Lieutenant Ellie Sadler of San Francisco Animal Care and Control holds a guinea pig Thursday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Into the SF urban wild with Lieutenant Ellie Sadler

On the verge of turning into the Bill Murray character in Caddyshack, I finally called the experts.

The hole under my back fence kept getting deeper and the home remedies and repairs weren’t working. On the verge of turning into the Bill Murray character in Caddyshack, I finally called the experts.

“Looks like the work of a skunk,” said Lieutenant Ellie Sadler of Animal Care and Control after inspecting my photo of what is no longer a hole but a ditch.

“Possums are climbers, raccoons are climbers. Skunks are diggers with nice long claws,” she said. Turns out the skunks aren’t isolated to my yard and neighborhood but are common throughout The City.

“Skunks are everywhere,” said Sadler. And all this time, I thought it was the smell of someone burning a fatty.

“More like marijuana mixed with burning tires,” said Sadler of the odiferous spray the animal emits on the unfortunate, but rare occasion it needs to defend itself.

“I really have a soft spot for skunks,” said Sadler who went so far as to call them “charming.”

“They’re just a delight. They just want to go around eating snails and fallen fruit,” she said.

Not the response I expected but then Sadler, though a cheery resident of San Francisco today, is originally from Chester, England where skunks don’t exist.

“They were such a novelty to me, she said of the skunks, possums and raccoons she met upon her entry into local animal care and control. “We don’t have any of those. Foxes and badgers and hedgehogs, yes,” she said, “which are delightful in their own way.”

The officer’s relentless positivity about my own dire straits had me feeling a little less Bill Murray and more like Jim Fowler of Wild Kingdom, interested in learning to coexist with our native species. Whereas previously I’d been guessing about the impact on the animals from climate change, fire season, and the concerts in nearby Golden Gate Park, as well as the persistent construction citywide and in my own neighborhood, I now had some solid information.

Lieutenant Ellie Sadler of San Francisco Animal Care and Control nuzzles with a kitten named Snowflake on Thursday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“There’s some truth to it,” said Sadler, addressing music in the park. “The concert definitely upsets the wildlife there. When they put up the fencing, they’re required to leave a gap at the bottom so wildlife can still travel their normal routes,” she said. “They may be unhappy for a few days, but the skunk in your yard would already be in your neighborhood.” My visitor is likely young, born this year, “Finding its way, their own path.”

As for wildlife retreating from the mountains to escape fire or drought, “Sure there are some but I don’t think it’s feasible,” she said. Animals seeking relief are unlikely to cross bridges to get into The City, though there’s no real explanation for sudden surges in activity.

“It comes and goes. We see highs and lows of populations,” she said, though unfortunately the way the department generally finds out about changes is when animals are hit by cars. When wildlife is healthy and behaving normally, Animal Care and Control doesn’t intervene.

“They don’t want to have anything to do with us and we don’t need to bother them,” she said matter of factly. It sounds so pleasant, so natural, so part of the circle of life when Sadler tells it. Is our city’s gentle style of care and control of wildlife the norm?

“It’s a mixed bag here of people who care, aren’t bothered, or actively enjoy it. I’m one of those people,” said Sadler. “Other people feel like they pay for their house and shouldn’t have wildlife in their backyard and are aggrieved by it,” she said.

Sitting across from Sadler at Animal Control headquarters on 15th Street, I asked if working in the field with wild animals ever posed a threat.

“From wildlife?” she asked. “No. It’s a difficult job. It’s a physical job, and we deal with a lot of hostile people,” she said. Part of her job is to remove animals from homes when they are being abused “and people don’t like that.”

Lieutenant Ellie Sadler rounds up a chicken that got loose from its cage on Thursday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

But back to the skunks: They have taken over my yard, the yards adjacent to me, and adjacent to those. It’s an entire city block of skunks. And moles, and gophers, and rats, and mice. Sadler offered the bright side.

“For the most part, the wildlife is of benefit to us,” said Sadler. “Possums eat pounds of ticks every year. They’re a resource if you have a nice garden. They’ll eat your slugs and snails you don’t want.” And yet, for those of us who’ve heard of mountain lion sightings and receive regular coyote warnings and reports of raccoons attacking people, dogs and cats, peaceful coexistence can be a hard sell.

“The mountain lion hasn’t been seen in awhile,” Sadler assured me. “It’s about education. How you can live with wildlife and enjoy them,” she said of the role of Animal Care and Control. They also rescue animals in distress (you can see a recent effort via the department’s Twitter account, @OfficerEdith: Look for the post of an officer removing a cup from a skunk’s head).

I asked Sadler what she would do if she were confronted by skunks in the Bayview backyard she shares with her partner, their small child, two dogs, and a cat.

“I’d make sure my dogs couldn’t get to it,” said Sadler. “Make a noise or turn on a light before you let your animals out. Give them a chance to escape. We are vehemently anti- trapping.”

She doesn’t say it exactly, but what I hear is wisdom on how to live and let live alongside all creatures great and small.

“Obviously when they find a hole in your basement or roof, they move into your house, you’re going to have to evict them,” she said. “It might be unpleasant, but there are ways to live with wildlife that’s not going to cause a negative situation for you.”

“The wildlife was here first,” she said. “We took their land, not the other way around.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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