Raccoons are everywhere, and at all times of the day. They’re a menace to private property and public health. It’s time we stopped pretending the city is a wildlife preserve
It is an uncomfortable truth about Toronto: when it comes to raccoons, murderous thoughts abound. Most of us would never act upon them, but on a Wednesday morning in early June, Dong Nguyen, a 53-year-old west-end resident, did. Nguyen allegedly took his garden spade to a litter of baby raccoons, injuring one and killing another. The incident and its polarizing aftermath were widely reported on, and Nguyen had at least as many sympathizers as detractors. Posters appeared around Bloor and Lansdowne featuring Nguyen’s perp-walk photo and the message “Get out of our neighbourhood you disgusting animal torturer.” Other area residents held an anti-raccoon rally. Raccoons were the Talk Radio Topic of the Week.
Yet in all the coverage, one detail was overlooked: the reason Nguyen was able to corner and attack his prey was that, on that fateful June morning, the sun was already up. Nguyen was able to see their every move.
Though raccoons are nocturnal animals, it is increasingly common to see them out foraging during the day. The most likely reason is population pressure. Stan Gehrt, a professor at Ohio State University who is one of a small group of experts on urban raccoons, once conducted a study in which numerous raccoons were given a pile of garbage to munch on. According to Gehrt, some of the animals walked right into the pile and started eating, while others waited their turn on the sidelines. “They did not have equal access,” he says. “If you are a low-ranking raccoon, you have to be out foraging when others are not.”
This is not a case of raccoons adapting to nature. Nature does not produce diurnal raccoons. And there is nothing natural about the urban environment. Every inch of this city, down to the last tree standing, is the product of human design. Only city raccoons are ever consigned to such a perverse and humiliating life: working the day shift in the hot sun, at the mercy of spade-wielding predators, long after the best grubs and garbage have been picked over.
If raccoons were our pets and we forced them to live in such depraved conditions, the OSPCA would be all over us. And in a way, raccoons are our pets—a massive band of feral strays for whom we leave out scraps every night. The city is like one giant crazy raccoon lady. At what point will Toronto realize it would be best to do for raccoons what it does for feral cats and dogs, and control their population through euthanization? Nguyen’s methods were unacceptably crude, but he had the right general idea.
Earlier this year, a documentary on CBC’s The Nature of Things christened Toronto “the raccoon capital of the world” and claimed there were 50 times more raccoons in the city than in the surrounding countryside. In the 1990s, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) estimated the city’s raccoon population at roughly 10 to 20 per square kilometre. But the numbers haven’t been updated since, so no one—neither the MNR nor Toronto Animal Services nor anyone else with any modicum of responsibility for urban wildlife—can make an educated guess at the raccoon population today.
The same MNR research found the highest raccoon densities in the city’s parks and ravines. Yet a study last year by researchers at York University, which put GPS collars on Toronto raccoons, found that they avoid green spaces, which makes sense: since their primary food source is garbage, ravines are food deserts to them. The study also found that raccoons avoid crossing busy roads, including those that border major parks, because they’ve learned that cars are their fiercest predators. So over the last few decades, many have left ravines for the safety of backyards, and they’re not going back.
Meanwhile, human behaviour has changed in ways that have only helped raccoons proliferate. Six years ago, the citywide composting program gave Toronto homes a hazard-free, easily-opened green bin to house all the juiciest garbage morsels. Surely raccoons salivate at the mere sight of them. The bin-proofing industrial complex now offers all manner of confounding straps, snaps and bolts to keep the coons out, but no contraption can possibly withstand the coordinated, relentless nightly (and daily) raccoon blitzkrieg. They out-motivate us.
In other jurisdictions across North America, rational people conduct wildlife population controls all the time. In Maryland, deer populations are regularly thinned out. Ditto for gophers in Saskatchewan, moose in Newfoundland and coyotes in Nova Scotia—for which the government pays a $20 bounty. In Texas there is an ongoing battle against feral hogs, and new legislation there allows hunters to go up in helicopters and pick them off from the air. (Yee-haw.) Earlier this spring, Chicago trapped and euthanized more than 120 raccoons that had invaded the city’s waterfront. Yet Torontonians live under the mistaken assumption that the city is some kind of wildlife preserve.
There has only ever been one case of raccoon population reduction in Ontario: from 1999 to 2001, the MNR thinned them out in eastern Ontario to stop the spread of rabies. Though the province is now purportedly raccoon rabies–free, raccoons can spread other diseases. They are carriers of distemper, a viral disease that is transmittable to dogs (not humans). They are also carriers of roundworm, which does not affect their iron innards in the least but can cause neurological damage and death in humans, as their larvae crawl into your eyes, brain tissue and nervous system like implements of science-fiction torture. Roundworm eggs are present in raccoon feces, which, once dried, can become airborne on dust particles. And then there is the widespread problem of physical damage to sheds, decks, attics and chimneys. Raccoons are a menace to public health and private property.
How great a menace? No one knows, because no one tracks the data. It’s unclear how prevalent roundworm is in raccoons, and Toronto Public Health says roundworm in humans is not a reportable disease. No one keeps a tally of the economic cost of raccoon-related property damage. Animal rights activists will no doubt insist I am overstating the problem. I say they are understating it. And in the absence of data, polarized opinion is all we’ve got to go on. This is no way to manage urban fauna.
In Toronto, raccoons long ago evolved from a wildlife species into a pest species, and it’s time they were treated accordingly. New York City has 166 staff and a 2011 budget of $7.5 million for pest control, including an online Rat Information Portal with interactive maps showing rat hot spots. But on the Toronto raccoon question, ignorance is bliss. When I asked the head of Animal Services, Elizabeth Glibbery, about managing the raccoon population, she immediately passed the buck and told me to call the MNR. Which I did: alas, the ministry says it prefers to rely upon such factors as distemper and cars for raccoon population control.
None of this means that city hall’s hands are tied. Property owners can legally kill raccoons, provided they do it humanely, and the ministry recommends hiring an MNR-licensed professional to trap and euthanize them. Dan Frankian of Hawkeye Bird and Animal Control, who holds such a licence, says the typical cost to trap and euthanize raccoons on a property is $300, and another $150 for each additional visit. So here’s an idea for city hall: offer a $75 rebate on every varmint disposed of humanely. If David Miller could do it for low-flow toilets, Rob Ford can do it for raccoons.