'Out of all the wildlife in Canada, they're probably the smartest': Animal experts caution on how to treat, represent raccoons

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Raccoon near Guadalupe, California.
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Over the last decade, raccoons have unquestionably become Toronto’s unofficial mascot. 

Every year, there seems to be a number of incidents where the creature winds up in an unusual spot throughout the city, which in turn makes headlines. There was the record shop raccoon, the Shoppers Drug Mart raccoon, and the donut shop raccoon, to name just a few. 

Now, the animal’s notoriety in Toronto has inspired one local storyteller to create a game called Trash Panda, which features raccoons hunting through the city’s neighbourhoods in search of garbage bins. 

Jason Leaver says he was inspired to make a video game featuring raccoons because of Toronto’s obsession with them.

“There’s countless articles about raccoon stories,” he tells Yahoo Canada News. “Torontonians go crazy for those stories and I go crazy for them too.”

When he bought a raccoon asset from a video game development company, he eventually came up with the idea to set it in Toronto, so the player could explore the game from the animal’s point of view. Leaver says he’s had several encounters with raccoons over the years, including a group of babies who had gotten into his bins. He felt that making a video game would capitalize on people’s obsession with them, and help bring attention to his game.

“I thought, if I could get this thing made, it would be very easy to get the news to think about it,” he says.

But Nathalie Karvonen, executive director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre, says promoting the label of “trash pandas” isn’t doing the animals any favours.

We’ve had people pour boiling water over them and smash their heads with a shovel and do terrible things because they don’t value them. Would you do that to a hummingbird or a loon? You can insert any wild animal that’s been tagged as a good wild animal, not a trash panda or something seen as negative. They wouldn’t do that to them.Nathalie Karvonen, Executive Director Toronto Wildlife Centre

She says things like overflowing dumpsters and in some cases, directly feeding raccoons, only leads to a direct spike in their population in the city.

“It rubs me the wrong way that they get a negative rap for things they do that we set up for them,” Karvonen says. “If you had a child and you had a piece of chocolate cake and you left it in a place they could get to, would you be angry if the child ate the chocolate cake? We have to take some accountability for our role.”

She says raccoons that are found in the wild will scurry away if they come across humans. But when you have raccoons in a neighbourhood, all it takes is one person who feeds them to change their behaviour.

“They’ll be more inclined to rummage through your garbage because they’re not afraid of you,” Karvonen says.

Ben Worthington, manager of animal services at the Guelph Humane Society, is extremely familiar with the raccoons. He says the most common call he gets involves the animals.

He explains raccoons often find themselves in peculiar places outside the forest because, like monkeys, they have hands that are dexterous. They’re also cavity burrowing, which means they look for preexisting hidden areas that they can use for shelter, whether that’s an attic or a crack in a tree.

“They’re quite smart and can get into places that a typical animal may not,” he says. 

Out of all the wildlife in Canada, they’re probably the smartest wildlife species we have.Ben Worthington, Manager of Animal Services at Guelph Humane Society

While raccoons are often cast as garbage-lovers, Worthington says they’re opportunistic scavengers, meaning they’ll eat anything that they come across, whether it's trash or roadkill.

“They’ll try to find the easiest thing, as opposed to trying to hunt for their meal,” he says. “They’ll literally eat anything.”

He says the most common call he gets is about raccoons stuck at the bottom of a trash bin.

Worthington says the population of raccoons in the Toronto area is quite dense. In March, the city issued a warning to avoid contact with the animals, after it had seen a 62 per cent increase of reported scratches or bites related to encounters with raccoons over the pandemic, between January 2020 and February 2021. Since then, the number of reported raccoon exposures has decreased to levels observed prior to 2020, with 110 exposures reported to date this year.

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