A single Idyllwild trapper caught 5,255 raccoons and 435 coyotes in Riverside County during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021, according to state Department of Fish and Wildlife filings. Most of those were killed, the trapper said.
Those astronomical numbers are more than the annual catch by all of California’s other 603 licensed trapping companies combined. Trapper Tracy Philippi’s tally averaged more than 14 raccoons a day, seven days a week—and more than a coyote a day, despite the cagey animals being notoriously difficult to trap and only 796 being caught statewide during that period.
Philippi operates as Better Wildlife Control and has no employees other than his wife. He’s been trapping nuisance wildlife for more than 30 years, and his large capture total for fiscal 2021 is typical for a year, he said.
“Every animal I’m called out for by HOAs and homeowners is a coyote eating a domestic animal or a raccoon in a house,” said Philippi, adding that he works 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
Reaction from wildlife rescue workers and some fellow trappers ranged from disbelief to outrage.
“I’m worried he’s trapping animals that are just going about their business without creating problems,” said Keli Hendricks, who works with the national non-profit Project Coyote. “I have trouble believing that anyone trapping that many raccoons has concerns about wildlife.”
Hendricks, who also works with orphaned wildlife, expressed specific concern that baby raccoons and coyotes were being unnecessarily orphaned and left to starve to death as a result of Philippi’s copious catches. She called for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to investigate Philippi’s operation because of the extraordinarily high count.
Philippi said he does a “head-to-toe” check of each animal he catches and immediately releases lactating females. He emphasized the humane aspects of his activities, and said he received a Ph.D. in wildlife management from Louisiana State University two months ago.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife said it has no reason, at this point, to investigate Philippi. While the department did notice the high numbers, it was the first year they collected the data, not all trappers reported, and the department as no baseline historical data to compare to, said Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Matt Meshriy.
“As long as the trapping is being done in a legal manner and there is no additional evidence of animal cruelty, then there’s not much jurisdiction for CDFW to investigate,” Meshriy said. “If there is evidence of a law being broken, any public or private individual or organization, rehabber, etc., can and should submit that via CalTIP.”
The hotline for CalTIP, which stands for “Californians Turn in Poachers and Polluters,” is 888-334-2258.
Hendricks, who lives in Sonoma County, first noticed the unusually high numbers while reviewing the Department Fish and Wildlife’s public spreadsheet of trapping data by county for 2020-2021. It’s no wonder that the Riverside County count jumped out at her: No other county reported more than 585 raccoons or 86 coyotes captured.
Responding to a Public Records Act request from the Southern California News Group, the department identified Philippi as the trapper responsible for Riverside County’s exceptional numbers. The next busiest raccoon trapper reported only a single catch in the county and the next busiest coyote trapper reported catching just 18.
Philippi’s 5,255 raccoons accounted for 62% of all the raccoons caught in the state and his 435 coyotes represented 55% percent of those captured statewide.
Those numbers were so high that two Southern California trappers interviewed questioned the accuracy of the department’s data. Philippi subsequently confirmed that the numbers on file for him were accurate.
Karolyn Verville, who runs Sunshine Haven Wildlife Rehabilitation in Riverside, was also suspicious of the totals that Philippi’s reported to the state.
“I can hardly believe 5,200 raccoons were captured — I don’t believe it for a second,” Verville said. “I think he was fidgeting with the numbers. Something is fishy.”
She speculated that Philippi fabricated the numbers, perhaps for “bragging rights.”
But Philippi said that he prefers to keep a low profile and was adamant that he didn’t want his name disclosed in connection with his catch record, saying he would sue the state for breaching a confidentiality statute he said applied.
“I don’t want my name out there,” he said. “The reason for this (confidentiality provision) is so we aren’t harassed by crazy people who think all animals should live. Not only can that lead to disease, but it can lead to overpopulation, which creates more problems.”
Dan Skalos, a senior environmental scientist with the department, said Fish and Wildlife attorneys determined that the statute cited by Philippi applied to fur dealers and had been repealed.
California made national headlines in 2019 when it became the first state to ban fur trapping. The change of law also required trappers of nuisance wildlife to begin reporting their catch numbers every year. Fiscal 2021 was the first year the reports were required and refinements are still being made.
For instance, the first report asked trappers for the total number of catches, but not how many of those animals were killed. Starting with the current fiscal year, the form requests a breakdown of lethal and non-lethal “takes,” Meshriy said. While Philippi said most of his catches were killed — humanely — he did not have a specific breakdown for 2020-2021.
Philippi said he’s one of the few trappers working in his largely rural territory, which includes Idyllwild, Lake Riverside Estates, Pine Cove and desert areas. He catches raccoons using box traps — cages that close when the animal enters to eat the bait.
The snares he uses for coyotes are rubber-coated cable that are typically placed at holes in fences, den entrances and bush-lined trails, and close around the animal’s neck when triggered. Phillipi said he uses non-lethal snares and noted that the state requires trappers to check snares every 12 hours.
Wildlife is supposed to be trapped only if causing a conflict with people or domestic animals. The state requires that once trapped, the animals are either killed or released where they were caught — they are not supposed to be relocated.
Asked if his part of Riverside County had more such conflicts than the rest of the state combined, Phillipi equivocated.
“I can’t tell you that,” he said. “I don’t know about the rest of the state.”
He later added that “every city and/or county has coyote problems.”
Like Verville, Project Coyote’s Hendricks is reluctant to believe everything Philippi says and reports.
“It’s impossible that there’s more conflict there,” Hendricks said. “There are tons of rural areas like this in California, where nowhere hear those numbers of animals are being captured.”
She was also skeptical of the hours Philippi said he works.
“How does one get their Ph.D. while working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week?,” she asked.
But primarily, Hendricks would like officials to make sure Philippi isn’t unnecessarily trapping and killing animals.
She pointed to a 2018 CalTech study that found that 96% of mammal biomass on Earth is comprised of humans, their pets and their livestock.
“Only 4% is wild animals,” Hendricks said. “If we can’t share this planet with the little wildlife that is left, what does this say about us?”