Plumbers know pipes. Writers know words. Kevin Murphy knows squirrels.
"A squirrel, he's not like a rat. A rat will wedge through — he might pick up a shingle and wedge under there, and you never even see it," Murphy says. "But a squirrel, he's only gonna wedge so many times, and then he's gonna chew him out a round hole."
The telltale signs are here one cold Monday morning at a house off of Crossroads Drive in North Charleston: the scamper of claws in the attic every morning at sun-up, the nibble marks on the wood trim where squirrels have been cutting their teeth, and — bingo — a bent panel on an air conditioning vent near the roof's apex. After spotting the hole through his binoculars, Murphy fetches the aluminum ladder from his truck to take a closer look, and sure enough, a squirrel has pulled and gnawed its way through the vent's thin metal screen. He's hot on the trail.
As co-owner of the Critter Control franchise in Charleston, Murphy knows not only squirrels, but gators, possums, raccoons, rats, bats, and coyotes. And after a brush with disaster a few years ago, he knows to take care when he ascends the wobbly ladder.
In 2009, on Darrell Creek in Mt. Pleasant, raccoons had taken up residence in the attic of a three-story house. The owner said she could see them staring down at her through a hole they made in the third-floor ceiling. So Murphy and a co-worker baited a few traps and caught three babies, which Murphy carried down the 32-foot ladder before climbing back up with the empty trap. Meanwhile, his partner had spooked one of the remaining raccoons from its hiding place, and it scrambled through the attic looking for an escape route. As Murphy reached the top of the ladder and prepared to re-enter the attic, his partner shouted, "Look out!" But it was too late.
"When I looked up, that raccoon jumped right in my face, and I went right back off the ladder, 32 feet," Murphy says. As he fell, he tried to grab a porch railing and dislocated both shoulders. On impact, he broke several ribs, chipped a tooth, and suffered a nasty gash in the leg. He couldn't drive for weeks, but he wasn't about to quit the business.
The son of a homebuilder, Murphy spent most of his adult life putting up new houses — until 2007, when the housing market crashed and the jobs dried up. "When the bank stopped lending me money to build with, I got smart and quit building," Murphy says. John Newland, who started the Critter Control franchise in Charleston, called on Murphy to do repairs on wildlife-damaged homes, and then Murphy started asking him for regular wildlife control jobs. In his old line of work, Murphy put in 40-hour weeks. These days, it's not unusual for him to work 60-hour weeks. He gets started most mornings around 7 a.m., and when he takes a call on the road, he does it cheerfully.
"It's steady, you know? This is kind of recession-proof. When people have got a problem with an animal in their house, they'll do whatever it takes."
This time of year, Murphy gets more calls about squirrels than anything else. Seeking shelter from the cold and needing a nest to have babies, they burrow in attic insulation, sometimes chewing through wires and pieces of siding. Murphy's strategy is to seal all points of exit except for a single hole, where he sets a trap. The squirrels will have to come out eventually, and when they do, they'll crawl through a one-way door into a long, thin cage jutting from the vent.
Like any good hunter, Murphy knows his prey. He knows that raccoons and possums love honey buns, and he baits their traps accordingly. He once caught a coyote in suburban Mt. Pleasant using a Moon Pie. When a townhouse community called him about an infestation of Muscovy ducks, he knew to wait until molting season in the fall, when he could herd them like sheep.
South Carolina law forbids the relocation of trapped wildlife, so when Murphy catches an animal, he is allowed to either release it on the spot or euthanize it. Either way, he says, "If you don't fix how they're coming and going, your problem will come back."
Sometimes, he says, a customer will have second thoughts about euthanizing an animal. It even happens with gators. "By the time I catch him and get him up on the bank and get him tied up, they're basically like, 'Can I touch him? What are you gonna do with him now?'" Murphy says.
Others are not so attached to their four-legged neighbors. There are, for instance, the Northerners who see their first possum and think it's sent from hell. And then there are the cases where tiny invaders cause real havoc: a house in Walterboro that required $48,000 worth of bat guano cleanup, a Seabrook Island home with $28,000 worth of damage from raccoons. He remembers one three-story vacation home in Wild Dunes that had gorgeously inlaid Brazilian cherry floors — until the squirrels got in. While the family was out of town, a neighbor walked by and heard the drip of water underneath the house. The family soon found out that a squirrel had chewed open a water line, which poured water through the entire house and caused a million dollars' worth of damage. Black mildew grew on the walls, and the Brazilian cherry floors buckled from the moisture.
"Especially with the people that read the City Paper, they're usually the younger crowd, and they're all for the animals, but you'd be surprised at how they want to take the gloves off when something tears up their house," Murphy says.
When you call the 1-800 number for Critter Control in Charleston, the call goes straight to Kevin Murphy's cell phone. In addition to being a co-owner of the franchise, he is the head trapper and receptionist, keeping a schedule on a yellow notepad in his truck cab.
This Monday morning, he has 63 traps around the Lowcountry, most of them set for squirrels. He picked a few traps up from the Charleston International Airport in the morning, where a raccoon had worked its way into the baggage claim, but he quickly put those traps to use elsewhere. ("You were right," an airport employee had said over the cell phone. "He was in the conveyor belt. He's no longer with us, so y'all can come pick up your traps.") With only two traps left in his pickup bed by mid-afternoon, Murphy pulls up to a new two-story home off of Chuck Dawley Boulevard in Mt. Pleasant, where the owner has been hearing squirrels in the attic. Sure enough, tiny scraps of vinyl siding are scattered in the front yard, and Murphy spots two gnawed-out holes near the roofline.
Mounting the ladder, he climbs with an electric drill and trap in hand until the homeowner, standing at the bottom, can scarcely hear him talking. Just like on Darrell Creek in 2009, Murphy is meeting a skittish opponent at a perilous height, but this time his motions are slow and calculated. Still, he can't mask the excitement in his voice when he shouts down a report: "I see him!"
Back on the ground, Murphy explains that the two holes near the roof don't seem to be connected. He heads for the pickup to grab the last trap. "I was hoping not to set two traps," he says, "but he came out and smiled at me."