Raccoon City

The pre-dawn silence of a summer morning is shattered by shrieks, shouts, and the heavy thud of a shovel grinding against flesh and fur.

The pre-dawn silence of a summer morning is shattered by shrieks, shouts, and the heavy thud of a shovel grinding against flesh and fur. Neighbours intervene; the police are called. A man is arrested and charged with animal cruelty. The baby raccoon he has clubbed nearly to death is removed to a wildlife rehabilitation centre for treatment and eventual release. When asked why he would do such a thing, the man replies, “They are destroying my garden.” [1. Pazzano, Sam, 12 March 2013. “Judge chastises Toronto man for attacking raccoon with shovel.” Toronto Sun.]

The shocking thing about this episode—editorialized extensively in the media—is not so much the cruelty itself as the widespread show of support for the accused. Raccoons are the masked marauders who spread the festering, maggot-flecked contents of toppled green bins into movable feasts, who fornicate at deafening volume and tear into residential attics now destined to become dens, and leave oily mounds of shit on freshly power-washed decks. In a city whose residents wage nightly battles against raccoons, there seems to be little sympathy for the victim of this early-morning shovel attack. Even residents who object to the accused man’s methods appear to understand his motives all too well.

In “Getting Their Hands Dirty: Raccoons, Freegans, and Urban ‘Trash’,” a fascinating essay exploring the connections between consumption, class, and the cultural distaste for scavenging, sociologist Lauren Corman quotes an online commenter writing in 2006: “the best racoon is one squashed and flattened on the road. I do a little giggle of glee every time I see one dead by the road in the city.” [2. Corman, Lauren, 2011. Getting Their Hands Dirty: Raccoons, Freegans, and Urban “Trash.” Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 9(3).] Similarly, upon reading a news story about the conviction of the raccoon attacker in 2013, a Toronto Sun commenter wrote, “What a load of nonsense, this guy should have been given an award. Racoons are a menace to society and should be killed whenever seen along with squirrels and any other destructive animals that live in the city.” Writing in Toronto Life magazine, columnist Phillip Preville argued that the City of Toronto should actively encourage the culling of the raccoon population and even offer “a $75 rebate on every varmint disposed of humanely.” [3. Preville, Phillip, 2011. Why the City should start killing raccoons (kindly, of course). Toronto Life.]

The notion that raccoons are “a menace to society” and should summarily be destroyed alongside other “destructive” urban-dwelling animals is a revealing one. It provokes parallel issues about the kinds of animals perceived to “belong” (or not belong) in urban environments, and poses additional questions about the ways we assign value to living things. Ultimately, it invokes an examination that extends necessarily to humans: if we reject animals for their destructive habits, at what point do we turn the gaze on ourselves?

Of all its claims to fame that have subsequently proven unfounded—the CN Tower is no longer the world's tallest tower; Yonge Street isn't the longest street in the world; the United Nations has never actually declared Toronto to be the most multicultural city in the world—one title remains that is unlikely ever to be disputed: Toronto is the raccoon capital of the world.

An accurate estimate of Toronto’s total raccoon population is hard to come by, but a 2011 Nature of Things episode titled “Raccoon Nation” reported an urban density of as many as 150 raccoons per square kilometre [4. Raccoon Nation, 2011. CBC Canada, “The Nature of Things.” Produced by Susan Fleming.]—a number many times higher than the average rural density, which the Ministry of Natural Resources estimates at 10 to 20 per square kilometre, and one that represents a twenty-fold increase over the past 70 years.

Why are there so many urban raccoons? What is it about cities that make them such hospitable habitats that they can sustain dense populations, particularly in light of historical predictions that they would ultimately be extirpated in the Toronto region?

Near the turn of the twentieth century, noted nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton predicted that habitat loss and hunting would eventually drive raccoons out of the city and its hinterland. In a 1916 story called “Way-Atcha, the Coon-Raccoon of Kilder Creek,” Seton begs his reader, “If you will help him tell these things and make them touch the world as they have touched him, the unspeakable forester shall not work to the bitter end his sordid way, the hollow tree shall stand, and the ring-tailed hermit of the woods shall not pass away.” [5. Seton, Ernest Thompson, 1916. “Way-Atcha, the Coon-Raccoon of Kilder Creek.” In Wild Animal Ways, 89-119. Garden City, N.Y.; Toronto: Doubleday, Page & Company.]

Half a century later, however, the woods were largely gone but the raccoons remained. In Tales of the Don, naturalist Charles Sauriol quotes Seton’s story and attempts to articulate just what has changed:

Up until the 1960s raccoons were respectable, law-abiding types with a folksy, country manner. They roamed the Valley at night looking for tidbits such as crayfish, minors, frogs, toads, insects and whatever else raccoons fancy. [...] Raccoons were still a curiosity then, still creatures of the wild. Raccoons today have a lifestyle quite different from their forbearers. I often ponder about the conditions that have transformed the raccoon of this day from a denizen of the wild into a garbage-raiding nuisance who sets up his den in a fireplace. [6. Sauriol, Charles, 1984. Tales of the Don. Toronto: Natural Heritage / Natural History.]

Sauriol then outlines how raccoons made the transition from wild woodland dweller to urban resident. Noting, “I suppose that the raccoon is something we are going to have to live with,” he adds:

In settling the edges of our valleys we have brought untold opportunities to coons to help themselves to our garbage, and they do. The coon’s greatest enemy, a man with a gun, has been eliminated. The [Don Valley] Parkway and extension have cut into the raccoon’s habitat and forced the critters to over-use the land left in a natural state. Then there are the trees. There are still many coon trees left in the Valley but the population has far outstripped them, hence the recourse to chimneys and other substitute shelters. [7. Ibid.]

It is simultaneously too simple and too late to suggest that raccoons are properly woodland creatures who should be pushed back into their “natural” domain. They have become urban creatures—mainly because we have made them that way.

In “Raccoon Nation,” biologists consider how well urban raccoons have adapted to city life, and speculate that urban raccoons (which have reportedly changed more in recent decades than in the previous 40,000 years) may shortly become a new raccoon species entirely. In contrast to country raccoons, city raccoons are assertive and largely unafraid of humans. They are larger and have vastly more varied diets. They choose different kinds of den sites and are less likely to hibernate. Radio-collar tracking has revealed that urban raccoons actively avoid natural areas like parks, preferring backyards and alleyways where food and water are more readily available. More tellingly, there is behavioural evidence that urban raccoons’ changing brains may be distinguishing them more profoundly—and perhaps permanently—from woodland raccoons. Nightly practice prying open green bins and back porch latches may have made urban raccoons smarter, or at least more dextrous. Urban raccoons appear to navigate differently, too, establishing tight territories that are bounded by major urban roads, the implication being that raccoons are learning to avoid their only real urban predator: the car.

“I think raccoons are a perfect match for cities,” observes biologist Suzanne McDonald, adding that, “in cities all around the world, wherever they have been introduced, they do really, really well.”

But if raccoons have adapted comfortably to cities, human tolerance to their presence remains low. Objections to raccoons stem from the refuse they scatter around and the property damage they cause to attics, rooflines, and garages. When anyone sympathetic to raccoons observes that these problems seem more nuisance than actual hazard (for example, securing organic waste is not overly challenging,  and it only costs a few hundred dollars to raccoon-proof a home) raccoon-haters bring out the trump card: raccoon roundworm. Roundworn is a parasite excreted in raccoon shit that can cause serious illness and even death in humans. Since raccoon shit is ubiquitous in urban back yards, sandboxes, and decks, where children play and families gather, and since the majority of raccoons reportedly carry Baylisascaris procyonis asymptomatically, surely this is incontrovertible evidence of the serious hazard raccoons pose.

The reality is that illness caused by raccoon roundworm, while potentially extremely serious, is actually exceedingly rare. Fewer than twenty cases of human raccoon roundworm infection have ever been reported in published medical literature, meaning that the average Toronto resident is far more likely to win the lottery than contract roundworm meningoencephalitis, even accounting for underreporting.

If raccoons are more nuisance than hazard, what is it about them that elicits such outrage—far more, for example, than is directed at other urban nuisances like pigeons, squirrels, or mice? The answer, I would argue, lies far less with raccoons than with the humans who malign them.

Corman argues that the widespread social distaste for raccoons amounts to an expression of class prejudice. Like human scavengers—freegans and dumpster divers—raccoons “disrupt” western habits of consumption and waste, laying bare some of the excesses of commodification under capitalism. Corman goes on to argue that raccoons are reviled because of middle-class notions of purity and moral hygiene, pointing out that “[f]reegans and raccoons point to our inability to contain, and thus control, what we cast away in the name of self-preservation and identity.” [8. Corman, Lauren, 2011. Getting Their Hands Dirty: Raccoons, Freegans, and Urban “Trash.” Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 9(3).] While Corman’s argument ventures occasionally into hyperbole, her discussion of raccoons as symbols of the abject gets closer to an issue far deeper than class prejudice.

In We Have Never Been Modern, anthropologist Bruno Latour observes that contemporary western culture “purifies” ontological categories  such as self/other, sacred/profane, and especially culture/nature, by eliminating things that call their separation into question. The problem, of course, is that “hybrids”—entities that refuse to belong to one category or the other—stubbornly persist, tearing into the neat categorizations that have defined so much of post-Enlightenment Western culture. [9. Latour, Bruno (trans. Catherine Porter), 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.]

Cities, in particular, are sites where nature/culture dichotomies are most rigidly enforced. It is hardly surprising that nature’s encroachment into city space is viewed with such suspicion. Raccoons are not the only creatures to engender alarm in Toronto. In 2009, after a coyote snatched a Chihuahua dog from a Beach-area backyard, neighbourhood residents demanded it be tracked down and shot, describing it as “brazen” and a “danger” to dogs and children. [10. Mathieu, Emily, 24 February 2009. Beach coyote 'brazen,' dog owner warns. Toronto Star.] Subsequent coyote sightings elicited similar outrage, a phenomenon a protagonist articulates aptly in Alissa York’s Toronto novel Fauna:

Ever been to the Don Valley? I mean the lower Don. I mean practically downtown. Ever felt like you were being watched while you walked along the path down there? Well believe me you were. Maybe you’re thinking but isn’t the whole idea of cities that we don’t live out in the wilderness with the animals anymore? Sure. Only cities aren’t airtight. You can’t screw down the lid on Toronto the way you do on a mason jar. They get in. And it’s our job to get them out. [11. York, Alissa, 2010. Fauna. Toronto: Random House Canada.]

Although coyote attacks on pets (to say nothing of humans) remain uncommon, the notion that ravine-dwelling coyotes are an urban scourge appears to have captured the public imagination.

Even stray cats have elicited calls for elimination. In 2009 the City of Toronto’s Animal Services division reportedly demanded that all 20 to 30 of the transient feline residents of a Bluffer’s Park feral cat colony be licensed [12. Lakey, Jack, 19 June 2009. Fur flies over Bluffers Park cat colony. Toronto Star.], threatening that failure to comply would lead to the destruction of the colony. A media outcry caused the city to stand down. A Smithsonian study published in 2013 found that roaming cats kill as many as four billion songbirds every year (as well as up to 22.3 billion mammals), eliciting even more outrage. [13. Loss, Scott R., Tom Will and Peter Marra, 2013. The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications, 4: article 1396.] “The devastation and damage they’ve caused is incredible,” claimed one Toronto resident that year, speaking to a reporter about the City’s new “trap, neuter, return” policy for dealing with feral cats, adding, “I have to clean out half a recycling bag full of feces from my front lawn all the time. ... They’re killing all the songbirds in my backyard.” [14. Gheciu, Alex Nino, 1 August 2013. Feral cats: Toronto’s trap-neuter-return policy draws hisses from residents and birders. Toronto Star.]

In “Feral Cats and the City,” Geographers Huw Griffiths, Ingrid Poulter, and David Sibley describe stray cats as exemplifying “a dialectic of desire and disgust, domination and affection” that revolves around their liminal identities as belonging neither to culture nor to nature:

Those animals which transgress the boundary between civilisation and nature, or between public and private, which do not stay in their allotted space, are commonly sources of abjection, engendering feelings of discomfort or even nausea which we try to distance from the self, the group and associated spaces. [...]  Thus, while there may be a sense of a loss of contact with animal nature, there is at the same time a sense that the boundary between urban civilisation and animal nature has to be maintained, a fear of the merging of culture and nature. [15. Griffiths, Huw, Ingrid Poulter and David Sibley, 2010. Feral Cats in the City. Animal Spaces, Beastly Places. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis.]

Stray cats, like coyotes and raccoons, are a source of unease and even enmity not because they cause real harm to humans but because they are “out of place” and, as such, undo the carefully ordered separation of urban culture from wild nature.

The funny thing is that raccoons are a lot like us. Like humans, raccoons are highly adaptable, omnivorous, opportunistic, and have few natural predators. Those alert eyes glinting in the darkness; those nimble paws undoing the Green Bin latch like a sneaky kid at a cookie jar: these gestures are disquietingly familiar to us.

Like humans, raccoons are intensely territorial. Their squabbles over backyard dens and alleyway corridors are strikingly similar to battles between neighbours who threaten litigation over shared driveways and boundary fences. And if raccoons readily colonize new regions with a limited appreciation of the consequences of doing so, doing so with little heed for the risks of exceeding a given environment’s carrying capacity, that too is something they have in common with humans.

The reality is that it is not raccoons who have invaded the civilized spaces of cities: it is humans who have eliminated so much of the raccoon’s natural habitat and given it little choice (and indeed the tremendous opportunity) of moving into cities. Raccoons may dive enthusiastically into our organic bins, but it is we who have provided them with this irresistible movable feast. Even the cunning and dexterity we decry when we are on the losing end may be something we as humans have driven, prompting biologist Suzanne MacDonald to observe in “Raccoon Nation” that, “Ironically, by providing [raccoons] with all these things that we hope to outsmart them with, we may be building the uber-raccoon.” Somewhat ominously, MacDonald adds, “I think that within a few generations we may have really, really smart raccoons. And then we’re doomed—I think they’re just going to take over.” [16. Raccoon Nation, 2011. CBC Canada, “The Nature of Things.” Produced by Susan Fleming.]

And in the meantime? Perhaps what we should do is learn to live with raccoons, perhaps even learn to see them as commensals—creatures who “eat at the same table,” as the term’s etymological origin suggests. Raccoons do, after all, consume our waste, making genuine if messy good out of our leavings. Perhaps, further, we should think of the spread-out contents of our Green Bins as offerings, a sort of tithing we do to make up for some of the destruction we have wrought upon the natural world. In this sense—because they know the secrets of our excess—we should think of raccoons as confessors, or at the very least, as Sin-Eaters, who absorb our transgressions and, therefore, help redeem us.


About the author

Amy Lavender Harris is the author of Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), which was shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Canadian literary criticism and won the 2011 Heritage Toronto Award of Merit. She is a contributing editor with Spacing Magazine, where she writes about culture, nature, identity, and place. Her next book, Wild City, explores intersections of nature and culture in the contemporary city.