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Masked critters still get a pass in Toronto

The raccoons in Toronto are getting bigger, smarter and more ornery all the time. There seems to be no garbage bin they can't undo, no home they can't invade. They've defeated me for 30 years. One morning, I found a gang of them blissed out in a heap on our indoor porch. They'd managed to open the front door and close it behind them as they feasted on our garbage. We had garbage on the walls and paw prints on the ceiling and a stench that lingered for months.

Country people know how to handle varmints. Blam! But in the city, varmints are known as "wildlife" and must be protected at all costs. Last year, a Toronto man was arrested after a neighbour reported someone battering some baby raccoons with a garden tool. Animal lovers posted his picture with the warning: "Get out of our neighbourhood you disgusting animal torturer."

The city has a variety of tips for discouraging raccoons, all useless. Sprinkle soap flakes on the lawn and water thoroughly. Drip diluted tabasco sauce over garden fruits and vegetables. Sprinkle naphtha flakes around the house until it smells like a giant mothball. Soak some rags in ammonia and hang them up.

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For a while, we tried human pee. No luck. Some friends tried playing CBC Radio One really loud, but the raccoons developed a taste for As It Happens. My husband rigged up a small electric fence, hoping to keep raccoons out of our tiny backyard pond. But all he did was electrocute a squirrel.

The trouble is, we have unwittingly bred the most successful, most competitive raccoons in the history of the species. York University's Suzanne MacDonald, an expert in animal behaviour, calls them über-raccoons. "Urban raccoons have had many generations of dealing with opening garbage cans, prying open windows, eavestroughs, pet doors, garages and the like," she told me. Thanks to these evolutionary pressures, they're getting smarter faster than we are. And they're multiplying faster, too. Today, according to the documentary Raccoon Nation, there are 50 times more raccoons in the city than in the country.

Raccoons are not benign. Their feces harbour a toxic parasite that can, if inadvertently ingested, destroy your brain. If possible, says one expert, areas contaminated by their poop should be sanitized with a blowtorch. Yet, even though their poop is overwhelming us, you must never mention the word "kill." That would be barbaric. The city warns us that shooting, poisoning and other methods of dispatch aren't allowed, even in self-defence.

Pest-control experts (oops, wildlife-removal experts) never use the k-word. "Everything we do is humane," one removal expert assured me. "We don't harm them at all. They're still God's creatures." If raccoons have moved into your attic, the removal expert will lure them out through a one-way door. If a raccoon has given birth in your attic, "we put the babies in a heated incubator so she can take the babies away one at a time and the whole family stays together. There's no stress."

So what's wrong with just trapping them? "Oh, God, no, not for us! We don't believe in trapping. We've tried to develop a way to live harmoniously."

In California, where raccoons are described as "pests," the authorities permit more aggressive measures, including the death penalty. Some U.S. cities and municipalities even believe it's their job to control raccoon infestations. Fortunately, we here in Toronto don't subscribe to this cruel philosophy. When it comes down to a choice between us and them, we choose them.

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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More

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