A Chapel Hill neighborhood is embroiled in controversy over how to deal with its urban wildlife.

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For years, the Lake Forest neighborhood was a pretty quiet place.

Life centered around the lush, 50-acre lake that gave the community its name: Swimming each summer at the private beach, boating from backyard piers, nature walks in a large wild area owned by the upscale subdivision's 325 families.Then the uninvited guests arrived. They were small, drab-colored and hairy. They had squinty eyes and prominent teeth. They were industrious, yes, but they kept late hours and ate a strange diet ... of trees and shrubs.

Now the beavers - an estimated six to 15 of them - have turned this normally staid, pleasant subdivision on its head.

In the process, they've become a cause celebre for area animal-rights activists, a troublesome issue for North Carolina's top wildlife officers and a topic of discussion as far away as Canada.

``It's been painful to see this issue driving people apart,' says Clayton Creager, former president of the Lake Forest Homeowners Association.

The uproar is over what to do with the beavers, which have caused flooding problems and damage to backyard plants at the 30-year-old subdivision in northern Chapel Hill, off N.C. 86.

Some residents want to kill the beavers with lethal traps, the only method of control allowed by state wildlife policy.

Others want to use a ``live trap' that supposedly wouldn't harm the beavers, then relocate them to friendlier surroundings.

There's even a plan to let a few beavers stay, after sterilizing the males with vasectomies and the females with tubal ligations or Norplant implants.

Wildlife activists say valuable plants can be beaver-proofed. They suggest everything from wrapping trunks in wire mesh to painting bark with a Tabasco mixture that sends beavers back to the water - for a long, cool drink.

Residents fed up by damage say such tactics don't work.

``Walt Disney has done an excellent job of creating in the American public's mind the image of Danny The Beaver,' says Edgar ``Bud' Parsons, a Lake Forest resident who believes lethal trapping is the only logical and safe solution.

``It's extremely easy for people to get all worked up over how to save the animal. In fact, it's become a pest. It's a rodent. It's the largest rodent in North America ... It's a rat.'

Parsons says he lost 16 prized dogwoods to the beavers. Other lakefront residents claim similar damage in gardens and backyards. A large chunk of the 10-acre wilderness area has been disfigured by flooding caused by beaver dams.

Others see the impasse as a test of man's ability to live in harmony with his fellow creatures.

``There's something profoundly important about man trying to adapt to nature so he can preserve nature,' says David Richards, a Lake Forest resident who favors sterilizing the beavers.

Experts say such clashes between wildlife and city dwellers are increasing in North Carolina. Species once consigned to the back woods or thought nearly extinct have adapted to life as man's next-door neighbor, exemplified by the black bear that wandered through Greensboro this week.

Lake Forest residents decided lethal trapping was the answer to their close encounter with another kind. They voted overwhelmingly to slay the beavers about six weeks ago at a neighborhood meeting.

That hardly ended the controversy. There's been a pro-beaver parade in Chapel Hill led by an animal-rights group, a petition to state government seeking clemency for Lake Forest beavers, and letters to the editor of the local newspaper from such far-flung settings as Canada - where the beaver is the national animal.

Even the Chapel Hill Town Council got into the act with a resolution saying it thought live trapping a viable option.

Beaver backers and critics have waged war over a variety of issues, including whether ``beaver poo' might make the lake unsanitary for swimming.

Beaver backers say the other side exaggerated property damage and spread false rumors to sway Lake Forest homeowners against the animals.

``If you didn't know there were beavers, you couldn't tell it by the damage in people's backyards,' says Dr. Charles Lohr, a dentist who recently resigned as president of the homeowners association to protest the lethal-trapping vote.

Beaver critics say the animal's human champions are blind to its faults.

``I'm an animal person myself, but it's just that you get in certain situations,' says Rue Gober, a longtime Lake Forest resident who doesn't think live trapping or sterilization will work.

Regardless of its viability, live trapping the beavers isn't allowed by the state Wildlife Commission, either for relocating the animals or sterilizing them.

Parts of North Carolina are already overpopulated with beavers - and beset by problems caused by the extensive networks of dams and lodges the animals build, wildlife officials say. They say Triad counties have beaver colonies, but not in the high numbers giving folks headaches further east - at least not yet.

Meanwhile, there's no track record on beaver birth control, according to Randy Wilson, a Wildlife Commission administrator in Raleigh.

``To our knowledge, there's only been one study done on that,' Wilson said of the Norplant proposal. ``It involved skunks in a caged environment.'

However, researchers in other parts of the country are testing Norplant on beavers and other wild animals, said Pat Sanford, director of the Chapel Hill Animal Protection Society. Norplant is a chemical implant that blocks fertility for several years.

Sanford said Norplant would be ideal because it's easy to implant, without requiring sophisticated surgery.

Beaver critics say sterilization won't end the damage the critters cause. Moreover, they say that suitcase-sized traps are needed to capture the animals alive, which could endanger children and dogs. The traps are placed above a beaver dam, where kids and pets could also scamper.

Lethal traps are put below the water at the entrance to the beaver's lodge. The most effective has a spring-activated frame with arms that crush the beaver around its neck or body. Beaver supporters say that could threaten a child or dog, too.

Moreover, they don't think killing the beavers will solve anything. Streams in their area have so many beavers, new ones will just move in to replace the old, they say.

``We'll have to constantly be killing beavers,' says Richards, a psychologist who's lived in Lake Forest since 1988.

Lake Forest residents first noticed the beavers about seven years ago. For a long time, problems were minimal.

The Animal Protection Society cut flooding by regularly tearing down parts of a beaver dam across the main tributary into the lake, Booker Creek. Some residents say beavers occasionally were caught in lethal traps to control the population.

But in 1988, Lake Forest residents voted to coexist with the beaver. The idea was to keep the population down by live trapping and sterilizing the beavers.

Three years ago, state officials shelved a plan by the Animal Protection Society to sterilize the Lake Forest beavers. The commission said the proposal was promising, but wasn't documented well enough and wouldn't stop beavers from damaging property.

Later, Lake Forest's board of directors decided to quit tearing holes in the dams, thinking beavers wouldn't cause so much damage if they didn't have to keep rebuilding.

Instead, the beavers enlarged the main dam and began building new ones upstream, further flooding Lake Forest's wilderness area and causing other problems.

Parsons, Gober and others began calling for an end to the policy of coexistence. ``Beavergram' newsletters circulated throughout the neighborhood, putting a spotlight on the beaver issue.

The showdown came in the April 30 vote at, ironically, Church of the Reconciliation. Recently, the Wildlife Commission issued the homeowner group a license to trap beaver out of season.

A trapper has been tentatively chosen, but hasn't started his work yet.

If he does, it will be a tragedy, says Chapel Hill animal activist Robin Cutson. She says beavers are noble creatures that mate for life, build strong families and exemplify the moral values politicians are always talking about. ``Maybe we should be emulating them instead of exterminating them,' Cutson says.

Others take a more detached view of the brouhaha.

``In Chapel Hill, I've always said we had more idiots per square mile than any place in the world,' says Gober. ``But they're all good people. I wouldn't move for anything in the world. It makes life interesting.'

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