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Nerves Frayed In Toronto Over Roaming Raccoons

Toronto has a huge population of raccoons — so many, the city is known as the raccoon capital of the world.

Last week, the war between humans and raccoons got out of hand. Toronto resident Dong Nguyen was arrested and charged with cruelty to animals and possession of a dangerous weapon for allegedly hitting a baby raccoon in his backyard with a shovel. That has sparked a heated debate about how to control the animals and which urban dwellers' rights come first.

A few days after Nyugen was led away by police in handcuffs, his neighbors held an anti-raccoon rally. Jack Fava, who lives down the street from Nyugen, says he was outraged by the way Nyugen was treated. He doesn't condone violence against animals, he says, but he and his neighbors are fed up.

"I've been dealing with it since '98. You know, they've done damage in my under crawl where the kitchen is, [the] insulation and vapor barrier," he says. "I don't grow any more vegetables. I don't get to eat them because other animals — raccoons — get to them before I do."

[W]e're actually shaping an uber-raccoon that is going to be able to compete in an urban environment.

Fava has spent hundreds of dollars to repair the damage and keep the animals away. He says the city should work harder to control the raccoon population.

"I don't see why we can't cull the population down a little bit. I don't think there's anything wrong with that," he says. "We have a cat program here, they spay and neuter. I don't see why they can't spay and neuter raccoons."

Toronto's policy is to leave raccoons alone. The city encourages homeowners to keep them away by doing things like keeping their trash locked up.

"The idea that we can get rid of them is hilarious to me, because there's no way," says behavioral psychologist Suzanne MacDonald.

Raccoons thrive in cities, partly because there's plenty of food. There are 20 times more urban raccoons in North America than there were 70 years ago. MacDonald says city raccoons are smart, and they're getting smarter.

"One of the things we're doing is providing them with bigger and bigger challenges, so you've probably seen raccoon-proof garbage cans and all these things to try to keep them from figuring things out," she says. "But in fact, they always do, so humans are selecting these traits in raccoons and we're actually shaping an uber-raccoon that is going to be able to compete in an urban environment."

The bottom line, MacDonald says, is that raccoons are just part of modern urban life.

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Anita Elash