By the Blouin News World staff

FEATURE: Garbage bins take on Toronto’s raccoons

by in Americas.

A raccoon getting its garbage fix (Holger Hollemann/AFP/Getty)

A raccoon getting its garbage fix (Holger Hollemann/AFP/Getty)

The City of Toronto, Canada approved a plan earlier this month to spend a cool $25 million on brand new “raccoon-proof” garbage bins. It is the equivalent of “the surge” in the war on “raccoon nation,” the nickname ambivalent residents have coined for the community of ring-tailed pests that infest their city.

Toronto’s massive raccoon population, which has been booming since the 1990s, has earned it the dubious title of “Raccoon Capital of the World.” The creatures are so ubiquitous that the city’s past two mayors have both publicly addressed the problem and declared their distaste for the animals. When the new garbage bins were approved, Mayor John Tory declared, “We are ready, we are armed and we are motivated to show that we cannot be defeated by these critters.”

The new bins are almost twice the size of the old ones, making them tough for even Toronto’s overstuffed, sedentary city raccoons to knock over. (City raccoons, spoiled by the conveniences of urban living, are fatter than their earthy rural relatives.) But if they do manage to tip over the colossal bins, an even more confounding challenge awaits. The new bins feature a twist-open latch, which a raccoon’s surprisingly dextrous clawed hand can’t master. Raccoon expert and York University professor Suzanne MacDonald helped test the bins, and described the experience in an interview with the National Post. For a week, she baited the new test bins with enticing rotisserie chickens and filmed the results. One particularly tenacious raccoon spent a full six hours trying to jimmy the lid open, until finally withdrawing in meatless defeat. So will they ever figure it out? MacDonald explains:

“I don’t think we would see them cracking the code to these bins because the bin is based on the physical limitations of the raccoon. So it’s not the cognitive limitations. They know there’s food in there, but they can’t physically make the motion necessary to open any of the bins. That twisting motion, they can’t do it.  I mean, if they all get together and get a sledgehammer, they might be able to crack into it. We’d have to have significantly different raccoons in the future to be able to get into those bins.”

For war-weary Torontonians, that sort of evolution hardly seems out of the question. Toronto’s raccoons are notoriously skilled animals that have foiled their human counterparts for decades. Toronto resident Wendy Silman told me that she and many of her neighbors have gotten into the habit of keeping garbage indoors until trash day to avoid having junk strewn all over the neighborhood. (Full disclosure: I am friends with Silman’s daughter Anna, who was apparently spooked as a kid by raccoons that would jump from trees onto her window ledge and stare at her at night.)

For Silman, keeping garbage inside until pickup is a last resort. She tried putting bricks on top of the lids, but the raccoons still knocked them over. Some neighbors resorted bungee cords, but racccoons figured those out too. One friend of Silman’s even told her that he tried keeping his trash in his garage, but the damn raccoons figured out how to open the garage door using the automatic button. In short, these creatures may well be just a few IQ points away from outscoring you on the SAT and taking all the jobs.

Silman hasn’t received her bin yet and never imagined it could be something she’d be so excited about. “Here I am, a normal person,” she told me. “And I’m walking down the street, and I stop to look at a new garbage can to admire it.” (She’s not alone: while still in office, Mayor Rob Ford once told a reporter about arguing with his family about whose turn it was to risk a raccoon encounter by bringing in the garbage bins.)

The bigger, greener, tougher-to-open bins may solve a few raccoon problems, but the city still hosts an estimated 200 per square kilometer — and some of the most memorable raccoon run-ins have nothing to do with garbage. “If you live in Toronto, you’ve had a raccoon encounter,” Silman said.

For everyday instances of raccoon chaos, solutions remain vague. Mass-scale euthanasia feels too sociopathic to drum up popular support, and since city raccoons rarely move outside of a three-block radius, its illegal to “drive them up North” to a new habitat. So Toronto residents get creative: Silman once chased a raccoon out of her house with a broom after it climbed inside through the cat door, but only after it had run up two flights of stairs.

For those who need back-up, options are spotty. Animal control services receive 15,000 raccoon calls in Toronto each year, but only handle cases involving animals who are sick, dead, or injured. If your foe is alive and thriving, you may be able to call on nonlethal assistance. Silman once hired a raccoon-chasing entrepreneur to evict a raccoon family that was living — and loudly scratching — under her family’s porch.

The mother and her babies had dug battle-grade trenches down toward the foundation of the house. To get them out, the raccoon evictor had to saw a hole in the other side of the porch. He then used a boom box to blast loud rock music at them until they were annoyed out of their home, before sealing off the trench entrance with metal mesh.

But in the raccoon capital of the world, such costly interventions are just a drop in the bucket. Experts estimate that an urban raccoon has as many as 10 to 20 homes. Clearly, they have plenty of resources and have shown an astounding ability to adapt to modern life.

Still, lawmakers hope their $25 million green bin bet will deliver a considerable blow to Toronto’s raccoons, who will soon find themselves without their most reliable food source. Besides, however tricky raccoon warfare gets, we have biology on our side: “We have giant human brains, we can outsmart these little animals,” MacDonald said to the National Post. “We think they’re evil geniuses. They are smart. We are smarter. We just have to be smarter.”