COLUMBIA — Gary Mitchell has a long, white beard, a round belly and a jolly face. In his red T-shirt and dark overalls, he looks like Santa — Mr. Claus taking a vacation from the North Pole to do a little gardening in Columbia.
Mitchell’s likeness is so uncanny that he was hired by Naturally Santa Inc. to be Santa at malls for the past three holiday seasons.
Under chapter four, section 130 of the Missouri Wildlife Code, if any kind of wildlife, except for deer, turkeys, black bears, mountain lions and endangered species, are damaging property, the owner has the right to trap or shoot it. However, because it is illegal to discharge a firearm within city limits, an animal can only be shot outside of city limits.
"If you have a raccoon that's coming up on your porch and chewing up your bird feeder, you can trap it and relocate it to protect your property," said Sean Ernst, conservation agent with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Once caught, wildlife should be released outside the three-mile radius of the trapping area. "People should go out into the county and release these animals into a wilderness area," Ernst said.
For those without wildlife traps, the Department of Conservation has traps available for a two-week loan at its Central Regional Office, 1907 Hillcrest Dr.
"The problem with trapping and relocating raccoons more than other species is that they are a highly crafty and intelligent species," Ernst said.
This summer, however, Mitchell has been on a mission that has nothing to do with toys. A raccoon has been stealing hummingbird nectar and birdseed off the porch of his home in southwest Columbia. Mitchell has affectionately named the raccoon Houdini because, so far, she has managed to give him the slip.
“Why this one I can’t catch, I don’t know,” he said.
This is a variation on the age-old story of man versus nature. Mitchell wants to feed the birds. He doesn't want to feed the raccoons. But Houdini has other ideas.
When Mitchell first noticed that something was taking his bird food in the middle of the night, he set out a Havahart trap to catch the thieving critter and relocate it. He baited the trap with a chicken bone.
The next morning when Mitchell went out to check the trap, he found a raccoon and a baby, called a kit. So Mitchell let them go. “I didn’t have the heart to starve the little ones to death,” he said.
Mitchell figured being caught once would keep the raccoon away. “Boy, was that a mistake,” he said.
His bird food kept disappearing.
Once some time had passed and the babies were older, Mitchell set the trap out again. That night he heard rumbling. A peek out onto the porch confirmed that he had caught Houdini, but Mitchell decided to wait until light to relocate her.
“In the morning, I told my wife, ‘Look at that big ole' coon I got there,’ and she said, ‘There ain’t no coon out there,’” Mitchell said.
Houdini had escaped, again.
So Mitchell got a new trap with a more complicated latch.
“I turned around and caught someone’s cat at 3 a.m.," Mitchell said. "It was yowling up a storm.”
Once freed in the morning, he said, the cat padded down the porch steps and turned to eye him before pronouncing one final, disgruntled yowl.
But Houdini escaped from that new trap twice and continues to snack by starlight on Mitchell’s back porch. She roams from the chicken bone to the bird seed and hummingbird nectar — "like she needs a drink," Mitchell said.
Not particularly inclined to stay up all night and watch his back porch, Mitchell just can't figure out how she gets out of the trap every time. And as the summer wears on, he kind of enjoys the riddle of it.
“Now, how on earth can they do it? I guess they do have four feet,” he said. "She'll do what it takes to get that chicken bone, I'll tell you that."
Mitchell has blocked off the porch steps so that Houdini can no longer use them to get to the bird food. She climbs up the porch poles instead. “The other morning she was just sitting out there eating the bird feed, happy as can be,” he said, bemused.
Mitchell has his eye on a new trap with a solid door, but first he will try to modify one he already owns. In his view, it's only a matter of time. “She’s going to slip up one of these days, and then I’ll haul her out," he said.
His wife suggested that he move the feeder higher up or just take it down altogether.
Mitchell shook his head at the notion. "Nah," he said, "birds gotta eat, too."