They’re cute and clever. They’re dirty and annoying. As their active season shifts into high gear, we look at life in the raccoon capital of the world.
Peter Schafrick knows about raccoon poop. He knows what it looks like, he knows what it feels like to step in, and he knows just how much the raccoons near his house like to deposit it—at least every other day—on the back deck outside the sliding glass door. “Right on the mat,” he says.
His fight to keep raccoons from dumping on his deck began about six years ago at his semi at Bayview and Eglinton, where he lived with his wife and two small kids. He tried keeping them away with a dusting of cayenne pepper—people say it burns their sensitive hands. That didn’t work. He tried marking his territory by sprinkling his own pee around the deck. That didn’t work, either. He bought a noisemaker that was triggered by a motion detector. “I think they just got used to it,” he says.
Finally, he called wildlife control. Most companies in the city advertise their humane services, and will trap and relocate what they call a nuisance raccoon. Schafrick went further: He hired an exterminator.
“We got 11 or 12 [raccoons],” he says. “And the problem went away for—a week. It’s like trying to get rid of a gang. You get rid of some members. There’s a power struggle. And then the new members step up.”
“Why can’t they mind their own business and leave me alone?”
If you’ve lived in Toronto for more than a few days, you’ll know that stories about raccoons causing chaos are as common as TTC complaints or gridlock griping. Every morning, people across the city wake up to find fresh raccoon crap on the porch or rotten food spilling out of overturned green bins. Raccoons terrorize our cats, torment our dogs, and specialize in doing irritating things like eating our backyard tomatoes just as they ripen. While we sleep, they tear up our lawns in search of grubs, squeeze into our garages or attics for shelter, and even break into our homes to kick back and take a nap. On top of it all, their feces can pose a serious health hazard. Needless to say, our relationship with Procyon lotor is complicated—and can even turn nasty.
When Dong Nguyen was caught taking a shovel to a litter of baby raccoons in his Bloordale garden in June 2011, it polarized the community. Posters with photos of Nguyen immediately went up around the neighbourhood, calling him a “disgusting animal torturer” and telling him to move out. Other area residents held an anti-raccoon rally in support. (Nguyen pleaded guilty in March and was given a conditional discharge for cruelty to animals, a $1,365 restitution fee to be paid to the wildlife centre that treated one of the raccoons, and was ordered to complete 100 hours of community service.)
His story illustrates the extreme emotions aroused daily in a city teeming with raccoons.
Rob Firing, who now lives near Dupont and Ossington, recalls a friend who lived in an apartment on the second floor of a building north of St. Clair, on Avenue Road, with a pet budgie. One night, a raccoon tore through the screen door of her balcony and waddled into the apartment. “The birdcage was ripped apart…. Feathers were everywhere. I saw the aftermath the next day,” he says. “[My friend] was angry. She liked the budgie.”
Five years ago, Brad Gates, owner of Gates’ Wildlife Control, a company that specializes in humane removal, was called to house where a raccoon was stuck in the dog door. The raccoon had snuck in through the pet’s entrance and eaten so much kibble that it couldn’t squeeze back through the flap. Gates had to dismantle the door to set the bloated critter free. Another client—this one with a cat door—was reading in bed and didn’t have her glasses on. When she reached down to pet what she thought was her cat, “a raccoon turned, growled, and attempted to bite her,” says Gates. “Her shriek caused the raccoon to hightail it out of the house.”
But some people love their raccoons. In 2009, the Toronto Star reported that a bald raccoon in Parkdale was being fed and kept alive all winter, despite its hairless state. Earlier this year, a YouTube video of a dexterous raccoon, standing upright on one wire while gripping another wire above with its front paws so it could shimmy its way over garage roofs, went viral. When a homeowner found three baby albino raccoons in his Scarborough garage in 2011, the story made the news primarily because, as the comments section of the Toronto Sun gushed, “they are so friggin’ cute!”
There’s no official city count, but scientists with the Ministry of Natural Resources estimate that there could be as many as 100 raccoons per square kilometre living in the city—so many that Toronto has been unofficially dubbed the raccoon capital of the world.
In 2012, Toronto Animal Services responded to 8,529 calls from the public about raccoons—mostly about dead animals that people wanted city workers to remove, the rest being sick or injured. The highest concentration of raccoons exists in the old City of Toronto, where higher densities of humans mean more garbage to scavenge. Gates says that he gets double the number of calls from the Danforth, Riverdale, and the Beach than anywhere else in the GTA. At this time of year—high season for animal control—his business answers 50 to 60 calls about nuisance raccoons every day.
So, why Toronto?
Well, technically, they were here first. “This is the raccoon ecosystem,” says Suzanne MacDonald, a psychology professor at York University who specializes in animal behaviour. MacDonald studies raccoon psychology and is currently researching their problem-solving abilities to figure out how they break into our garbage and birdfeeders. “The urban environment we constructed suits them just fine,” she says.
Unlike cities such as Montreal, Edmonton, and Ottawa, Toronto winters are milder and we typically don’t get buried by the kind of snow that makes it hard for raccoons to forage. The city’s network of ravines also connects neighbourhoods, MacDonald says, which offers raccoons a safe place to retreat, if necessary. And unlike Vancouver (where, historically, there have been more condo buildings in the downtown), Toronto has residential neighbourhoods with leafy backyards, garages, and easy access to garbage. Urban raccoons have flourished here because of their ability to adapt to our environment, forage in our waste, and find shelter in easy-to-break-into older downtown homes.
MacDonald says that, while we think we frequently come into contact with raccoons, we’re mostly unaware of their movements. She recently set up night-vision webcams in a friend’s backyard, near High Park. In one night, she documented more than 50 individual raccoons travelling through his property.
Stories like that aren’t news to Gates. Looking back over his 30 years of experience with wildlife control in Toronto, he makes a connection between the launch of the green bin program in 2002 and what he perceives to be a spike in the raccoon population—in the past five years, his business has increased by 25 per cent. Of course, a population surge can’t be officially verified because no one at the city is counting. “If it seems one year there are more raccoons than four years ago,” says Mary Lou Leiher, program manager with Toronto Animal Services, “it may just be a natural fluctuation in the population based on the amount of food, water, and shelter that is available to them.”
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For most of us, dealing with raccoons is just a hassle—cleaning the deck, scraping the rotting green bin contents off the pavement, nailing chicken wire over a hole in the garage. But raccoons cause more than aesthetic damage, too.
One recent study published by the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that raccoon latrines—the places like Peter Schafrick’s deck where they regularly go to relieve themselves—commonly carry the raccoon roundworm parasite. If ingested, it can cause severe neurological damage, or even death. Kids are particularly at risk.
Catherine Parsons found out the hard way. Four years ago, her two-year-old twin boys saw their dad outside the partially opened back door and ran to him. They tripped on the way out, and one fell onto a raccoon latrine and cut his lip.
At SickKids, infectious disease specialists prescribed a preventive medication that had the side effect of
giving her son a high fever. After her child’s temperature remained at 104 degrees Fahrenheit for six days, doctors gave her a choice: “The fever is bad for him but roundworm could give him brain damage.” She chose the fever.
So what’s a Torontonian to do?
“They are not going away. We just have to learn to live with them,” says MacDonald. That means keeping your garbage and your home and garages secure. As far as the crap on the deck goes, the best you can do is clean regularly and try to keep the animals away.
You aren’t allowed to catch raccoons and release them more than one kilometre away because you risk spreading disease. Even if you hired someone with a trapper’s licence, or could kill them yourself (it’s against the law to poison a raccoon and if you hunt, you aren’t allowed to discharge your firearm in the city), it won’t do much to exterminate them—as Schafrick found, it doesn’t work. A cull might appeal to some city residents, but it’s a stop-gap measure. “If you kill a few raccoons in a backyard, others will move in,” says MacDonald.
Our green bins could be designed better. The city recently put out a Request for Proposals for a second-generation bin that can work with automated collection trucks. One of the specifications is that a new bin be raccoon-proof, something that MacDonald, who lives in Thornhill, knows is possible: the bins in her area have a latch that snaps so tightly they’ve stymied nocturnal intruders. “The raccoons can’t get into them. There’s no way. It’s not like in Toronto,” she says.
Gates offers his own solution: “If we really want to be serious, we should pass a bylaw saying that garbage can [only] be put out the morning of pick-up.”
Really, the only viable solution to reducing the raccoon population in the city, says MacDonald, is through a birth control program. By sterilizing, rather than killing, raccoons, the animals would be able to live out their natural lives in their home ranges. Then, over about a decade, their numbers would drop. But that would take research and government funding, neither of which appear to be on anyone’s agenda.
In the meantime, the raccoons are winning. In March, Peter Schafrick and his family moved away from their raccoon battle site to a new home at Lawrence and Yonge. (The move had nothing to do with raccoons, he says.) The first night in the new place, he and his wife went to bed very late, exhausted from the move. Not long after they fell asleep, they were awakened by what sounded like raccoons coming into their room; the animals had made a den on the other side of the bedroom wall. “I tried to shoo them,” he says. “I was in my underwear on the back deck with a broom.” They only got two hours sleep that night.
The next day, his contractor nailed up the hole the animals had made in the cedar shakes but that night the raccoons tried to get back in. “They made such a racket,” he says. “They were causing damage. Wood was breaking and cracking. It was unbelievable.”
Since then, the contractor’s patch has held. Yet the saga continues. Like the old place, the new house has a deck and a landscaped backyard; it also has a koi pond, where fish live among floating ornamental plants. And like the old place, the raccoons make nightly visits. “The spring comes and they start defecating on our deck,” he says. The fish pond, too, is an attraction. Raccoons have ripped out the ornamental plants there.
Over the past seven years, Schafrick has spent several thousand dollars on his war with raccoons. Now he’s got one weapon left in his arsenal that will cost him a little more. He recently hired someone to surround his yard with an electric fence to keep the raccoons out. Maybe this time he’ll win.
“They really have it in for me.”
Suzanne MacDonald, a York University psychology professor who studies animal behaviour, on how raccoons do what they do. By Katie Underwood
No need to see it when you can feel it.
Unlike us, raccoons don’t have opposable thumbs, but their nimble fingers give them near-unparalleled grasping ability—which can spell disaster for your garbage cans, tents, and discarded Tupperware. “Their brain is set up so that a large part of it responds to hand stimuli,” says MacDonald. “They basically ‘see’ with their hands, so that they don’t have to stick their head into water or dark spaces to see what they’re manipulating.” Those tiny hands, she says, fit easily into grooves, and urban raccoons will work away until they pop open whatever they’re after.
Balance is key. But rotating feet don’t hurt, either.
Most Toronto residents have spotted these paunchy night-roamers scurrying nimbly across narrow fences, power lines, and quickly up and down trees, which MacDonald attributes to their excellent balance. “They look like they’re all butt,” she says, “but they have excellent balancing abilities.” They also have freaky techniques: When climbing headfirst down a tree, a raccoon will rotate its hind feet to point backwards, ensuring a better grip.
What’s the rush, anyway?
At a full run, a raccoon will max out at 25 kilometres per hour over short distances. “They’re not built for speed,” MacDonald says, laughing. “They can move when they need to, but are hindered because of their strange shape.”
Tight squeeze? No problem.
Equipped with a totally gross-sounding “collapsible spine,” raccoons can squish their ample fur and “big-boned” bodies into hard-to-imagine spaces. “That’s why they get into attics and through shed doors,” MacDonald says, adding that a raccoon could easily squeeze through a 13-centimetre crack. “They stick in their pelvis, and make themselves almost completely flat.”
They’re smarter than your average bear.
“They’re very inquisitive,” MacDonald says of the unrepentant foragers. “They like objects, and it helps that we build things they are skilled at opening.” She also notes that, in roughly 100 years of raccoon research, studies have shown the animals have memories for tasks that exceed those of dogs and are on par with monkeys. And when there’s food involved, they’re not known to throw in the towel. “They persist much longer than any species I’ve ever worked with.”