May 2, 2007

Space Center Wildlife Problem Has Low-Tech Solution

The Kennedy Space Center might embody the pinnacle of 21st century high technology, but it still must use 19th-century methods to deal with a chronic problem: nuisance wildlife.

Specifically, wild hogs, alligators _ and lately, coyotes.

But not to worry. John Tanner is there. A native of the east-central Florida `burb of Christmas, Tanner has been a hunter and trapper since age 6. Armed with an ancient .22 rifle, animal traps and plenty of Florida woods savvy, Tanner, 65, has been in charge of controlling unruly wild things at the Kennedy Space Center and adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force station in Florida for more than 40 years.

Hogs rooting around beside the shuttle runway? Alligators lodged in culverts? Raccoons digging up sea turtle eggs on the beach? Tanner's the man.

He once captured a 12-foot alligator that had crawled beneath an ice machine and another that was lodged in a missile silo. He has grabbed hogs by the hind legs in the shadow of the space shuttle. He swears he has never been hurt by a gator or a hog.

"When you're dealing with an animal, you're attacking him," Tanner explained. "Therefore, he's going to fight with all he's got. Why wouldn't he want to bite, cut, or kill?"

Tanner and a handful of trusted employees are the only ones allowed to wrangle animals in the 65,000-acre security zone around the shuttle launch pad and Air Force station. The remainder of the wildlife refuge is divided into four zones where other hunters are allowed to take hogs. None may use guns because they don't want firearms in the shuttle area, but tracking dogs are permitted.

Just recently, Tanner stared down a smelly, black-and-white spotted hog glaring at him from inside a metal trap beside a dirt road at Air Force Station. The size of a small wheelbarrow, the animal clicked its three-inch tusks together and snorted angrily.

"Now, that is a wild pig," Tanner said calmly. "He's got bad teeth."

Somehow, Tanner had to convey the reluctant, 250-pound hog from the trap into a cage in the bed of his pickup. It would require some help.

Help came in the form of Mabel O'Quinn, conservation/law enforcement specialist with the Air Force station _ a hog-wrangling novice, but she would have to do.

Tanner lassoed the pig through the trap's open top, tightened the loop around its considerable neck and waited for it to stop bucking long enough to grab its hind legs. With O'Quinn's help, he quickly tied the animal's legs together and its jaws shut and hefted it into the truck. Somehow, they managed to untie the pig and shove it safely into the cage without injury to man or beast. Fortunately, the hog didn't know it likely was destined for a South Florida barbecue party.

"Very dangerous," O'Quinn breathed. "I'm always in a training mode with John. I listen to him and respect what he says."

"John jumps on it real quick," said Dorn Whitmore, operations specialist at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which manages the space center's wild lands.

How bad is the nuisance hog problem?

"Hogs do a lot of damage," Whitmore said. "Some months, we may have a dozen (car strikes). They root up marshes and root up the roadside. They're hard on nesting birds. We encourage them to take out as many as they can."

Just a few years back, hogs cleaned out about 20 percent of the sea turtle nests dug on the beach at the Air Force station, said O'Quinn. She gives credit to Tanner for "zero depredation on sea turtles by hogs" since 2004.

Several months ago, sea turtle nests faced a new threat _ coyotes. Somehow, the wild canines made it across the wildlife refuge onto the beach at the Air Force station and began digging up buried eggs.

"You can't trap those rascals," Tanner pointed out.

It took him about two weeks, but he managed to kill seven. First, he lured them in by playing a cassette tape featuring the sounds of wounded rabbits and woodpeckers over a loudspeaker. When the coyotes came skulking within range, he shot them with his .22. Because it was the only way to get rid of the coyotes, a firearm was permitted. No more coyotes have shown up since then, but sea turtle nesting season is just around the corner.

Tanner deploys more than 40 hog traps around the space center and Air Force station. He rotates them among abandoned groves, oak hammocks and palmetto stands _ depending on his quarry's seasonal eating habits. Hogs that lurk beside the roads have to be taken with dogs, he said, because the baited traps tend to congregate them _ heightening the chances of road collisions. He believes he could make an even bigger dent in the feral pigs if the terrain were not so rough.

"Now, we're down to about 1,500 hogs . . . because we're depleting the population," he said.

No matter what high-tech innovations evolve at NASA, Tanner figures he won't be out of a job anytime soon.

"They've weighed every option," he said, shrugging.

The paradox isn't lost on NASA either.

Said NASA spokesman George Diller: "The shuttle goes 215 miles per hour when it lands. Fencing just doesn't always keep the critters out. As much as we've evolved with technology, the behavior of wildlife is consistent. It's a great contrast, and we love it."