I was driving east down Seventh Street the other day as a white-tailed deer leisurely galloped by me in the westbound lane. It seemed lost but determined, and it was going in the right direction to get to the mountains as quickly as possible. I suppose Frederick City is country like that.
As odd as it was for me to see a deer running down a city street, I had to wonder what it was like for the deer to see a city street where its natural habitat used to be.
In the time since that deer encounter, I’ve heard reports of a black bear at the Hampton Inn that had to be tranquilized, and two snakes got together and knocked out power for 1,200 people in the city for two hours. I’m not even kidding. Snakes!
These incidents reminded me of some of my own wild animal encounters in the city over the past quarter century and also got me curious as to how often wild animals and humans have significant issues within Frederick city limits.
The City of Frederick’s population in 2018 was 72,481, and by 2045, it is projected to reach 93,100. The city itself has physically expanded, too. Between 2008 and 2013, for example, the city approved annexation of 1,504 acres of land into the city. More people and more households and more development mean more impact to native wildlife and habitat — and more encounters between humans and wild animals.
I could fill nearly an entire article with my squirrel stories alone. At my home in downtown Frederick, they eat the apples and tomatoes my family grows each year without fail. They’ve chewed on our patio cushions. They’ve chewed on our house! We once had a squirrel come up short on trying to jump to the fence, and it ended up directly on the back of one of the dogs. That did not end well for the squirrel. Nature. We otherwise just let them do their thing.
In addition to the squirrels, we’ve had several possum encounters downtown over the years. We just had a possum in the yard within the past few months. I like possums, as they are North America’s only marsupial, but why are they in the city? Why are they even in North America? Who knows. But there it was — Hsssssss — looking all gnarly on top of the fence. This one had a distinctive lightning bolt-shaped mark on his head. He was dubbed Harry Possum. The night after he was on the fence, one of the dogs killed him in the yard. Needing to get him away from the dogs as quickly as possible, I took a shovel and gently slid his body over the fence into my neighbor’s yard (it’s OK — my neighbor hasn’t been back there since 2004; it’s the perfect place to drop a body). I’ll be darned if that possum wasn’t back on top of my fence the next night! It turns out he had just been playing possum.
Speaking of Frederick City possums, I’ll never forget one summer evening eating dinner outside on our patio when we heard a noise coming from the basement window of the house. The window had a wooden window cover over it. I went over, lifted up the cover, and the largest possum I’ve ever seen in my life hissed at me. That thing was the size of three regular possums. It was the Big Boss possum. It was like, if there were a possum video game, this would have been the possum you had to beat to win the game. I initially grabbed a fire poker (assuming I would need it to battle the beast) and then ran back and forth saying, “Oh my god, that thing is huge!” a few times. I ended up simply placing the wooden box cover back over the basement window, covering the possum and making the issue disappear. We finished our dinner and went in for the night. The next day the mother of all marsupials was gone and an important lesson learned: If you don’t have to engage a wild animal, don’t. Simply leave it alone.
Since January of this year alone, Frederick County Animal Control has responded to a total of 4,552 calls for service. To get an idea of how many of those calls were within city limits, during this same time period there were approximately 503 calls for service to three ZIP codes that comprise a significant portion of the City of Frederick.
According to Sergeant Maggie Hill of Frederick County Animal Control, the department’s primary duties are to pets, such as dogs and cats, livestock and other domestic animals. Usually, county animal control only responds to wildlife calls if it is an emergency situation. That doesn’t stop the calls from coming, however. Hill said they get a lot of calls for bats in downtown Frederick this time of year. The State of Maryland Department of Natural Resources is the appropriate agency to call for wildlife issues.
I didn’t call anyone for my first city bear encounter. It was brief. I was walking south on North Market Street one morning, and in the 300 block, I looked over to see a black bear across the street running north up the sidewalk. He was trucking and clearly on a mission. I just stood there across the street with my jaw hanging open in disbelief. In the City of Frederick, your morning commute can be truly wild.
While DNR handles all the bear calls, they cannot respond to every wild animal call. Another resource available to people having issues with wildlife are the services of a private contractor, such as ABC All Wildlife Removal Services. ABC owner Tim Ryan has seen some stuff in his 20 years of taking wildlife calls, though two of his most memorable calls weren’t even for native wildlife. They involved trapping an alligator in Frederick County and a call about a giant monitor lizard in Cascade that had reportedly been chasing a lady’s dog around the yard. Both the alligator and lizard now reside at the Catoctin Zoo. Ryan said there have been calls about boa constrictors and one iguana, but the rest of the calls have been pretty standard.
Ryan gets hundreds of calls a year for various wild animal issues. He does get beaver and muskrat calls in the City of Frederick. I asked him about snakes in the city, and while he does get calls in the city for snakes, he’s never had a call for a copperhead or rattlesnake here, so at least there’s that.
“A lot of what I end up doing is just consulting with people on the phone, and I help them take care of their own problems,” Ryan said.
He mentioned that some people can get pretty excited over having a wildlife encounter, especially depending on what type of wildlife it is that they are encountering.
The Maryland DNR website states that Maryland is home to an estimated 90 species of mammals, 93 species and subspecies of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 400 species of birds. In the City of Frederick, one can encounter foxes, wild turkeys, possums, deer, bats, squirrels, skunks, raccoons, beavers, muskrats, groundhogs, bears, coyotes, rabbits and various birds and snakes.
From this list of varmints, I’ve had direct, personal run-ins with nearly half of them. That seems excessive to me for being downtown in Maryland’s second largest city, but from the animal’s perspective, the excessiveness is probably the other way around. We are the ones who are encroaching on their domain. After all, it’s not like the raccoons and bunnies all made a mad dash to live in the city.
A decade or so after my first City of Frederick bear encounter, I came home from work one day to find my gate open and my house, more or less, surrounded by police cars and a DNR truck complete with a bear cage in it.
A bear had wandered into my backyard, ate the broccoli out of the garden, got his picture taken for the paper, then got shot in the butt with a tranquilizer dart as he was trying to escape my yard over my fence. The dart didn’t stick, and he did get away. They tracked him until he had gotten beyond U.S. 15 and made it out of the city, headed to the mountains.
To this day, there are still two cartoon-like, broken pieces of fence tops where that bear put his paws to pull himself over the fence. Can you imagine? Of all of the things I’d have thought to concern myself with living in Frederick, having a bear wreck my broccoli and vandalize my fence wasn’t ever one of them. Was the bear in my yard, or was my yard in the bear’s former habitat? I suppose both are correct, and I’d do well to remember that.
POST SCRIPT: Since submitting this article for publication, I had to employ a garden rake against a very moody raccoon at 7 a.m. that had gotten off on the wrong foot during a chance encounter with my two dogs. There I was in my pajamas, and an absolute raging, violent, fury of teeth and fur swirled before me. I used the rake to pry the dogs off the raccoon, who then scampered away under a fence.
I called the Frederick County Animal Control phone number, and someone did get back to me. At the time, they were attending to 10 cows that were on the loose and in the road. The raccoon, meanwhile, was already out of sight and had moved on.
My adrenaline remained pumped for hours afterward. Frederick is wild like that. Hey, did I mention the close encounter with the hawk that I had?
Andy Stout is an anthropologist and writer interested in community, culture, music, the arts, history and conservation. He has written dozens of articles in local, regional and national publications covering a variety of topics. He has lived in the city of Frederick for over 25 years.