Varmint hunter "Flash" Wilcox.

Varmint hunter "Flash" Wilcox.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Darn Varmints

This article appeared in the June 29 issue of The Blood-Horse
Watching Anthony "Flash" Wilcox work his trap lines dressed in a baggy shirt, cutoffs, and high work boots, you can't help but think of Bill Murray hunting down the gopher who's terrorizing his golf course in Caddyshack.

The work Flash does is no laughing matter to Thoroughbred farm owners in Central Kentucky, however. They hire the trapper/backwoodsman to rid their properties of raccoons, opossums, and groundhogs that can spread disease as well as economic ruin. And his business is booming.

"He's been invaluable. We consider him an integral part of our operation," said Jim Plemmons, owner of Old Frankfort Stud and Plemmonston Stud. "We've seen cases of EPM drop off to basically zero. He's been a real help to us, and it's good for buyers to know these animals aren't infected. Other farms are doing the same thing but don't want to say anything about it. We're proud we have it under control, and Flash is the reason why."

Animal populations have exploded in the past 20 years since fur fell out of fashion. Trappers who used to receive $25 per raccoon get merely $6 today. "You can't work for $6 a coon," Flash said. "So the trapper's not in the field anymore. Coons drop litters of three or four every spring, and the population builds because nobody's out here taking them. And they love horse farms. There's plenty of feed--people dump feed on the ground or in troughs and these animals come at night eating and dropping feces and parasites, then the horses feed on top of it and pick things up. Nobody hunts them so there's no threat.

"Nothing is coon-proof. They have a hand with an opposable thumb so they get into everything. They'll get on roofs, come through chimneys. The farmer doesn't want to walk into his barn every morning and find his feed's torn all to pieces, have five gallons of coon feces up in the hayloft, and his horses getting EPM. I'm helping out the horse farmer by getting these animals out of Central Kentucky, and I hope I'm helping the animal, too. I don't wanna hurt nothing, but he don't need to be here."

The first question asked of Flash, who is licensed by the Kentucky Division of Fish and Wildlife to trap and handle animals, is what he does with the pickup truck full of animals he's collected by the end of each day. "We don't kill animals anymore. I release them the same day they're caught on state or federal wooded lands 35, 50, up to 100 miles away from here. They've radio-monitored coons traveling up to 25 miles, so they won't come back here."

Flash's work starts at dawn, when he checks the trap lines he's set the previous day. He maneuvers his truck ("It's not unusual for me to put 50,000 miles on a truck per year") along paddock fences that border wooded areas and creeks. When he spies a critter, Flash hops the fence and greets his catch with, "Hey, buddy." He hauls the cage to his truck and brings out a fresh one, first hanging an ear of corn from the top, then emptying a can of cat food into a suspended bowl. He loosens the dirt and buries the cage deep enough so that the animal won't feel the wire beneath him. Staking it into the ground, he then spreads a trail of sweet horse feed from the inside of the trap to just outside the entrance.

"I'll be in the store buying $500 worth of horse feed and people ask me what kind of horse I have and I say I don't have any horses," Flash said. "Then I buy dozens of cans of cat food and they ask what kind of cats I have and I tell them I don't have any cats. Man, I get some funny looks."

Flash goes about baiting his traps with the skill of an outdoorsman who's been living off the land his entire life. He was raised near Richmond, Ky., around a bunch of coon hunters and trappers.

"I wasn't much on playing with the other kids. I was a loner," he said. "I would climb trees and shuck the coons out. I'd handle the dogs. I worked my butt off to learn this stuff. While the other kids were playing, I was the one with a BB gun and the fishing poles and the big, long knives on my side. Soon as I was done with breakfast I'd hit the creek lines and the woods. I'd be off till supper, and after that I'd go out to the local coon hunter and see if he was gonna run all night.

"That's all I ever done--handled animals. Always liked the backwoods and don't care much about being in town. I was born for this, and it'd suit me fine to go into the backcountry one day and never return, a whole lot better than dyin' in a hospital. I'd rather fertilize these trees and these plants and feed the animals."