Barry Lape has chased bears through the brush, captured poisonous snakes and evicted skunks from hollow logs. In the last seven years he has trapped enough wild animals to stock a fair-sized forest. But then it is easy to be a successful trapper, says Lape, when your territory is as wild and woolly as Fairfax County.
Yes Virginia, there is a game warden in Fairfax, one of the Old Dominion's most affluent, densely populated and fastest growing counties. Despite the condo canyons and suburban sprawl, there still are more fur-bearing critters than homeowners in Fairfax. And we're not talking about ground squirrels and chipmunks.
In the course of his work as the county game warden, Lape may encounter bear, beaver, deer, otter and skunk--all inside the Beltway. Every year or two a deer will jump through a plate glass window into a supermarket or take a shortcut through a living room. A few weeks ago in McLean, Lape had to rescue a mallard that caught a wing in a kite string.
Lape will talk about his wild kingdom a bit later. At the moment he is face to snout with an angry raccoon he has just smoked out of its nest. The setting could not be less rustic. Lape is standing on the roof of a house in the suburban heart of the county. And the raccoon has just climbed out a chimney.
"Grizzly Adams never had to deal with television antennas," said Lape, removing the caged raccoon from the chimney top, then wiping soot from his face. "If this job ever falls through, I can always work as a chimney sweep."
Although game wardens in more rural parts of the state use compasses to blaze their way through evergreen forests and worry about stepping in gopher holes, Lape depends on a county road map to keep himself from getting lost. What he fears most about his job is falling off roofs and getting bitten by dogs.
"People think all game wardens spend their time walking along snow-covered mountain brooks, chewing jerky, petting deer and talking to the animals," says Lape, who is broad of chest and strong of arm. And stocked with enough one-liners to be a wildlife comedian. "I talk to them but they don't talk back."
As development has changed the face of Fairfax from a rural, farming county to one dominated by bedroom communities, wildlife has been displaced from ancestral homes. Many of those animals have adjusted surprisingly well to the encroachment. Squirrels take up residence in attics, ground hogs find happiness in backyard gardens and raccoons move into chimneys.
A homeowner who has spent $180,000 for a house is not always willing to share quarters. When that happens, Lape gets called in as a mediator. His loyalty is often divided between the people who pay his salary and the animals he loves.
"I'd rather face a mad raccoon than some of the people I have to deal with any day," said Lape recently as he drove a county pickup truck from one raccoon-infested house to another. "At least raccoons don't pay taxes, so they don't hang that over my head."
This time of year, Lape spends the early morning hours in western Fairfax making sure turkey hunters abide by state game regulations. The rest of his day is usually devoted to removing mama raccoons and their new-born from chimneys.
In past years, the raccoons were taken to more rural parts of the county and released. Because of a recent rash of rabies cases detected in Northern Virginia, however, all raccoons caught now are put to death, then tested for the disease. Homeowners who otherwise might have let the raccoons live in their chimneys are now calling Lape the first time they hear a tree branch scrape against their roof.
"With the rabies problem, people are panicking. They're getting hysterical," said Lape. "There are 400 million squirrels in this county and people want me to catch them all."
The first house we visit this day shows unmistakable signs of raccoon occupancy. But the roof has a 75-degree slope to it and Lape, who is afraid of heights, tells the woman who lives there that in fairness to his own wife and 4-year-old daughter, he cannot take on the task. He suggests she put a large basin of ammonia in the fireplace, open the flue one notch and hope the raccoon decides to seek more pleasant surroundings.
The next house has a gently sloping roof that Lape climbs without hesitation. He attaches a cage to the chimney with coat hanger wire, then directs the owner to start a fire with wet newspapers. Within minutes a raccoon has ascended the chimney looking for fresh air and Lape has caught her in his trap.
When the cage has been removed, Lape enters the house to retrieve the new-born raccoons that are usually on a ledge just above the flue. "This is going to break your heart," he says as he pulls out four blind babies that look more like puppies than raccoons. At this point the woman asks Lape what will become of the brood. When he tells her they will be put to sleep, she stifles a gasp.
"I had one woman last week call me a beast and a son of a gun," said Lape. "When that happens I always offer to put the raccoons back in their chimney."
There are more than a dozen raccoon calls still to make and more being phoned in every hour. Many will have to wait a few days. And some will be unhappy abut the delay. But with one county-supported game warden for 597,000 residents, Lape says he is always at least one step behind.
"I've had starlings in my attic in Centreville since I bought the house," said Lape, loading his catch into the truck. "I've told the game warden, but he hasn't done a thing about it."