The Phoney War is over; the real battles are set to begin. Let us train our spotlights on our enemies as they slither down drainpipes; let us listen for the skittering of their claws on our pressure-treated decks. They are cunning and nefarious, and they're here for our garbage.
The war on "raccoon nation" is engaged, as Toronto's Mayor John Tory announced this week. Of course, anyone who has lived in one of Canada's cities knows that this is a war of attrition that has been going on for decades. But now, Toronto is rolling out the heavy artillery: a $31-million program that, if approved, will bring new, allegedly raccoon-proof compost bins to the city. As Mayor Churchill-Tory said, "We are ready, we are armed and we are motivated to show that we cannot be defeated by these critters."
I should warn you that I'm a quisling, a traitor to the human cause, because I am firmly on the raccoons' side. Let them have our garbage. It is, quite literally, garbage. It's not like they're breaking into people's houses and walking off with tiaras and Cuisinarts. We pay people to take away our trash, and the raccoons are willing to do it for free.
Ah, but they create a mess when they're stealing the garbage. I understand that. The 60 seconds it takes to sweep the compost back into the green bin is 60 seconds you will never have to play Candy Crush, or scream at the @&^% who cut you off in traffic. Time is valuable, and those impudent little rascals do not understand that. How can they, when they spend their free time wandering alleyways, chattering to their young and charming tourists?
You might argue that they spread roundworm and get into scraps with dogs, but as far as I can tell, neither of those things is widespread, or a very great threat. I think we dislike raccoons simply because they are staggeringly good at adapting to city life, probably better than we are. We're jealous of the creatures that Ricky in Trailer Park Boys calls "rakins."
If anything, we should admire raccoons for getting the best out of the city, and leaving its aggravations aside. They never line up for brunch, nor do they ask the provenance of the garbage they're eating. They may have a couple of dozen dens on the go at any one time, but not because they've engaged in bidding wars with the squirrels or possums down the street.
They have naturally luxuriant facial hair, and never worry whether it's at the right length or density for fashion. They have adorable paws but never use them to scroll through Twitter feeds. You will never find a raccoon paying $6 for an organic lemonade at a farmer's market, and being too embarrassed to ask where the sugar is. Raccoons are all about the sugar.
As we design new and better green bins to thwart them, we might actually be helping them become more clever, as the excellent documentary Raccoon Nation pointed out. Raccoons like a puzzle; they thrive on a challenge. The ones that figure out how to crack the garbage safe are the ones that will likely grow fatter, have more babies and pass on their smarts to their offspring. As York University raccoon expert Suzanne MacDonald says in the film, "with all the things we hope to outsmart them with, we may be building the uber-raccoon."
You'd think we might enjoy watching this evolutionary magic at work, but that is not the human way. We enjoy wild animals until they become too clever by half and start usurping the privilege that is the divine right of man. Take red foxes, for example. When I lived in London, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) held a similar position to the raccoon in North America. He was an urban menace, a scavenger whose mating cry sounded like a baby being flayed. Stories about his danger to humans – always apocryphal – were the main course at dinner parties.
When I asked people what they specifically didn't like about foxes – because they aren't actually dangerous, certainly no more dangerous than dogs – they would eventually admit that they simply didn't like the encroachment. The cheeky beggars were burrowing in their sheds and scattering their rubbish. They had no respect for property!
Curiously, these were often people who were enthusiastic urban farmers: They kept bees and collected eggs from under the heritage chickens that lived in the backyard. It occurred to me that they were quite happy to embrace nature so long as nature conformed to man's design. If it walked on a leash and didn't dig up bulbs – if it wasn't too natural – then nature was okay.
It may be time not to declare war on raccoons, but to broker for peace. Let them have the garbage, while we have the kimchi tacos. Let them sleep unmolested in the eaves we'll never finish paying for. At least we can be generous in victory. It is victory, right?