the back of the truck, where something unnatural is affixed haphazardly, something you'd be more likely to find in a grocery store refrigerator. Clinging just under the tailgate, in a vivid illustration of the raw materials of the animal warden's trade, is a large sticky smear of brownish red viscera. Unconcerned, Andrews has already shot ahead and is gathering details about the raccoon from the groundskeeper on duty. In no time, Andrews begins to work his way into a small dark doorway leading to a basement. With no light to guide him, his safety seems compromised; in the dark a gun is useless, but Andrews probes anyway.

After some tense moments, he emerges empty-handed. He's been stood up. The men discuss the last sighting and possible escape routes, and finally Andrews agrees to return if necessary. Heading back to the truck, he responds offhandedly to the dried-up entrails stuck to the truck. "Oh," he chuckles, "sometimes Linda misses." He climbs in without bothering to scrape it off.

An unlikely career path led Andrews to his present role as guardian of all things four-legged. After working as a lab technician and forklift operator and then doing a stint in the Marines, he spent four years as an auditor for an insurance agency. A free spirit in search of his true calling, he credits his career change ambiguously to the fact that he had long hair at the time and grew tired of all the traveling. The first time he applied for the warden's position he was turned down for being overqualified. So he took off for California on his motorcycle and accepted a low-paying job at Sea World cutting up fish. A year later the job opened up again; back in Evanston, he reapplied. The police captain in charge told him he'd hire him for his persistence but predicted he wouldn't last. "That guy ended up leaving shortly after, burnt out," he says.

To the twangy strains of US 99, Andrews zigzags through the streets of Evanston, which he knows blindfolded, to confront an intemperate opossum. He arrives in southwest Evanston at the house taken hostage by the critter. An anxious woman awaits with tales of its mischief and points Andrews in the right direction. After one swift step into a window well, he bends over, maneuvers his body, and traps the opossum up against the wall. In moments, as gracefully as if he were pulling a rabbit out of a hat, he swoops up a flapping opossum dangling by its tail. Surrendering it to the outdoors, he sets it down, and the opossum beats a hasty retreat.

Heading out to his next call, Andrews exhibits an incisive command over his realm. In midsentence he stops the truck suddenly, gets out grabbing the glove beside him, and zeros in on a species of fauna on the road that's been reduced to a soupy silhouette. To remove it, he opens the back door of the truck, then mops, gathers, tosses, mops, gathers, tosses, using the glove as you would a Handi Wipe. Returning to the truck, he throws the glove carelessly inside and gives his itchy nose a scratch. The glove is too much of a bother to wear, it appears. "Linda wears it," he says. Impishly he adds, "I guess I'm known for picking up roadkill with one hand and eating a doughnut with the other."

The laid-back approach Andrews takes to handling animals would seem to make him a likely candidate for rabies. "Naw," he says with a head toss. "I don't bother with rabies shots anymore." The response from Dr. Donald Roberts, a veterinarian at McCormick Animal Hospital, which works closely with the shelter, is reassuring. Though Andrews shows positive antibodies against the disease, he says, this puts him in no particular danger. In fact, if he does get bitten by a rabid animal, all his previous inoculations should prevent him from becoming infected, since they've worked to build a positive titer, or immunity, to any further exposure. Yet to see Andrews in action, it's probably not this assurance that accounts for his prowess.

Still, danger comes with the territory, and finding a mate who's able to cope with its hazards seems like a good idea. Witness his eight-year marriage to the animal warden for the village of Skokie and their improbable fairy-tale courtship: Girl adopts from boy what she's told is a male cat. Cat gets pregnant. Girl returns threatening to sue boy. Boy teaches girl more about animal control. Girl becomes animal warden too. Boy marries girl. Years later, though now divorced, they've still got enough in common, including two boys (one of whom Andrews adopted from her previous marriage), that they can talk turkey all the time.

Next the pickup pulls up to a brick bungalow. The complainant is a man with whom the shelter has been working for some time in an effort to a catch a skunk with a trap the facility has rented him. The man greets Andrews at the door and proudly directs him to the cage where he's finally caught it. When he sees the trap, Andrews gives out a little groan. "Sir, what you got yourself here is an opossum." "What? You mean that's not a skunk?" the man asks sheepishly. "No, skunks have a white stripe running down their back," Andrews reminds him. "Oh, man. Really? Isn't that a stripe?" he asks, pointing to a very gray animal. "No sir, it's not." Andrews patiently takes the caged opossum and escorts it into the truck to be set free later in a field behind the shelter. He's off to the scene of the unusual bird sighting at the city parking garage. The caravan, in the meantime, grows more ghoulish as the opossum is obliged to share quarters with its squashed cronies.

Andrews paints a grim picture of the early days in the animal control department when the shelter operated out of a run-down horse stable. Conditions were so spartan that both dogs and cats were fed from the same ten-cent cans of dog food purchased from the local grocery store. The animals slept and relieved themselves on the same torn-up newspapers. At that time, the Anti-Cruelty Society of Evanston was responsible for euthanizing unadopted animals, and methods were, in fact, decidedly cruel. Practices included systematic electrocution, suffocation by ether, and roundups to a decompression chamber. To spare them their demise, Andrews began playing Santa, taking weekend trips to a farmer's market loaded down with boxes of giveaway puppies and kittens. Conditions quickly improved when a local paper published an expose titled "The Evanston Death Wagon." He was then able to lobby for quality food and adequate supplies and, eventually, the present facility on Oakton. Shortly after, the operation expanded further to include C.A.R.E., the shelter's volunteer-run animal adoption program.

Today the dogs and cats live high on the hog by comparison and aren't euthanized unless they're ill. Animals are usually kept for adoption for 45 days, and that's often extended for another 30, in which time a big-hearted volunteer will often opt to adopt. In all, the survival rate is good. Only 4 percent of the animals are euthanized--all under humane conditions by a vet. Contrast that with the less-welcomed "clientele" in Chicago's facility, who are given lodging and care for only one week. Of the 31,800 animals "processed" last year, 2,500 were adopted, 1,500 were claimed, and the remainder were put to sleep. That comes to an average of 76 animals euthanized per day.

The parking-garage investigation reveals yet another false alarm. The reported ostrich, to the eyes of an attendant on duty, looked to be "about the size of a pigeon." Thwarted again. But Andrews is not surprised--the public seems to have an inordinate fear of birds, he says, and identifies the suspected culprit. "If Alfred Hitchcock weren't dead, I'd kill him myself."

With the scheduled calls finished, all that's left are routine checkup calls, including one more search for the wayward coyote. But first a slow drive by the tot lot, where parents frequently complain that owners unlawfully allow their dogs to frolic unleashed. Today all life forms seem to be bipeds, however, give or take a teetering toddler. He gives a reassuring nod to the moms and drives off in the direction of a house once occupied by seven rottweilers, five of them puppies. This visit turns out to be more nostalgia than business. The animals were found living in squalid conditions, and of the seven only the adults are still alive. Here Andrews grows glum. Shortly after the young puppies were confiscated, they were diagnosed with parvovirus, an intestinal disease that's deadly if not diagnosed early. It was too late to save them, and the entire litter had to be euthanized. "I feel just rotten about it," he says as he drives slowly away. He makes his way in silence for a bit until the mood changes suddenly.

Andrews sits up. He's spotted something! What? It's a black Lab running--could it be?--freely! He hits the gas and turns the corner in the direction of the reckless dog, which looks like it's been out to relieve its bladder. But it's the owner, a teenage boy now summoning the dog, with whom Andrews has a bone to pick. He stops the truck and calls out, "Can I talk to you a minute?" The boy looks around hesitantly. "It's against the law to let your dog loose without a lead," he reprimands in a solid authoritarian voice. "Next time I'll have to give you a ticket. Understand?" The boy nods, chastened, and disappears with his Lab.

The warm sun and rising temperatures always invite a healthy measure of friskiness. As protector of the great outdoors, Andrews knows these days come with their share of scofflaws. Because you never know where trouble lurks, no territory is off-limits to the official animal control vehicle. He cuts over grass and cruises by a little patch of beach just below the Evanston Art Center to find his suspicions confirmed. Another unleashed dog, another patient explanation about the ordinance forbidding such conduct. This violator, however, seems unrepentant and says he's not from the area. Andrews lets him off with a firm warning and an order to remove the dog from the streets immediately. This seems unduly lenient; it's clear his alibi is fishy. "That's OK," says Andrews. "I remember 'em all." If it happens again he'll issue what he calls an "attitude ticket." "I'm willing to work with people, but I've got a job to do. People don't understand that." He follows the man for a ways, slowly and deliberately, just to make his presence felt. But disorder is still in the air. Not more than a minute later, he spies a man pushing a shopping cart with an unleashed dog at his side. "Put a leash on 'im," Andrews calls out. The startled man nods and salutes obediently.

Finally, the time has come to take one more drive through Perkins Woods to check on the coyote. On the way, westbound on Central Avenue, Andrews again exhibits his roadkill radar. Traffic is growing heavy, making it tough to collect the remains. Instead he files the sightings one by one, in his mental roadkill Rolodex, saying, "I'll go back for them later."

In the woods, light and shadow make felled tree trunks look like slumbering coyote, boulders like ambushing coyote. In the end, though, all's quiet, and Andrews is relieved. "If I don't find a coyote, that means that he hasn't been bothering anybody, and if he's not bothering anybody that means that he's probably gone off somewhere else, which is good because that means I'm not going to have to hurt him."

Lunchtime comes, and Andrews has worked up a taste for a burger and grabs one on the run. Then it's back to the shelter, where he and Teckler update each other on the day's events. She's nabbed a raccoon with distemper; since the animal presents a danger, it awaits its destiny--a destiny Andrews will carry out. The shelter bustles with afternoon staff and volunteers, and soon they're joined by vet tech Rachel Hendricks. She's just given a "butt bath" to an abandoned kitten that's running a temperature and has a bad case of diarrhea. Teckler is smitten. She cuddles the furry bundle wrapped in towels and lapses into babyspeak. In this dreamy state she reveals why she doesn't like to shoot animals. "Oh, you know," she purrs, "you got those little brown eyes staring at you." She looks down at the kitten and wonders out loud if she might just have to adopt this one.

All the while there's a flow of interruptions. Concerned citizens deliver an injured pigeon in a fax machine box. A vision-impaired elderly man arrives. He drives all the way to the shelter almost daily to make sure the squirrel trap he can barely see is set correctly. Teckler says most of the citizens and complainants ask for Andrews by name. Many are part of his regular following of female animal lovers whom she's dubbed "Bill's ladies." One woman calls twice a week, every week. Most recently she complained a dog was leaving its business in her backyard--could he come by and measure the droppings to better track the culprit?

In many cases, it seems, the people are more alarming than the animals, like the woman who owned five bloodhounds and hadn't left the house in two years. Andrews was called in to investigate and had to wade through excrement two feet high just to get to the animals. Once, answering a call about an injured dog, Andrews faced a ferocious guard dog that bit him as he turned his back to get away. The owner insisted it was the dog that had been provoked. And of course, there's no shortage of dead birds that turn out to be feather dusters, rubber hoses that should have been snakes, or blown-out tires that were supposed to have been just about anything.

This is not to say Andrews and Teckler don't put their safety on the line regularly. A while back a deer put itself through an auto showroom window, and they had to scramble to catch it while a stunned public looked on. Somehow they managed to wrestle it into the back of the truck, with Andrews telling Teckler to throw her body over the animal so he could hog-tie it with leashes that kept snapping in two. The scrapes and bruises she sustained that day, says Teckler, marked the beginning of some of her job-description revisions.

One story Andrews is not likely to forget is the one about a skunk that got the last word before going down. As Andrews tried to position himself to shoot, he says, the skunk started the back-and-forth dance that signals its intention to spray, turned around, and got him right between the eyes. It's Teckler who finishes the story, though, doubled over with laughter about how he returned with "skunk juice" all over his glasses. Since Andrews is the de facto triggerman, he's understandably a little sensitive about this story. "You don't have to laugh here, partner," he says.

It's growing late in the asphalt jungle of Evanston, and the unsung heroes of animal control still have work to do. Teckler gears up for her final patrol shift, and Andrews heads out to square off fearlessly with a testy raccoon. But first he pauses for a moment, pushes back his cap, and remarks, "You know, there is one thing I'm afraid of. Bees. I'm afraid of bees."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs of Bill Andrews and assorted animals (dead and alive), by Cynthia Howe.

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