City Scene

The coon patrol

Val Ross June 16 1980
City Scene

The coon patrol

Val Ross June 16 1980

The coon patrol

City Scene

Val Ross

Ladders rattling jauntily on its roof, the Wildlife Removal and Prevention Services company truck turns off north Yonge Street, swings past the glowing lawns, rustling hedges and brilliant tulip beds of the pleasant upper-middle-class Toronto neighborhood known as Hog’s Hollow and then clatters to a stop in front of the home of the day’s first client. “I do get to see some real palaces on this job,” allows Rick Brown eyeing the ranch-style home before him. “I could get envious. But then I think—there’s only a handful can do what I do, and I hate to brag but I’m one of the best.” For six years Brown, 26, has been capturing wild animals loose in the city. He is a “Wildlife Officer” according to the badge that glitters importantly on the breast of his navy blue uniform. (“Oh, the badge? My boss had ’em made up.”) He also wears Hush Puppies, for traction when he chases creatures across rooftops, and mirrored shades which add a terse, Steve McQueen note.

It turns out that Toronto is teeming with wildlife. Wolves have been spotted south of city limits, foxes in Leaside, deer grazing in the gardens of Mississauga and raccoons, via ravines, all over. Brown’s employer is one of half a dozen private companies that, for fees from $50 to $300 and up, will attempt to cope with them. The Game and Fish Act, Section 2-1B, gives Ontario property owners the right to use “any means, to take or destroy” animals (except deer, hawks, owls, kingfishers, caribou and moose) vandalizing their property. Some companies offer poison bait and poison powders for a quick and cheap (about $75 a visit) solution. Rick Brown’s employer does not, and Brown is proud of that. “When you poison those poor little buggers, they crawl off to die and leave their babies to starve, and when they rot we get called in to clean the mess up anyway.” So Brown uses tranquillizer guns, dog sticks (sticks with a lassoo or noose on the end) and humane, i.e. non-maiming traps; and he also likes to think he uses animal cunning.

Today’s client has raccoons up her fireplace. A large, elegant European matron, ringed hand on the bosom of her Pucci duster, she exclaims, “Goodness! Such awful goings-on!” The raccoons’ squawking and fighting interrupted a dinner party last weekend. “We couldn’t hear each other talking! We were overpowered.” Rick Brown, wildlife officer, intones “Not to worry, ma’am,” and he dons his thick gloves briskly. Raccoons, those ubiquitous, three-feet-long, 50-pound North American mammals, genus Procyonidae, cousins of China’s giant panda bears, are Rick Brown’s favorite assignment. “Clever and strong,” he assesses his masked opponents. He knows their seasons: midwinter mating, 56-day gestation period, kits in the late spring, which is peak trouble season. He knows they’re numerous, though no one, not even the Metro Regional Conservation Authority, can put a precise number on the tens of thousands living in Toronto. He knows they’re adaptable and agile.

Three weeks ago Brown was called in to get one off the third-floor window ledge of the Nestlé building at Don Mills and Eglinton. “Now, it’s literally a flat brick wall. But when I went to grab him, it only took him 20 seconds to scramble up, clawing the bricks, to a seventhfloor ledge.”

The matron watches as Brown, shades pushed back, squints and scouts around her house. “Aha—TV tower!” he points triumphantly. “I’ve learned what to look for, entrances and exits. Last week a client insisted his raccoons had gone but I knew there still had to be a hole. I kept looking till I found it: a gash where they’d clawed through quarterinch ply and lifted away the new aluminum sheeting.” He enters the house and checks up the fireplace with flashlight and hand mirror. “You’ve got to get all the kits,” he observes. “Once I took out four babies, but I’d overlooked one. Then I capped the chimney from the outside and left. The next morning the client called. The mama had come back—and she’d scraped away at the plaster of that chimney to get her kit back. The chimney lay toppled in the driveway. You wouldn’t believe what these guys get up to.”

Today no kits are visible to light or mirror, so the wildlife officer fetches a smoke candle and a length of quarterinch wire mesh screen from his truck and clambers to the roof, via the TV tower, with Procyonidae agility. The smoke candles, dropped down the chimney, release blue raccoon-repellent clouds of disinfectant (“They’ve left fur and lice in your chimney,” Brown explains to the horrified matron). Then he bends and secures the heavy mesh screen over the chimney hole to block further intrusions.

The next stop is a suburban Spanishstyle home in Thornhill. Brown left a “Havahart” humane trap here yesterday—a wire mesh box, baited with weiners or sardines, whose door shuts when the animal tips a weight inside. The client has phoned to say that the trap is sprung. And sure enough, there are sooty five-fingered humanoid paw marks all over the white garage door. Two little children creep out of the house to watch the action from behind their mother as the wildlife officer opens the garage door. Surprise: last night’s crafty coons rioted joyously through the garage and departed. In the trap, glowering sheepishly, squats a skunk. “Stand back!” commands the wildlife officer, and the children watch as with one gloved arm he smoothly sweeps the cage up and, holding it at arm’s length, liberates the skunk on the neighbors’ lawn. (If it had been a raccoon, it would have been set free outside the city.) “Well, why didn’t you take the skunk too?” objects the children’s mother. Brown is brusquely patient. “He wasn’t hurting anyone, and you hired us to do one job, raccoons, not two.” He rebaits the trap and drives off.

For these and similar efforts, a raccoon remover earns a little more than $200 a week, and handles 50 cases a month. He faces the possibility of rabies shots (less than one per cent of Ontario raccoons are infected, but skunks can be carriers). At least half his job is spent hassling with clients. (“Why, for this price, can’t you guarantee they won’t come back to my vegetable patch?” “Because they’re everywhere, ma’am, and besides, you live by a ravine.” “Well, why should we pay so much up front for the trap before the job’s done?” “That’s just the way it is.”)

For the majority of Metro’s property owners, there’s a feeling that wild animal control is far from adequate. The province refers callers to the city. And Art Eggleton, the Toronto mayoralty candidate who chaired Metro’s Animal Control Committee, admits his committee’s report probably won’t deal at great length with raccoons. “We just haven’t got an answer for it. Suggest they should be poorly treated and you have the animal lovers down your throat.” So the city refers people to the Humane Society which, if pressed, advises people that a border of marigold may keep them out of the vegetable patch. That’s about all that can be done. Considering the thousands of dollars of damage these creatures do, their ubiquitousness and the politicians’ buck-passing, the lack of hard information on the creatures is rather shocking. Merlin Andrew, member of the militant animal rights group Action Volunteers, believes the solution is to feed them so they don’t have to root in garbage or scratch and damage property to survive. Resident of a second-storey apartment at Jarvis and Carlton, she has a raccoon pal whom she provides with peanut butter sandwiches. “Anyone who can make it across the CBC parking lot and up my staircase day after day deserves a sandwich,” she argues.

The dearth of public-sector solutions to the wildlife problems means the ball is back in the court of private companies like Rick Brown’s employer. Which is fine by Brown. He loves his work and enjoys matching wits against exiles cunning enough to adapt to Toronto’s hostile environment which, after all, has defeated many human beings. Calling on his last client of the day, Brown spots and captures a six-week-old raccoon kit staggering through the bushes. Held aloft in his thickly gloved hand, the kit hisses, struggles and tears at the leather glove. The five fingers of each little black hand splay out; he grasps the air in a fury. As Brown considers the animal’s spirited determination to survive, the expression on his face approaches sympathy.