You don’t have to be outside for long to realize that here in the Bay Area, we are surrounded by wildlife. Long before houses and roads and cities popped up, wild animals reigned supreme. As we negotiate our relationship to the remaining members of that wildlife, there’s bound to be some tension.
One particularly sneaky animal is on the prowl in almost every neighborhood – digging up garden beds, living in attics, scavenging through garbage…
They’re raccoons, one of the most common urban animals in America. But just because they’re everywhere doesn’t mean our relationships with them are peaceful. KALW’s Hadley Robinson has more.
HADLEY ROBINSON: If you’ve ever walked through a campground at night, you might have had this experience: You shine a flashlight into the woods and see glowing, beady eyes staring back at you.
Haven’t had that happen while camping? You don’t need to go far. Shine your lights in a sewer drain in the Bay Area, and you’ll likely catch a glimpse of those same flashing eyes.
Though raccoons are common in cities, people’s opinions of them vary wildly. “Annoying” is how Dan Ryan describes the 10-20 pound nocturnal creatures. He’s been battling them for years in his Oakland home. First, he found a family living in his walls.
DAN RYAN: You get in your head that this thing is out there and you get sorta paranoid about it, and you start feeling like it’s me against the raccoons and they’re out to get me. And you start cooking up little solutions, whether it’s calling the exterminator guys or buying the electric fence or secretly designing weapons in your head.
Ryan and the wildlife removal company tried everything they could think of to evict the raccoons from the attic from patching holes in the roof, various chemical repellents, even spraying with coyote urine.
RYAN: I found I get kind of medieval because it’s you versus the dark forces. Of course because they’re masked and it’s at night, it helps that imagery.
Ryan ended up with a raccoon-free attic. But then his backyard grapes started to go. So he called the same wildlife removal company to trap and remove the animals. The removal team came, set up a cage, and baited it with Fig Newtons. After first catching a baby skunk by accident, they snared a raccoon.
RYAN: Great, they come and get the raccoon and they leave the cage out just in case there’s another one. And we catch another raccoon, and the next day we catch another raccoon, and this went on to the point where we caught, I think in the end, 10 or 12 raccoons and spent tons of money disposing of them all.
Since there are limits on where captured raccoons can be released, the animals from Ryan’s yard were all euthanized. But his raccoon problems aren’t over.
This year, grape splotches are all over the ground again. So Ryan has a new plan: He’s installed a small electric fence around his grapevines.
RYAN: They went from being cute to being annoying and then there was a period where it was a pretty visceral. There were times I’d say, “I’m going to go and get a spear and attack them.” Of course I wasn’t going to but I wanted to find something to get my edge over them because they clearly had gotten the edge over me.
Dan Ryan is the type of person Jamie Ray likes to talk to. Ray lives in San Francisco, and she’s the person Animal Control will refer you to if you’re having problems with animals in your house or yard. She was the one who described raccoons as playful and curious.
JAMIE RAY: Pretty much all the calls have to do with seasonal behaviors, things that are just natural behaviors for wildlife. People take it personally and think that their intentionally trying to bother them but they’re not.
Ray thinks raccoons deserve to live among us. And she’s not just saying that. She’s the only person in San Francisco with a permit to rehabilitate orphaned or injured mammals. There’s no wildlife hospital.
RAY: We have 100 clinics for cats and dogs and domestic animals and no place for native animals if they need it.
So the place has become Ray’s outer Richmond home. She rehabilitates the injured ones, and the orphaned ones go in foster homes, where people are trained to take care of them.
I asked her what she has right now.
RAY: A little raccoon who was hit by a car, a skunk with his foot snapped in a rat trap… What else do we got? Opossum with eye infection, another one with an injury.
We rehabilitate them for release back to the wild and we have a pretty good success rate with rehabilitating and releasing them back and giving them a chance to live...
ROBINSON: And when you say wild, you mean, back to where you found them?
RAY: Yes, back to their natural environment.
Ray says that raccoons are very afraid of humans and don’t like to get close. But San Francisco resident Tegwyn Lewis-Pine has to disagree. She recently got extremely close to one while walking her dog at the Palace of Fine Arts.
TEGWYN LEWIS-PINE: As we were walking we saw this raccoon sorta standing there and my immediate thought was, “Okay, I gotta scare the raccoon.” So I ran towards it and as I ran towards it, and it just got up on his hind legs and sorta just stared at me. And so I was like, “Oh my god.”
Lewis-Pine was unsettled. In all her past experiences with raccoons, they’d run away when frightened. Her dog Athena started sniffing around where the raccoon had appeared.
LEWIS-PINE: The raccoon came out in full-fledged attack mode, growling and hissing. As soon as I saw it attacking Athena, and on her nose, I started kicking at it, to try to get it to go away. So I kicked it and kicked it and kicked it.
She started tugging on Athena’s leash, trying to get out of there.
LEWIS-PINE: As I was pulling her away and as I was kicking I fell backwards in the process and then as I was on the ground and kicking, at some point in that scuffle the raccoon came over and scratched and bit my inner thigh.
She says the rest is hard to remember, but at some point she and her dog ran away and went to their respective emergency rooms for rabies shots. Reginald Barrett, a Professor of Wildlife Management at UC Berkeley, says that was probably a wise move.
REGINALD BARRETT: I think it’s not such a good thing to have wild animals habituated. The closer the contact humans have with wild animals, the more chance you have of getting diseases, getting bitten. Even squirrels will bite. Wild animals are wild.
Barrett had a few ideas for how to minimize contact.
BARRETT: I think if you don’t want raccoons around, it helps to harass them a bit. They have to learn they’re not wanted.
But that was before I told him Lewis-Pine’s story.
BARRETT: That seems pretty abnormal to me. I worry about the rabies thing. Rabies is still around; it’s with us. If you have wild animals that are charging you or chasing you or trying to bit you, that’s really bad.
We’ll never know what got into that raccoon. There is some chance it could have been rabid, or maybe like the squirrels or pigeons who get too close for comfort in urban areas, they’re just used to us. Lewis-Pine, for her part, is done trying to scare them out of her way.
LEWIS-PINE: I certainly have an increased respect for raccoons and also just all wildlife – a renewed sense of “live and let live,” and they’re not really involved in what I’m doing, that I’m going to even more stay away.
And if you’re out walking late at night, you might want to keep an eye on those sewer drains.
For Crosscurrents, I’m Hadley Robinson.
Hadley Robinson is a reporter with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. If you’ve had a run-in with urban wildlife, you can tell us your story at 415-264-7106.