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Cute, crafty and toxic - meet the raccoons of Toronto

Posted by Chris Bateman / August 3, 2014

toronto raccoonThey're cute, they're crafty, and there are hundreds of thousands of them living among us. Have no doubt, Toronto is a city of raccoons. Various estimates put the population somewhere in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 - that's about 12 of them per square kilometre, sleeping in garages, fighting, and poking through garbage.

"They're really, really adaptable," says Mary Lou Leiher from Toronto Animal Services. "So if there happens to be humans in their environment, they can adapt to that. They do make a connection between humans and their food source. Garbage is obviously a main food source for raccoons - it's the main thing they forage on."

In the wild, the raccoon diet consists mainly consists of berries, eggs, insects, and other omnivorous fare. They typically live in trees and tend to avoid open spaces such as clearings. Noises such as whoops, snarls, purrs, and terrifying screeches are common, even among their urbanized cousins.

Like most animals, raccoons tend to stay close to a ready supply of grub, especially if someone is intentionally leaving it out. Most of us do just that every compost collection day. Special straps and clips are often no match for their remarkably dextrous hands and sharp teeth. Raccoons have even been observed teaching bin-busting techniques to their offspring.

"Once raccoons have learned to open a latch - it sounds like something monkeys do - they seem to be able to retain that memory for years," says animal expert David Sugarman from the Ontario Science Centre. "They're one of the few animals that can teach it to their young."

The financial burden of dealing with Toronto's raccoons is unclear, but last year Animal Services collected some 4,398 dead raccoons, and another 2,455 that needed medical attention. In an attempt to curb garbage raids, the city's solid waste division is working on a way to better seal green bins.

toronto raccoonToronto has an odd relationship with its iconic critters. Like other pests, urban raccoons have the potential to damage property and carry disease, but attempts at controlling their numbers are usually met with passionate resistance. Maybe it's their size, maybe it's their little faces, but most people balk at calling an exterminator to deal with unruly raccoons.

They aren't all cute, however. Almost 75% of raccoons have toxic poop, says Sugarman, who has a background in parasitology, the study of parasites.

"There's a roundworm carried by raccoons that's really quite dangerous ... it's creepy. It lives OK in the intestine of raccoons, but if another animal ingests it, the larvae, the little worms that hatch out of the eggs, mostly what they do is migrate through the body and take up residence in various organs."

Baylisascaris procyonis is particularly nasty if passed on to humans. The eggs can be inhaled, absorbed through skin on contact, or soaked up by the digestive system if eaten, leading to myriad discomforts, sometimes skin irritation, difficulty breathing, and even permanent eye and brain damage.

"No drugs have been shown to be totally effective for the treatment of Baylisascaris infection," the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ominously warns on its website.

"People really should be aware of this roundworm and make sure that they keep their sandboxes covered. If you find a pile of this stuff on your deck, you've got to be really careful to remove it," says Sugarman, who advises wearing a face mask or respirator.

"You've got to bury it or burn it. Some people have said pour boiling water on it or carefully use a blowtorch, because that really is the only way to get rid of these damned eggs."

As city dwellers, we will have to get used to the presence of raccoons, says Mary Lou Leiher, because like them or loathe them, they're here to stay.

"We're always going to have raccoons; they're not going anywhere. We can try to eradicate them - it will not work. And so what we really have to do is learn how to live with them."

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Photos: Somewhere In Toronto, Jamie Kaiser/blogTO Flickr pool.



Sean / August 3, 2014 at 04:17 am
Stop the 'passionate resistance' people. They are not pets but pests. Racoons carry diseases and damage property - lots of property. They are in the same league as rats in the city. GOT THAT?

Toronto needs to do a cull of these critters, several times of the year.
flib / August 3, 2014 at 10:58 am
Or you can be less of a dick.
Andy replying to a comment from flib / August 3, 2014 at 11:11 am
Our you can stop singing kumbaya for 10 minutes and address the issue instead of name calling those that are presenting a solution.
Greg / August 3, 2014 at 11:53 am
If he hasn't personally experienced the problem he thinks the problem doesn't exist.

Typical bubble person.
Laura Parker replying to a comment from Sean / August 3, 2014 at 02:39 pm
I agree completely.

How about complaining to the M.O.H. - as raccoons can be carriers of Lyme disease and the health department needs to be more proactive on these matters.

The city animal control dept. are useless.

ndpCoonHugger replying to a comment from flib / August 3, 2014 at 02:43 pm
What do brain dead people like you want to do for the coons, give them bicycles and their own "coon lanes" and a food bank?
Wake up, this is vermin!
BIG MIKE / August 3, 2014 at 03:15 pm
yourneckisred / August 3, 2014 at 03:15 pm
North Americans make me sick.
Henry / August 3, 2014 at 03:40 pm
I freeze my garbage like the big restaurants do till pick up day, otherwise garbage left out will feed the critters, if you leave unprotected garbage out you are feeding the critters if you are smart and freeze and protect your waste you will be critter free, let's all try and educate one another.
Matt replying to a comment from ndpCoonHugger / August 3, 2014 at 03:41 pm
Yes of course another problem created by human beings. The raccoons are here because of us- because of the way we have designed this city and because of how we live. So either we need to completely change everything or just adapt to the situation.
Elle Em / August 3, 2014 at 03:55 pm
I wonder if a TNR program could be done with raccoons like with the feral cat population...
guest replying to a comment from yourneckisred / August 3, 2014 at 04:09 pm
Nice generalization there. We're not all bad, just so you know.
Garneau / August 3, 2014 at 04:20 pm
Already didn't much like them, now appalled to read that their s&*t is toxic. So now I have to worry I have something potentially fatal lying in my backyard that the city will do absolutely nothing about while police make $100,000 a year to stand next to construction sites getting a tan? Geez Toronto - way to protect your people.
CARRIBANA ROB FORD ON CRACK / August 3, 2014 at 04:54 pm
You can buy a humane trap. Once caught you can release them in Parkdale and let the progressives deal with them. It's what I do.
kn / August 3, 2014 at 05:02 pm
I just had a great idea for a business. Rent a Wolf. You'd make a killing.
chingChangChong / August 3, 2014 at 05:29 pm
We should allow Chinese people to trap and eat them. The coons will be under control in no time.

Just think of the possibilities:

- coon penis soup
- bbq coon
- coon with sea asparagus and king mushrooms
- coon cooked 5 ways with 7 spice powder

Jesus replying to a comment from Sean / August 3, 2014 at 11:06 pm
Humans are a disease, we should cull you.
G / August 4, 2014 at 12:03 am
I think that a big cull would be excellent. And then keep doing it until the population is significantly reduced. They are pests that carry disease and CAN be dangerous animals.
Hana / August 4, 2014 at 12:16 am
Stop singing Kumbya for 10 minutes and try to address the issues at hand for the day.
Hana / August 4, 2014 at 12:21 am
Love it!
Joe Shmoe / August 4, 2014 at 01:11 am

we once had issues with too many canadian geese - now we don't.

so what's the problem with doing the same with the raccoons?

in my neighborhood there's a nest of at least 5 of them - every 7 or 8 houses

after midnight they outnumber people 10 fold.

they are everywhere until sunrise.

they destroy people's property - yet the babies are so cute.

so what do we do?

kn / August 4, 2014 at 09:21 am
Natural predators. Rent a Wolf could be first, then Rent a Fox, Rent a Coyote or Rent a big friggen Owl. Or if you are squeamish, supposedly places just sell predator's urine (distilled?). Or just trap them and drive them far away where a predator can rip them to shreds like they are suppose to do.
poop replying to a comment from Hana / August 4, 2014 at 09:44 am
Like to use that line a lot hey Hana/Andy?

You people are entitled dickless morons. We encroach on these animals not the other way around. Prevention, not "culling"/murdering. Idiots.

*goes back to singing Kumbaya*
Andy / August 4, 2014 at 10:37 am
Drown these rodents. While your add it POOP can you give the land back to the Native Indians who we encroached on to begin with, then move back to your original homeland and all will the be back right back the way it was.
Sue / August 4, 2014 at 10:38 am
Umm these animals are only here because of all the garbage eats we have for them. If we didn't have all the garbage they would move on
jenn replying to a comment from Sean / August 4, 2014 at 03:16 pm
funny, I'd wager that if all other species could talk, they'd agree, humans are the worst pest on this planet, I'd put the biggest bet on you.
seanp replying to a comment from Andy / August 4, 2014 at 03:19 pm
if the world was left up to you it'd be a barren waste land I bet. Let me guess you drive a gas guzzling SUV for a party of ONE, buy disposable trends and then heap up your unwanted items for a land fill, could give two sh*ts that we are literally killing every species out there- a little "KUMBAYA" might do you good b*tch.
seanp replying to a comment from Jesus / August 4, 2014 at 03:21 pm
preach it brother, preach
jenn replying to a comment from poop / August 4, 2014 at 03:23 pm
totally with you on that, let's sing together shall we? you know they think we are tree huggers, ironic, I'd just call it compassionate.
Rocky Wacoon Coon-Cum / August 4, 2014 at 03:49 pm
Let's all sing Rocky Racoon and everything will be better.

And don't forget, I'm a relative of the famous native Mathew Coon-Cum
Sasha / August 4, 2014 at 06:34 pm
No we don't think your tree huggers but understand that your renters that have only been here for a couple of years. No property or property taxes to care about. Funny how if an issue doesn't really effect ypu , you still need to comment on it.

With you logic, cars should remain the dominate vehicle on our roads because that always have been.
Mark Twain replying to a comment from Sean / August 4, 2014 at 07:44 pm
Humans carry disease, too. Just FYI.
Mark Twain replying to a comment from Sean / August 4, 2014 at 07:46 pm
Humans damage property, too - lots of property.
huckle / August 4, 2014 at 11:26 pm
Yes and we have systems and ways of treating and dealing those humans that damage property and break the law, as well as we have ways of treating and helping those people that have a virus.
David / August 5, 2014 at 08:53 am
Ok so we'll keep the racoons because we encroached on them BUT there are to many abimals in the city so we'll need everyone to get rid of thier house pets cats and dogs because peole are choosing to bring them into the city and its encroaching on our lifestyle.
Al / August 5, 2014 at 08:57 am
Hi Matt. If this has been a problem created by humans as you suggest then we need to let the humans solve the problem. Get rid of these PESTS!
Amy Lavender Harris / August 5, 2014 at 10:31 am
1. The actual density of raccoons in Toronto is estimated to be up to 150 raccoons per square km -- far higher than reported here. The figure mentioned here (presumably MNR, although oddly no reference or link is provided) sounds like a long stale-dated estimate of rural raccoon populations in Ontario.

2. The overwhelming majority of raccoons do appear to excrete roundworm eggs in their feces -- but human infection is exceedingly, exceedingly rare -- fewer than 20 cases, anywhere, ever, appear ever been reported in published medical literature, meaning that even assuming under-reporting or mis-diagnosis (something the studies usually mention), Torontonians are far more likely to win the lottery than suffer infection from raccoon roundworm. [Still a very good idea to clean up racoon leavings as soon as possible.]

3. It's not complicated to secure your organic waste. And if you can't, and complain about it here, you should realize you're admitting that raccoons are smarter than you are.

4. It is neither complicated nor expensive to secure homes and other buildings from raccoons. Getting them out once they're in -- well, that's another matter, but there are at least a dozen competent contractors who do this work.

5. Toronto's raccoons are urban creatures because we've made them that way. This doesn't necessarily mean everyone has to like them -- but at the very least, it might be worthwhile to acknowledge our own contribution to their presence here, and remember to think of them as nuisances rather than hysterically exaggerate their alleged "hazard."
And so... replying to a comment from Amy Lavender Harris / August 5, 2014 at 10:55 am
Yes agreed. BUT one thing when looking at the situation today the population is only going to grow and grow and grow. A female raccoon will typically have a litter of 2-5 young ones. A raccoon can start having babies after the age of one.

Male racoons will mate multiple partners during the mating season. Mating occurs during the winter months but can continue until June.

And so on and so forth, and so on and so on, until there are 500,000 per square KM.

Amy Lavender Harris replying to a comment from And so... / August 5, 2014 at 11:07 am
Evidence for your claims about a forthcoming raccoon population bomb? Ever heard of, say, a given environment's carrying capacity? It works quite effectively in the animal world -- pity one can't say the same for humans (yet).
And so replying to a comment from And so... / August 5, 2014 at 11:14 am
Ohh and lest we forget. A female raccoon can have a litter every year.

Further evidence to why the raccoon population is on the INCREASE. Year after year...
And so.. replying to a comment from Amy Lavender Harris / August 5, 2014 at 11:17 am
Ohh yes a given environment's carrying capacity works wonders in the wild we're talking the urban environment here. So the recommendation from my Amy Lavender Harris is that we let them get to the maximum capacity then we'll have something to discuss and take action on....
Drew / August 5, 2014 at 11:25 am
Ohh great the Kumbaya fest is back on.

What's next - is Olivia Chow going to dress up as a raccoon and go into a nest to get your votes??
Real / August 5, 2014 at 11:49 am
We need to keep the raccoons here Porter Airlines used them as their mascot already Mr. Porter. He appears in all of their advertising and by supporting the raccoon population will continue to be support for our island airport and porter airlines. Toronto is Raccoons. Toronto is Porter Airlines.
tommy replying to a comment from Sasha / August 5, 2014 at 08:10 pm

And by the way, due to archaic tax laws, renters actually pay more property tax via the rent==>management company==>municipal tax route than property owners. So by your logic, renters should have more say than you in how the city is run.
Sahsa replying to a comment from tommy / August 5, 2014 at 09:29 pm
No they don't renters pay increased rents, but the property tax is hidden to them they have no idea or concept of what it takes to manage a rental or own a property unless they have in the past or maybe if theyve been a long term renter for 20 years. Does a renter receive an invoice telling them what they owe on a yearly or monthly basis, usually NO. Most of the rentals in Toronto are illegal rentals and therefore no concept of what it takes to pay a mortgage, taxes, water, gas, electricity, etc. etc.
Sahsa again replying to a comment from tommy / August 5, 2014 at 09:31 pm
Does a renter care if there are raccoons nesting on the property they are renting. Usually not. Does the renter address the issue, usually not they call the landlord and say come down I have an issue and its your property not mine....
Anne / February 12, 2015 at 12:19 am
I didn't know that raccoon feces carry round worms, so that is one more reason for me to call the raccoon removal people when I spot one near my home. I was never found of them anyway and the fact that the the official are not doing much to control their numbers in Toronto makes me more angry.
Ray / February 12, 2015 at 12:26 am
I had heard that raccoons carry rabies but had no idea that their feces are also dangerous. I think it's high time that the officials do something to stop the growing population of raccoons in Toronto. I once had a family of raccoon invade my basement. I called professional raccoon removal people from Swat Wildlife to get rid of them. These raccoons damaged the place so much that I had to renovate the basement.
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