Dell Cullum’s Wild Island
By Kara Westerman
Who can you call at 2 a.m. if you need a raccoon driven across the Shinnecock Canal? Is your family of foxes mangy? Is a hedgehog eating you out of your zinnias? Do you have bats in your basement, swifts in your chimney, or have you seen an osprey who has forgotten how to fly? If you can’t resort to killing your cousins, there is only one man for the job.
Dell Cullum is amazingly well, considering he was flat on his broken back only a couple of months ago; while trying to get a raccoon off a roof in the rain, his ladder slid out beneath him.
“It’s only when I got up on my hands and knees to get my phone that I knew I wasn’t paralyzed,” he says.
Dell tells me that the last time he got hurt was when he fell out of a tree as a boy, but it didn’t have anything to do with rescuing wildlife, he laughs. When a lot of boys were busy killing small creatures, he found a bird’s nest on the ground with tiny hatched birds that he figured out how to feed, nurture, and keep alive.
After a successful Gofundme campaign and a community fundraiser, Dell is actually up and running his business again, but he is a man who is hard to catch. He is available for wildlife rescue calls at any hour, and for the past week has been waking at 5 a.m. to beat the summer traffic to Bridgehampton in order to trap a hedgehog that has obviously had some experience with traps and will not be tempted into Dell’s cage, even with a great delicacy like melon. “Why would he get in?” Dell asks, “He’s an herbivore — he has all the food he needs around him!”
The lady of the house doesn’t want the hedgehog feeding off her cutting garden, but Dell doesn’t kill anything — and I mean anything — so if his humane trap won’t entice the hedgehog, his client will have to call another pest control company that will “probably use other methods,” says Dell.
After a series of mis-timed rendezvous with bats and osprey, we meet finally at his house in East Hampton Village, and Dell unhitches the back of his pickup truck, which is covered with animal decals and advertising slogans for his animal rescue service, and we hear the faint howling and growling of a trapped fox that sits crouching in one of the cages.
“That’s alright, sweetie. We’re going to get you taken care of. No one’s going to hurt you,” Dell soothes the frightened animal. “This one has mange — see how bad it is?” The fox gets up, as if on command, and we see his raw hind legs, bald underbelly and ravaged tail.
This is the last of three siblings on their way to Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays, where Dell takes most of his trapped and injured mammals, birds and reptiles. One of their legends is that Paul McCartney brought them a butterfly that he found injured by the side of the road.
“I wouldn’t put anything past this place,” Dell says.
In his pickup truck, he tells me the story of his Jackson Hole hat that sits on the dash with his other straw cowboy hats. A few years ago, when Dell and his wife Dee lived at the foot of the Tetons, they met an old Mormon cattle rancher and fur trapper who took a liking to him and taught him everything he knows about trapping.
“I’m proud to say that I’ve trapped in seven states. Raccoons, for instance, are very different in every state,” he says.
The raccoon is the only animal that New York State demands that trappers kill. It’s illegal to release a raccoon from a trap, and it must be killed within five feet of where it is captured.
“The state knows that if the trappers even drive out of the driveway with these animals alive, they are likely to let them go,” Dell tells me. “So, they drown them in large plastic garbage cans, even the babies.”
He’s seen guys tie ropes around the cages and throw them into the bay until the animals inside have drowned.
“Overpopulation,” Dell smirks sarcastically.
Dell usually drives the raccoons he’s trapped at least across the Shinnecock Canal in the hopes they will head toward the pine barrens. But the call of Hamptons’ lobster and steak is great. The beach at night is a “wildlife superhighway” he says, and raccoons and other wildlife use it to go from hamlet to hamlet, bonfire to bonfire, in search of delicacies.
The state has called him to task for refusing to kill any of the creatures he traps, but he stands firm. He doesn’t need the state license to run his business. He is run off his feet, literally, by repeat business from customers who care about what happens to their animal fellows.
When he runs across humans with absolutely no compassion or respect for the animals who interfere with “their way of life,” it obviously upsets him deeply. He tells me the story of an irate man who demanded that Dell bring him the head of the raccoon so he could verify that it was dead, and of a man who accused him of trying to charge him twice for trapping the same raccoon, so he spray-painted his fur blue to identify him.
I am fascinated by Dell and others who are called on to be the intermediaries in the ongoing struggle for space on an ever-more-populated Long Island, people who stand in between and do the translating from one species to another.
My question is why humans specifically resist entering the realms of other consciousnesses, or resist even the idea that other species have consciousness, let alone souls?
Why does it always seem to be those of us who are most afraid of ourselves, or perhaps most afraid of being animals ourselves, who are the people who sit and make distinctions about what and who has value, and what to eradicate?
So I ask Dell about the mindset of those humans who can’t perceive the personhood of animals — what is the deal?
I suggest they might be called sociopaths, but he is as forgiving of his fellow humans as he is of animals. Dell believes that they are simply misinformed about the way nature works, and how smart the animals are. It is his calling to educate humans about their cousins.
We pull up to the site the fox family Dell is trapping has chosen, a sublime location on a huge Georgica estate that has a view across acres of rolling lawn to Georgica Pond, and a perfect spot for their den behind a crop of boulders. They have been photographed sunning themselves on the rocks, or lying amongst the deep perennial flower beds beside the pool, waiting for moles and voles and drinking from the pool cover. Dell has already caught the three teenaged siblings, who are all together at the wildlife rescue center, but when we round the corner we can see that the trap he set for the mother is empty.
“But she’s been here!” Dell shows me that she has taken his offering of a raw chicken foot left the night before at the entrance to the trap. At the far end of the cage is a pile sitting and rotting nicely — fox love rotting meat and usually bury it until it gets tasty.
“The only thing that can go wrong is if a raccoon finds it before she does,” he says.
Our next stop today is a friend of Dell’s, “a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful lady,” an elderly woman and local painter he has known most of his life. She has been sleepless for a couple of nights because of a squirrel in her attic, at least that’s what the pest removal company that gladly offered to remove the squirrel for $750 told her. Dell has stepped in as a favor.
“My wife will have my head if she finds out I’m going into an attic, let alone climbing a ladder!” he tells me as we navigate his ladder and his flashlight and net and my recording equipment into the tiny old house and up the stairs to the attic passage in the ceiling. It is over 100 degrees inside and Dell has to walk on the rafters in order to get a closer look at whatever has made a bed in the attic vent screen. When he gets his flashlight focused, he yells out to me “It’s babies — lots of them!”
They are only a few days old and are not just squirrels, they are flying squirrels, which Dell tells me is an entirely different matter. He will have to change traps and tactics. But first he will have to convince his friend to wait until the little ones get old enough to be moved, until they have some fur on them at least.
The rescue business is a job and a passion for Dell, as is all of his work, his books, his photographs, his television show, his classes, his films, and his litter campaign. You can see all of his projects at his Imagination Nature website, www.imaginationnature.com. His documentary film “Isabela,” shot in the Galapagos is now available on Amazon.
When we pull back into his driveway we see that the three-legged deer who has been with the Cullum’s for four and half years, has just calved her second set of twins, and resides happily in a clearing made for them behind the high brush in their backyard. Her fourth leg is perennially bent after an injury that dislocated her shoulder.
He says it is painful to see her run on her knuckle, but she keeps up with other deer, resists bullying, mates, and has children, so he doesn’t see the point of interrupting her busy life with an operation that may not even work after all these years.
Dell and his wife have a menagerie of free-roaming wildlife on their property: rabbits, deer, songbirds, and four raccoons they raised in order to study their habits. To me it is a life of dreams.
Dell is on The East Hampton Town Deer Management Committee, only because he thought there should be someone there who offered an opposing point of view to culling, sterilizing, tagging, and simply eradicating the deer. He now shares that honor with one other deer advocate from East Hampton Group For Wildlife.
“They’ve only invited us on to make a show of evening things out,” he says. “The town simply has no respect for the people in this community who value and love the deer.”
“They’ve made a grave tactical error and they keep compounding it,” he tells me.
Dell tells me with shame about the huge numbered tags the deer wear on their ears, their only function to alert hunters of their tranquilization and sterilization dates for the safety of the meat. But since the chemicals leave their bodies after thirty days, they are obsolete. The xeer also wear giant collars that abrade their necks, in which the batteries have died years ago. He is visibly upset that there wasn’t respect for the animals or foresight to use collars or tags that could disintegrate over time.
“This is about exterminating a species that has been here for millions of years. If all the deer are gone, the ticks won’t disappear, and it is such a simple system to build pass-through fences along adjacent property lines so that these animals can cross their land. You can absolutely protect your gardens, but wildlife can’t pass through if a property is fenced 12 feet high on four sides.”
As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Dell has organized a corps of volunteers who do beach cleanups on Sunday mornings, and recently road cleanup on Cedar and Stephen Hands Path. Apparently the mowers weren’t being instructed to pick up large items, and were mowing them into tiny particles that blow off into wildlife areas.
“That’s my other crusade — the garbage,” he says.
It’s no small feat to imagine a world in which we share resources and protect each other’s values. The main engine under Dell is his undying curiosity, enthusiasm, and mostly imagination for the work he is involved in. He has a strong enough self to withstand the idea that all forms of life have consciousness and deserve respect.
It seems to be all of a piece. It’s not just about human empathy or the lack of it, I realize, but those of our species who don’t have the imagination to put themselves in another person’s shoes will not be able to imagine the fullness of an animal’s universe, or imagine that this wild island and the earth need our protection and care.
Kara Westerman is a fiction author, teacher, oral history facilitator and writing workshop leader. She received her fiction MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and produces and hosts the podcast Phantom Hampton: Stories From Where The Rest of Us Live.