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.