Raccoons in Toronto: unwanted scavengers or loveable pests?

They turn over your garbage cans, they rummage around at night. But on the other hand, they are really really cute.

It was midnight and pitch black, except for the pools of streetlight dotting the pavement. I was walking down Queen West at that time in September when the summer is just thinning into autumn’s cold breezes. Even with a clipped pace and bent head I still had my eye out for the ne’er-do-wells and rapscallions that might accost one on one’s way home. Or so one thinks.

As I heard a suspicious scuffling behind me,I quickened my pace, my hand unconsciously moving towards my cell phone at the bottom of my pocket.

Until I realized the scuffling was coming from overhead.

And it was around this time that I looked up and was unexpectedly met with the most direct, intense gaze I have ever been unexpectedly met with.

Hanging unconcernedly off a telephone pole above me was a raccoon of an impressive girth.

Despite this rather unusual sight, I was immediately distracted by movement in my peripheral vision. And as I turned around, I was startled by at least four raccoons of less impressive girth, ravaging the remnants of a once whole trash bag.

And thus went my encounter with one of Toronto’s most populous wildlife species. Raccoons.

“More and more we’re invading their territory,” says Jiha Humayum, who works in the wildlife department at the Toronto Humane Society. “We are in their home space and so they feel comfortable with us.”

Baby Raccoons being impossibly cute at the Toronto Humane Society.At one point the Humane Society’s wildlife department was home to 200 raccoons. Now they have three baby raccoons as well as two adults.

“We get the most in the springtime, when all of the animals are having their babies,” says Humayum.
But for now while the Humane Society is experiencing a lull in its raccoon populace, the rest of Toronto seems to be booming.

The Toronto.ca website warns against raccoons as being rabies ridden and provides tips on preventing raccoons from rummaging in green bins and nesting in homes.

“Hang ammonia-soaked rags, keep your area brightly lit (important: make sure the light source is not a potential fire hazard) and play a loud radio tuned to an all-talk station.”

Of course this is useful advice, given that the kryptonite-like effects of CFRB on raccoons are well documented.

But perhaps it is not fair to demonize raccoons to such an extent. It is no secret that Torontonians view them with outright disdain. In the media they are seen as constant usurpers of the status quo, throwing around garbage and claiming territory not lawfully theirs.

And yet, from my brief, but poignant encounter, I remember something more than just a rodent-like pest.

There was a decisive character about them, different than other animals. More wily, more human. Perhaps it was their sheer survival skills and their animal prowess.

“They are not scared of people anymore. They’re quite bold. And they’re wild animals, so they’re not supposed to be nice or friendly. They’re in the same category as wolves,” says Humayum.

Catherine Roe, a shoe salesperson at Queen west’s John Fluevog Shoes Ltd. says that her raccoon experiences have been “kind of comical.”

“I was in an alleyway on Queen St. with my friends and this raccoon came out from behind a fence and checked me and my friends out,” says Roe. “We scooted him away but he came out from another side of the fence.”

Roe says they are common around her home as well.

“They’re really loud. I’ve heard them fighting at night. It’s so hard to describe what they sound like,” she says. “It’s like a shrieking vicious little bear. I’ve heard them gang up on squirrels. They’re territorial, they’re bullies and they’re not friendly.”

That’s certainly one way of looking at it but Eunice Wong, host at East! restaurant, adopts a global perspective in regards to raccoons.

“They were bigger in Vancouver,” says Wong. “It makes sense though because it’s more urban there and they’re urban animals.”

In a YouTube search of raccoons, 10,400 results come up, including the humorous, the animated and the experimental.

One video yields evidence of a raccoon’s remarkable paw dexterity when pilfering a cat’s food supply. Yet further proof of their intelligence is evident in an experiment conducted by the Toronto Star.

In the video posted the Star lined up green bins with different measures of precaution, from the totally unprotected to a green bin with a net and a secure latch. The raccoon that this smorgasbord attracts dabbles in the unsecured bin for a little while, easily lifting the lid with its remarkably hand-like paw.

But instead of lingering at the easiest point of entry, it rises to the occasion by struggling for a while and finally succeeding in prying open and emptying the contents.

Sarah Jezek, server at Queen west’s Everest restaurant, is not bothered at all by them.

“They seem very comfortable here,” she says. “A whole family was outside of the patio one night and people stopped and took out their cameras and the raccoons just stood there posing and enjoying it.”

So the question remains: friend or foe?

But despite each Torontonian’s personal answer, the reality is that we must learn to co-exist.

“Try not to leave garbage out because they’ve got good fingers and a good grip,” says Humayum, as the baby raccoons in the cage beside her poke their noses out.

Her advice is to let them be as much as possible. But if a gang of raccoons is challenging you for property rights to your home, numerous humane wild life removal companies will take care of them for you.
As the Toronto.ca website says, “By learning how to share the environment with them, we can be entertained by catching sight of these visitors as they make their way to a more suitable home.”

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Posted: Oct 12 2008 5:48 pm
Filed under: Features