April 2011

What's Buggin' You? A Day in the life of a Critter Getter

Author: Lance Hanlin | Photographer: Mark Staff

As Joe Maffo spoke outside his Hilton Head Island office, something was moving inside his T-shirt. The small bump started inching to his waist then suddenly switched direction and raced up his chest. A tiny alligator head popped out of his shirt collar.

It was Alli, a pocket-sized gator Maffo uses to teach children about the species. Just a few steps away, Maffo’s son pulled a huge boa snake out of a cloth sack. Moments later, another employee returned from a rat-catching adventure. It was a Friday afternoon, but for the workers of Critter Management, it was just another day at the office.

Life in the Lowcountry comes with many perks. It also comes with many animals and pests. Maffo owns Critter Management and makes his living removing nuisance animals such as raccoons, snakes, rats, squirrels and reptiles from homes and neighborhoods.

He has been in the profession since 1994, and despite the ongoing recession, business is good.

“The crunch doesn’t affect us due to the fact that we’re dealing with wildlife,” Maffo said. “People don’t care about economics or the price of gas when they’ve got something in their home.”

John Harris is also a busy man. As a branch manager of Hilton Head Exterminators, he’s in the business of treating household pests such as ants, roaches and termites. The area’s subtropical climate ensures he has no offseason.

“We really don’t get cold enough for anything to really die back,” Harris said. “Fire ants are always an issue. Palmetto Bugs are always an issue, though they’re more prevalent in the spring and fall. The spiders, beetles and those kinds of things are pretty much year-round.”

Both men have tough jobs, but somebody’s got to do it.

At age 65, Joe Maffo says he’s been bitten by everything while working for Critter Management and has the scars to prove it. His arms are covered in raccoon scratches, and he has lost some feeling in one finger due to a rattlesnake bite. Once, he waived an angry squirrel like a flag after it bit between his index finger and thumb and refused to let go.

Critter Management has 14 employees and offers 24-hour service in Beaufort and Jasper Counties. Maffo has stories for many of his encounters but it’s his alligator wrangling that made him a local celebrity.

Last year he made national headlines when his team pulled a 500-pound gator from a small pond near the heavily traveled Coligny area. Eight years ago, he helped capture a 13-foot beast that weighed more than 1,000 pounds on Harbor Island. He has been featured in several newspapers and magazines and has video of catches posted on the Internet.

Maffo is no hunter though. He considers himself a protector. “If I’m not going to save these animals that need to be saved, who is going to?” he asked. “I’m just trying to save what I can. If I can put a mother and her babies back together 30 miles out in the wilderness, I will.”

Joe Maffo of Critter Management

Maffo estimates alligator removal represents just 10 percent of the 90-plus calls his company fields each day. Still, he wishes that number were lower.

Most interaction between humans and gators comes from love in the lagoons. Alligator mating season runs from mid-April to July. Territorial males stroll into lagoons looking for romance, forcing the smaller males there to find a new spot. They can pop up anywhere at any time, and unfortunately, mating season coincides with tourist season.

“People come to Hilton Head and ask ‘Where is the beach?’ and ‘Where are the alligators?’” Maffo said. “We didn’t put them here for your enjoyment. I’ve seen people put their child 15 feet behind an alligator and then walk around and try to take a picture of the water, their child and the gator. That alligator can go 11 miles an hour in three steps. That’s a wild monster that can kill you.”

Feeding gators is another problem. As Maffo preaches, “A fed gator is a dead gator.” They’ve been around for 200 million years and certainly don’t need half of a turkey sandwich to survive. Once fed, the reptiles associate humans with food.

Your pets aren’t safe either. Maffo has a Polaroid of the remains of a 90-pound pit bull eaten by a gator that weighed just 70 pounds.

Gators travel at night so pack a light if you plan to walk or bike after dark. “They don’t want to fight and they don’t want a confrontation,” Maffo said. “Just remember to keep your distance.”

Harris has been the Bluffton branch manager of Hilton Head Exterminators for more than three years and has 15 years’ experience in the pest control industry. He’s witnessed the most disgusting infestations you can imagine, but even he gets creeped out by cimicidae, better known as bed bugs.

“That’s one of those I still get queasy with,” Harris said. “It’s such an unusual insect. They feed on you while you sleep and then hide during the day, waiting for you to come back to bed so they can feed on you again.”

The pest was largely eradicated in the 1940s but started creeping toward a comeback in 1995. Today, bed bugs are a major problem throughout the Southeast.

Another challenge unique to this area is controlling the army of Palmetto Bugs. No matter how clean and sanitary, most places on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton have at least one. Keeping that one from multiplying is the trick. To do that, Harris recommends seeking professional help. The problem with doing it yourself is over-the-counter spay quickly evaporates. If you kill a roach you can’t reach, you’re leaving behind a dead bug for other roaches to eat, he explained.

“There was a lady that saw a few roaches and thought it was okay to purchase an over-the-counter spray and try and take care of it herself,” Harris said. “She actually made the problem worse. The house was completely infested within six to eight months.”

Venomous black widow spiders love the Lowcountry as well. Another local problem is the no-see-ums. Hilton Head Exterminators offers a service to help combat the tiny biting flies, treating the grass and tree lines before parties and events. The company provided the service for last year’s Heritage PGA Tour golf tournament at Harbour Town Golf Links.

“It greatly reduces the no-see-ums and mosquitoes,” Harris said. “They can smell you from a mile away, so it’s not 100 percent. The goal is to get it to a level where it’s tolerable.”

Hilton Head Exterminators offers different sprays for all different types of pests. The business also has a complete line of plant-based products that are healthier for the environment.

The company has 47 employees between the Bluffton and Hilton Head Island branches and services clients monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly, depending on the customer’s pest tolerance.

James Hayworth knows firsthand the dangers associated with traditional pesticides. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2009 after working two decades in the pest control industry. Both Hayworth and his doctor blame prolonged exposure to the chemicals he used.

Thanks to early detection, Hayworth is healthy again and, along with his wife, has started a new environmentally friendly pest control business called Green Team Pest Defense, located at 23 Victoria Square Crossing on Hilton Head Island.

“We use an alternative to regular pest control,” Hayworth said. “We need to be set apart from the rest as a smart choice, a safe choice and an experienced choice. We’re for families with children, pets and older family members.”

Hayworth plans to spread the word about his new green business at the island’s inaugural Earth Day event, set for April 2 at Shelter Cove Community Park.

“We’re going the green way,” Hayworth said. “We’re stressing honesty and integrity, prompt on-time arrival and no spills or mess. We’re going to use the least amount of pest control that’s necessary. We’re going to control the bugs from the outside. If people do have a problem inside, we’re going to treat just what needs to be treated. We don’t spray down baseboards and carpets and all that stuff.”

If there’s something strange in your neighborhood (say an 11-foot alligator with an attitude), who can you call? Critter Management at (843) 384-7543. If it’s something weird and it doesn’t look good (like a nest of ugly black widow spiders), who can you call? Hilton Head Exterminators at (843) 706-9933 or Green Team Pest Defense at (843) 689-5334.

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