A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Rise of the Uber-Raccoon

Anger in Toronto as rascals adapt to city life

“Man charged in raccoon attack,” ran the news headline in a Toronto subway.

You’d imagine that the raccoon had attacked the man, but Dong Nguyen, a 53-year-old Canadian immigrant, was being led away in handcuffs for allegedly beating the animal with a garden shovel.

A neighbor had called police after seeing Nguyen knocking the baby raccoon off a fence and hitting her with the shovel.

While the young raccoon is recovering at a wildlife hospital, the incident has brought the city’s “raccoon problem” to something of a head.

“I don’t support violence but people are frustrated. They’re at the end of their rope,” said Jack Fava, a local community activist, who had organized an anti-raccoon rally to protest the arrest.

Anger at the growing number of raccoons invading people’s backyards has pitted homeowners against animal protection groups. Fava says the animals have often entered his house, and although he has tried using “raccoon-proof” locks on his outdoor trash bins, the clever critters have found ways to open them regardless.

People on Fava’s side want raccoons to be relocated, neutered or even killed. Animal protection groups, however, point out that if you remove existing populations of urban wildlife, more will simply arrive to fill the vacuum.

In San Francisco, raccoons hang out where food is dropped at night.

Raccoons, like coyotes, have carved out a place for themselves in cities that are forever expanding into what was once wilderness. And, of course, with their bandit masks, they always look like criminals – albeit cute ones.

And, like the coyote, the raccoon is becoming smarter. The more we take action against them, the more they learn to adapt, and through the process of “survival of the smartest,” simple country raccoons are evolving into canny, city immigrants in their own right.

“By providing them with bigger and bigger challenges, we’re actually shaping an uber-raccoon that is going to be able to compete in an urban environment,” said Suzanne MacDonald, a behavioral psychologist who led a 1998 study to observe what happened when raccoons were being removed by city officials.

Wildlife experts note that it’s best not to befriend raccoons or to feed them. Don’t leave pet food outside where raccoons can find it or come into contact with your pets. Raccoons do pose a rabies risk, and the disease can even be transmitted to a pet without that pet being bitten.

“It is technically possible for a rabies-infected raccoon to leave infected saliva on a food or water dish,” said wildlife veterinarian Liz Stelow. The incidence of non-bite rabies transmission is quite rare, but it is not impossible and rabies is inevitably fatal.” (Read Dr. Stelow’s full explanation here.)

Scott Sylvia, an investigations officer with the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, noted that we humans are the invasive species, not the local wildlife. “We’re encroaching on their territory because of urban development,” he said. “We have to learn to become as tolerant of them as they have become of us.”

What do you say? Do you have masked intruders in your neighborhood? And how do you think we should relate to the growing numbers of wildlife in our suburbs? Let us know in a comment or on Facebook.