NEW ORLEANS – Alligators have been dragged from abandoned swimming pools. Foxes had to be removed from the airport. Coyotes are stalking rabbits and nutria (a sort of giant countrified rat) in city streets. And armadillos are undermining air conditioning units.
In the year since Hurricane Katrina drove out many of the people of New Orleans, wild animals have been moving in. Some were blown in by the winds or redistributed by the floodwaters. Others were drawn by the piles of rotting garbage and by the shelter afforded by all the abandoned homes and tall weeds.
"In 20 years of trapping animals here, I've never seen anything like it," said Greg duTreil, who is licensed by the state to remove nuisance wildlife in the metropolitan area. "I'm getting calls night and day."
Marilyn Barbera said opossums are living under her home and in her garden, and one moved into her house, a white 1859 Greek Revival in the city's Riverbend area.
"It was about the size of a big cat and it just made itself at home," she said.
At Charlotte Anderson's house in the city's Uptown section, a neighborhood where wildlife usually means squirrels scampering across busy city streets, raccoons quickly cleaned out a dozen expensive, 6-inch (15-centimeter) goldfish from her backyard pond.
In suburban Kenner, Cherry Robinson found snakes in her yard, while a man in another part of town found deadly brown widow spiders, a cousin of the black widow.
"You used to have to go deep in the woods to find brown widows," said Jayme Necaise, an entomologist with the Audubon Nature Institute Insectarium, a museum scheduled to open next year. "Now we're finding them all over the place. Along with swarms of flies, roaches and mosquitoes."
The influx of wildlife was something Rick Atkinson, curator of swamp exhibit at Audubon Zoo, predicted even before the floodwaters receded.
"The three things wild animals need is food, water and cover," Atkinson said. "We've always had food and water, but now, there are no people, so the animals have all the cover they want."
Complaints about rats have soared.
"They have more to eat than before the storm. Just look at all the piles of garbage, the stuff lying around, the empty buildings. This is a rat's paradise," Erick Kinchke, owner of Audubon Pest Control.
Claudia Riegel, assistant director of the New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board, which handles rodent complaints, said the problem is not as bad as people think.
"People are also seeing them in areas they did not see them in before the storm," she said. "That makes them think it's worse than it is."
Still, the city has set up a hot line to take complaints about rodents and other vermin.
Metairie resident Sue Sperry took quick action after her dog, a whippet named Noodle, started bringing her dead rats.
"We cut down all our foliage as soon as Noodle started bring the rats to us," Sperry said. "We've sealed the house. They can get in the smallest places. I'm reporting people that haven't cleaned up their property or cut their grass. This is a serious problem."