The Reality of Raccoons

I hate raccoons. I haven’t always, only when they insisted on holding their screaming matches during final exams. But now I do. They’re vicious, dangerous to humans and dogs with their sharp claws and teeth — except possibly pit bulls where I think it’s the other way around — and filthy vandalizers. They dump garbage everywhere, toss garden furniture, poop on the patio or the patio chair, threaten your dogs, and kill each other off. They have always been a fact of urban life, at least in Toronto, but because of city regulations, they have become more than just a nuisance. They’re become the summertime horror show.

When I was young, raccoons were all that I just said, but you didn’t see them much. They came out solely at night, nested in the trees, and confronted humans only if you were foolish enough to put out the dog’s dinner on the deck during the summer or the garbage out unsecured. It took a patient and lucky person to catch a glimpse of them and especially to capture a photo of them.

As the years went by, more and more raccoons invaded my and my neighbour’s space. Watching the trees and dark spaces in the backyard became commonplace as you let the dog out for the final pee of the night. Seeing raccoons waddling down the street in daylight became routine. It was no wonder as Toronto became increasingly filthier and garbage-strewn — a raccoon’s dream. The population was clearly growing. Then Toronto decided it was inhumane for captured raccoons to be transported, even en famille, to wooded areas outside the city. It wasn’t their territory, and they would be easily killed. (Frankly, I can’t imagine anything easily killing a raccoon.) This was the final straw: the abundance of garbage combined with the fact that the city hasn’t substantially cleaned up our streets and alleys plus the fact that the raccoons’ only predator — us — refuses to expel them from our territory — exploded their population. And now we have a real mess on our hands.

As any high school biology student can tell you, when an animal has abundant food supply and their predator either disappears — or in our case, refuses to hunt them — their population increases exponentially. The results are tragic. Oftentimes they’ll strip the land of their food supply and start starving. This will never happen to Toronto raccoons, but the other cruel consequence of overpopulation already has: territorial disputes. As the population increases, the size of territories decrease. As the size decreases, the animals get antsy. It’s like our personal space. Imagine someone coming up to you and talking to you 5 cm from your face, you’d feel a bit antsy too. You’d probably step back until you had nowhere else to go, and then you might try to evade, and then you’d finally get your hackles up and either leave or push the person away. Raccoons aren’t so nice. They kill their invaders.

And there’s another problem with decreasing territory I hadn’t thought of until recently — where is mama bear going to give birth? Toronto is filled with big old trees, crumbling homes, and rotting garages. So why did this poor newborn’s mama choose a sealed-against-raccoons garage, one that’s used frequently, and is filled with well-used items? It isn’t any warmer than any other wooden structure. So why did she not choose one of the big trees to nest in where she’d be undisturbed? Or a nearby rundown and less used garage? Or a handy soffit, as I saw one do a few years ago? Could it be that she had no choice? Raccoons may be many things, but they’re not stupid. They thrive precisely because of their intelligence and their well-constructed paws. She must’ve had no choice. And sadly when the owner went into his garage and pulled down an item he wanted, down came her newborns, and one died.

We’re city folk. We’re not hardened hunters. And this one’s death affected us. It would’ve been nice to have been as ruthless as that guy who drowned the raccoon, and just pulled out their nest and left them to die in the cold. Yet we could not, even though we knew with certainty that they will grow up to create havoc in our lives, even though he cannot afford to have his stuff pooped on and destroyed which will happen as soon as they become mobile, even though as they become bigger they will pose a danger to him anytime he goes in there to retrieve an item. It is a well-used garage remember. We could not because the sight of this one dead, it’s umbilical cord still attached, completely helpless and at our mercy made it difficult to speak, difficult to even contemplate such an idea. He pushed the nest back into the garage, closed the doors, and left shaking his head. Perhaps they’ll move on, but not for a month or two and what is he to do in the meantime? And how much will it cost him? I left sad then angry at what the city has wrought. I never had to deal with such tragedies before this decade even though I’ve lived surrounded by raccoons most of my life.

According to the Toronto Humane Society, “Any action that prevents the mother raccoon from caring for her babies will result in suffering for her and a slow death for them.” This one died quickly, because it had just been born and didn’t have the strength to survive the fall and cold. His/her brothers and sisters will probably suffer a slower death, engaging in internecine warfare when they start establishing territories, where death is painful and slow, where injuries cause great suffering. This is better?

The Humane Society, in their infinite wisdom goes on to assert that “…it is better to wait until the summer, when the family vacates, and then take action that will prevent the same thing happening next year.” Raccoons have the lovely ability to dig through a well-built roof. How then does the Society expect a wooden structure to be permanently safe from invasion, even one well-secured? Perhaps the Society figures we should all build brick garages with metal roofs. Will they pay?

“Instead of blaming them, we should work together to find a solution, satisfactory to both humans and raccoons.”
Oh I’m not blaming them for the fact that the current situation is satisfactory to neither humans nor raccoons. When the city creates conditions that rats flourish in, raccoons will be pulling up to the buffet too. When the city and Humane Society and other narrow-thinking do-gooders prevent people from humanely live trapping and transferring animals to outside the city, the raccoons start knocking up against each other’s territories and human territories, and horror and mayhem ensue. And now we have a bigger problem, one I don’t think of much even when letting the dog out at night: rabies.

According to the CBC, officials vaccinated up to 78% of the raccoon population to create a buffer zone to prevent raccoon rabies from spreading into Canada. It failed. I believe that it’s a matter of time before it enters Toronto, not because I think our health officials are incompetent — on the contrary — but because they’re dealing with raccoons living cheek by jowl in Toronto, giving the virus easy access from one animal to another, and because raccoon fights are increasing, providing the virus with the perfect conditions for infecting a new host. I’ve heard little about this encroaching threat, although I’ve always known any wild animal can carry rabies. But humans have a tendency to think that if a problem doesn’t exist today, it won’t in the future. If a raccoon hasn’t killed a kid yet, they won’t in the future. The only solution I see to this mess is to encourage the coyotes in High Park to fan out through the city to do what our city officials don’t have the stomach to do: get the balance back between us and raccoons.

5 Comments so far

  1. swoononeone (unregistered) on March 19th, 2007 @ 8:20 pm

    The “Racoon Problem” is simply a product of our environment. The more land that is consumed by humans in Toronto the less habitat for racoons. Our unfortunate problem is that they are well adapted to living among us and love the abundance of garbage we create.

    I’ve experienced a racoon chimney invasion. Luckily they didn’t make it into my living room. The best thing is to have your roof capped and home/apartment racoon proofed as much as possible.

    Racoons one of but probably not the most resourceful at lurking with humans. I’ve heard there have been stowaway rats on Antartica that threatened some bird local species once they arrived! Talk about crafty survival techniques…

  2. talk talk talk (unregistered) on March 20th, 2007 @ 12:16 pm

    The old city of Toronto has been built up for a very long time, much longer than I’ve been alive, so the idea that we’re crowding them out cause we’re building in wooded areas or green spaces doesn’t work as a theory in Toronto. It isn’t that we’re taking over their habitat — I would like to posit that a long-established city is our human habitat and they’re encroaching in our space — but that we’re providing them an easy source of food. More food leads to better nourished which means more babies and more survive to adulthood, which results in lots more raccoons.

    You’re right, that they do love our garbage! City policy and change in waste removal has not only made it easier for raccoons to eat, but also the rats you mentioned. They’re nature’s other adapt-to-every-condition species! (And they’re growing in numbers too.)

  3. Stephen (unregistered) on March 21st, 2007 @ 7:10 am

    Sorta off the main topic but when an uncle of mine came to visit N.America he remarked about how many fires we must have. He kept noticing time and time again how many houses we build out of wood, or with huge wooden frames.

  4. talk talk talk (unregistered) on March 21st, 2007 @ 10:07 am

    It is interesting how different materials are used in different parts of the world with wood predominating here — rather reflects our huge forest resource. But if you go to Kingston, their buildings are made of limestone (I think it’s limestone). Looks really different and neat. They did have lots of fires up in the north during the winter; he’s right in his observation there!

  5. ravi (unregistered) on March 21st, 2007 @ 2:01 pm

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