Toronto's relationship with its wildlife is complicated.
We curse the smug raccoon plucking meat off leftover chicken wings like a Roman god in the bottom of our green bins one day, and the next build a vigil when he meets his demise in our traffic. We turn him into memes, paint murals depicting him like Godzilla and collectively shun anyone treating him too harshly. (A shovel? No.) And then we curse him again as the little hedonist brings his friends and rip open every garbage bag on the street, scattering tissues and chip bags everywhere.
We think squirrels are cute, get twitterpated over baby skunks and a fox sighting may be more coveted than Drake on Instagram. Then we curse them all as they scratch our walls, spray our dogs and dig up our flower beds.
Clashes between Toronto's human and wild residents have long existed, but lately it seems as if the critters are getting more numerous. With climate change moving animals toward us, and urban sprawl us towards them, experts suggest the best thing we can do is learn to get along.
The city has no official critter count. And the most recent data, for raccoons, dates back to the 1980s and suggests there are between seven and 12 per square kilometre, and as many as 100 in some areas.
"Anecdotally, it makes sense that wild populations probably are growing, just because the human populations in the city are growing," says Mary Lou Leiher, program manager of Toronto Animal Services, which responds to calls about sick, injured or distressed animals but not wildlife conflict. "As we get more numerous we're providing them with more shelter and food."
When Brad Gates started his wildlife removal business 31 years ago, the average litter size of raccoons, squirrels and skunks was three or four. Today it's six and seven, says the founder of AAA Gates' Wildlife Control. When it comes to raccoons, he suspects the city is "unique."
"I've often heard of Toronto being referred to as the Raccoon capital of North America," he says, adding the number of wildlife removal companies in other cities pale by comparison.
The introduction of the green bin program, he says, has allowed them to breed at a faster rate.
The city's plan
The days of feasting at the bin may be numbered. In April, Mayor John Tory announced that in the city's "fight against the Raccoon Nation" the bins will be replaced, beginning next spring, with ones that are "raccoon-proof."
And this fall a new working group at city hall is starting work on a citywide strategy for mitigating negative interactions between humans and wildlife.
The Inter-Divisional Working Group on Urban Wildlife will consider emerging practices in wildlife management, increasing public awareness about conflict prevention and amending bylaws, such as banning the feeding of wildlife on private property and of pigeons in public spaces. According to city staff report, getting humans to change their behaviour is a more cost-effective and long-term solution than implementing culls or sterilization programs.
"Wildlife conflict has always been an issue," says Leiher, who is part of the working group, which is expected to report back to Licensing and Standards Committee in mid-to-late 2016. "Now we're just ramping up those (public education) efforts."
Nathalie Karvonen, executive director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre, a charitable wildlife rescue organization, welcomes the group's creation. Often, when people get frustrated or angry with wildlife it's not the animal's fault, she says. Instead, the problem can usually be resolved with a pretty easy change in human behaviour.
Karvonen suspects some solutions the group comes up with will be unpopular with some. Possible solutions, she says, could include keeping cats indoors, locking green bins in a shed until the morning of pickup and banning the feeding of wildlife.
In the interim, there are things people can do to minimize conflict with their furry neighbours: Ensure your property is in good repair and garbage is well-managed. And don't leave pet food outside or feed wildlife.