Photos by Patricia PuccinelliNot only a renowned trapper, Arnold is a gifted storyteller.
By Patricia Puccinelli
“We have an animal emergency,” says the person on the phone. It could be squirrels running in the attic like it’s a racetrack, raccoons chewing through drywall or tearing up furniture to make a nesting area, muskrats burrowing into a lake creating sink holes and shoreline erosion, boas or pythons loose in the basement or a pack of coyotes attacking a dog. But each client’s expectation is that the trapper will immediately come to their home or business to fix the problem. There’s no such thing as a typical day for wildlife trapper Arnold Groehler. He never knows what type of calls or messages he’ll receive throughout any given day, or night. And that’s why trapping is interesting to Arnold.
Based in Oconomowoc, Arnold is an accomplished animal damage control trapper and President of the Wisconsin Trappers Association. He began trapping as a child in 1968. It was Arnold’s sixth grade teacher, Art Hall of Ashippun School, who knew Arnold had an interest in wildlife and encouraged him to read Fur-Fish-Game magazine. The magazine articles kindled a spark and soon Arnold was enthralled with trapping.
The financial aspect of trapping took his interest to the next level. At the time, there was a five-dollar bounty for chicken hawks in Dodge County. Arnold reminisced that five dollars was a lot of money in the 60’s, “You could work an entire week as a day farmer for that five dollars.” He and his brother scoured an encyclopedia for a picture of a chicken hawk and couldn’t find one, so they peddled their bikes 35 miles to the Clerk of Courts’ office in Juneau and proudly announced, “We’re chicken hawk trappers! Could you tell us what they look like?” The Clerk replied, “Son, any hawk you bring in here is a chicken hawk.” The attitude at the time was that any hawk causing damage was a chicken hawk. Despite their efforts and hard work that summer, the brothers didn’t catch a single hawk.
Luckily, a local farmer suggested the boys trap muskrats which paid almost as much as hawks did. At the the peak of his muskrat trapping, Arnold gathered 5,000 to 8,000 muskrats per winter at Horicon Marsh. Today, while he still catches thousands of muskrats annually, the number has declined due to surrounding land being converted to subdivisions and other property developments.
Arnold believes trappers are an important part of the community and suggests that no matter what a person’s philosophy about animal rights and trapping is, “as long as there are wild animals that cause problems with people, pets or property, there is a need for trappers and trapping. Mother Nature is not kind, humane or politically correct.” There are people who emphatically dislike trapping but are not ready to coexist with woodchucks who burrow under houses, raccoons who tear down bird feeders, or skunks who spray the family dog. Some of his clients demand that he live-trap and relocate the undesirable animals. “You’re not going to hurt the little guy, are you?” they ask. They want the animal released in the countryside where there is abundant farmers’ corn and a pond with water. This describes Arnold’s 80 acres west of Watertown where he transfers many of the animals he traps, except that Arnold’s land provides colorful wildflowers as well. Wisconsin is one of the few states where trapped animals can be relocated with the property owner’s permission. In Illinois, captured animals must be euthanized on the spot.
Service to the community simply comes naturally to Arnold. In Stone Bank, there was an elderly woman living in an old house built on large acreage. The woman’s daughter sought Arnold’s help because the elderly woman thought there were animals living in the house’s small attic crawl space. When he arrived at the house, Arnold heard nothing in the attic, so the daughter hit the living room ceiling with a broom. Critters could be heard running everywhere. Arnold, with the help of his brother, ventured into the crawl space with a headlamp and saw eyes everywhere shining back at him. He found six inches of raccoon droppings in the attic’s insulation because seventeen raccoons had been living in the crawl space for years. It was mid-summer, so the attic was miserably hot, smelled horrid and was laden with diseases. To capture each animal one-by-one, Arnold had to crawl on his stomach through the raccoon droppings with a catchpole in hand. Once he nabbed a raccoon, his brother pulled Arnold out of the crawl space by his feet. Seventeen times. They safely relocated the raccoons, then took on the foul job of removing the droppings – three truck-loads full. When the elderly woman asked how much Arnold wanted for payment, he noticed she was baking and asked only for a pecan pie in return for their work.
Arnold also tells the story of a young girl, seven or eight years old, living on the outskirts of Madison where she was bitten by a raccoon. The child thought the raccoon was a cat and decided to pet it when the animal came out of its nesting area in their housing complex to forage for food. The question was whether the raccoon had rabies. If caught, animals can be tested for rabies which would spare the girl from the vaccine shots and avoid the potential side effects of headache, nausea, muscle aches or dizziness. Her parents called animal control companies in the Madison area, but the companies weren’t interested in helping because either they were already busy or because the parents couldn’t afford the related fees. Then, the parents found Arnold. He arrived at their housing complex and discovered a network of air vents and an elevator shaft where the raccoon was living. Arnold climbed into the 120⁰ elevator shaft with a ladder and a catchpole. Hanging on to the ladder with one hand, Arnold secured the catchpole around the raccoon and successfully captured it. “Raccoons are agile, I’m not.” He took it to a wildlife biologist for testing, found the raccoon was not rabid and the child was spared from the rabies shots and unpleasant side-effects.
In Waukesha County, Nashotah Park on the east side of Okauchee Lake is a popular point where people drop undesirable animals they capture in their homes or on their properties. These people don’t want to hurt the animals, so they take them to the park and release them. Arnold has seen for himself and receives reports about people opening their SUV lift gate and releasing a raccoon into the park. Typically, the scared animal immediately runs through the picnic areas and between the picnic tables. People start screaming and the raccoon is ping-ponged around. Then, the raccoon sees the homes around Nashotah Park and flees there because that’s where he’ll be comfortable. The raccoon finds an entry point by chewing through a wooden soffit to access the attic where it is cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and better than a hollow tree with plenty of food every garbage day or in bird feeders. Raccoons need to be relocated at least 10 miles from where they were captured or they will simply return home.
He has plenty of amusing stories to tell. Several years ago, Arnold received a typical call, this time from a couple living in a North Lake gated community, “We have an animal emergency.” There was a raccoon in the kitchen. This raccoon had chewed a hole from the attic through the ceiling drywall. For weeks, the couple would see a paw come down through the ceiling, so they put a marshmallow on a stick and the paw would grab the marshmallow, disappear and come back for more. The couple videoed the routine. Then, over the Fourth of July weekend, they went to the Dells. While they were gone, the racoon put his paw down the hole for his treat, but there were no marshmallows. So, he chewed a bigger hole in the ceiling and dropped down into the kitchen to search for himself. When Arnold arrived at the home, he opened the French doors to the kitchen and saw what looked like a war scene with cabinets and furniture scratched and cooking tools scattered and broken. He took one step forward, heard a low growl, and found the raccoon lounging on a dog bed on the kitchen floor shoveling Sugar Puffs cereal into his mouth. Arnold snagged him with a catchpole. So yes, per Arnold, the number one bait for raccoons is marshmallows. Skunks love KFC chicken in the spring but prefer grubs when they are in the lawn later in the year, so he makes paste bait by grinding and fermenting the grubs. Snapping turtles are drawn to oily fish.
There are multiple lessons for homeowners here on what to do, and what not to do, to prevent wildlife problems. Home maintenance is number one to deter wildlife entry. Moving outdoor food stands for pets or feral cats away from your home and buildings is another. And, no marshmallows on a stick through your ceiling to feed raccoons living in the attic.
Over the years, Arnold has had a few “incidentals or unintended catches” such as feral cats caught in raccoon traps or turtles stuck in underwater muskrat traps. It can be a game of “who beats who to the trap,” so he makes sure to set turtle traps with air space so the unintended guests don’t drown, and purposefully uses trap types that eliminate surprises. The key is to always err on the side of caution.
Frequently, Arnold is asked to share his expert opinion about an animal control situation or the technicality of a trapping law such as what to do about river otters enjoying life in a pond outside of season. River otters consume desirable fish such as bass and sunfish and may eat birds, frogs and plants. The DNR doesn’t want to give permission to capture them outside of the otter-trapping season and no longer does this type of work. And, the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Wildlife Services will only come out for large wild animals such as black bears, wolves or beavers clogging up culverts or roads. So, Arnold has worked in partnership with the DNR game wardens or biologists to solve these types of problems using a variety of live-traps and relocation.
Arnold believes more trappers are needed in Wisconsin from a safety and disease standpoint. An eastern strain of rabies in raccoons, originating in New York and nearing the Ohio and Indiana border, is slowly heading this way. Wildlife officials are dropping sugar cubes in wooded areas to curtail the spread of the disease. But the problem is that people are capturing infected raccoons and then driving 20 to 30 miles to drop them off, so affected animals are migrating this way. Arnold is concerned that if rabid raccoons attack people in the area, there are not enough trappers here to handle the consequences.
If you are interested in becoming a trapper, Arnold recommends attending trapper education courses offered by the Wisconsin DNR in cooperation with the Wisconsin Trapper Association. This joint program, Wisconsin’s Cooperative Trapper Education Program, is the only one in the nation. Go to the Wisconsin DNR website for a listing of all state-wide classes. Arnold is the lead instructor for Southern Wisconsin.
Arnold retired from trapping in 2014, but people continued to have animal emergencies they wanted him to handle. So, he still works 300 days a year and traps about 5,000 animals. The captured animals he relocates to his 80-acre parcel near Watertown do move around and some venture out to the surrounding areas. Now, a nesting pair of bald eagles has taken up residence in a cottonwood tree there.
At the request of his trapping clients, he has taken on large-scale, labor-intensive jobs that no one else would touch, including the restoration of a steep shoreline and the repair of an intricate and deteriorating pier system and gazebo. While Arnold loves the challenge of helping people solve difficult outdoor problems, his passion will always be trapping. “Even after I’d dead, people will still be calling me to trap.”