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Masked Intruders Roaming The White House Grounds

By Petula Dvorak and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 6, 2009

President Obama mocked the Washington area's Defcon 1 response to a few snowflakes last week. Let's see how the flinty Chicagoan does with the latest living-in-Washington challenge: critters.

With permission from the Secret Service, the National Park Service has been in hot pursuit of a pack of raccoons spotted roaming the manicured grounds near the White House, a spokesman said.

Masked bandits scurrying through Washington aren't news to the seasoned trappers who have made a handsome living relocating varmints from attics, crawl spaces and chimneys in homes.

"One time, in an apartment complex, I got called to look into something going up a crawl-space vent," said Karl Kaifes, who has been catching small beasts for 40 years. "I trapped two or three raccoons, a possum, a skunk and five cats. That's city living."

There is a joke at every turn here, and bipartisan humor abounds.

"The idea of raccoons on the White House grounds gives us great pause," spokesman Bill Burton said.

Or was that "paws"?

Others wonder whether the raccoons had been there all along, and the Texans who previously occupied the White House, with all the ranch dwelling they did, paid them no mind.

Still others believe the Obamas' dithering on the purchase of a guard dog gave the intruders a window of opportunity.

But John Hadidian, the director of Urban Wildlife Programs for the Humane Society of the United States, said he believes the raccoons are new to the 18 acres of President's Park surrounding the White House.

"My theory on what's going on has to do with the acorns," Hadidian said.

Did he say "ACORN"?

But Hadidian isn't talking about the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the group investigated for possible voter fraud during the election.

No, he's talking about the mysterious shortage of acorns, the nut of the oak tree, which is a diet staple for many of the creatures who share our city.

Hadidian spent 10 years studying D.C. raccoons for the Park Service. He said they prefer Rock Creek Park, where there is one raccoon for every three of the park's 1,700 acres. And the shortage of acorns in that park is driving them to look elsewhere.

Raccoons use the city's storm drain system like their personal Metro, an underground world that allows them an efficient, citywide route of attack on garbage cans, he said.

"They probably are just looking for food," he said. "They move into buildings where there are structural deficiencies. I'm going to assume the White House is pretty secure and well-maintained. I think they were just passing through."

It's not the first time that monumental Washington has had a run-in with the natural world.

A frightened deer was fished out of the Tidal Basin just a couple of years ago. And in 1997, three does smashed into the White House fence.

"We've got 20 pairs of bald eagles nesting along the Potomac River. We have red foxes running on the golf course at Hains Point," said Bill Line, a spokesman for the Park Service. "This is just another example of wildlife adapting in the urban environment."

What about those beavers in the Tidal Basin gnawing at cherry trees?

It was in the 1990s that Kaifes bought special beaver traps in Texas and had them flown in on their own airplane seat. Beavers were trapped, taken to Mount Vernon and released. Most of the trees survived.

He was also called on a special covert mission to the Marine barracks in Southeast Washington. There, he trapped 60 squirrels.

"They were stealing tomatoes from a commandant's wife," he said.

Rather than call in a specialist -- with humane traps and peanut butter bait (the non-salmonella kind) -- the Obamas might choose to look to past administrations for inspiration.

President Calvin Coolidge had a pet raccoon, Rebecca, who often sat on his shoulder or was cuddled by the first lady. Rebecca terrorized the staff, however.

Pass the peanut butter after all.

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