Council panel advances bill to get rid of those rascally raccoons

Posted: June 16, 2011

They creep in the shadows. They rummage through trash cans and lurk in vacant buildings. Pesky raccoons have become a growing source of complaints in neighborhoods across Philadelphia.

Two weeks after a rabid beaver attacked a couple in the Pennypack Creek area in Northeast Philadelphia, City Council's Committee on Public Health and Human Services on Monday approved a bill that would mandate that the city's animal control agency capture raccoons.

"It's amazing how many people and the places where they complain about raccoons," Councilman Darrell L. Clarke, whose Fifth District encompasses several North Philadelphia neighborhoods, said in an interview.

If the full Council approves the bill, Philadelphia will be one of a few cities with an official procedure to capture raccoons, officials said.

In Philadelphia, raccoons are the number-one carriers of rabies, followed by feral cats.

A raccoon explosion in Toronto has generated controversy after a frustrated resident allegedly hit a baby raccoon with a shovel. Toronto's policy is largely to encourage the use of raccoon-proof garbage cans.

New Yorkers, too, are fed up with the varmints. Rabid raccoons have been found in Central Park, and the city's Health Department in 2009 and 2010 conducted short-term programs to trap, vaccinate, ear tag and release raccoons. New York health officials reported a decrease in rabid raccoons.

But in Pennsylvania, unlike in New York, trapped raccoons cannot be released, so the proposed city law would result in an impractical and costly process, said Susan Cosby, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania SPCA.

"In the case of raccoons, they would have to be euthanized" after being trapped because of their high rate of carrying rabies.

Trapping is essentially "a death sentence" for raccoons, Cosby said. It also requires monitoring of a trap because an unattended animal can die inside one.

The SPCA oversees the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association, which deals with wild animals in the city, Cosby said.

"There really and truly are not enough resources" to trap raccoons, Cosby said from her office on Erie Avenue. "One reason is we already have a huge job with domestic animals . . . that are coming into the shelter at a high rate."

The Animal Care and Control Association traps only animals that are sick, injured, or behaving strangely, she said, adding that she did not know of any other city that would invest the resources required for a raccoon-trapping plan like the one proposed for Philadelphia.

About a decade ago, animal-control workers "made a focused attempt to deal with raccoons living in abandoned properties in the city," Cosby said.

"In a month's time, more than $6,000 worth of humane traps were stolen and countless numbers of man hours were spent trying to address the problem to no avail," Cosby said. "The effort was completely unsuccessful."

Cosby said the SPCA would provide a list of pest-control companies that would trap and remove raccoons and other wild animals from homes.

Clarke said that while walking through neighborhoods in his district to campaign for last month's primary election, he had talked to many residents who complained about raccoons rummaging through debris, turning over trash cans, and even attacking pet cats.

Clarke said raccoons had become a public health threat.

"You see what happened in the Northeast with the beavers," he said. "It's just a matter of time before a rabid raccoon bites a kid or something."

A rabid beaver attacked three people in Northeast Philadelphia early this month. The Pennsylvania Game Commission said a husband and wife had been bitten by the beaver June 1 while fishing at Pennypack Creek.

A day later, a child was bitten by a beaver in the vicinity. A park ranger found the beaver shortly afterward. The animal was killed and later tested positive for rabies at a Health Department lab.

"At some point the city has to take responsibility," Clarke said.

Jerry Czech, a wildlife conservation officer for the Pennsylvania Game Commission who covers Philadelphia, said he did not believe that there had been a large increase in raccoons over previous years.

"I wouldn't call it a problem," Czech said. "What I call it is springtime, and wildlife has babies. . . . The ducklings are born. Raccoons are born."

In some surrounding counties, such as Montgomery and Bucks, hunting and trapping help reduce the number of raccoons, foxes, and other small animals, he said. Hunting and trapping are prohibited in the city.

Cosby said raccoons and other small wild animals sometimes lived in abandoned houses, weed-covered vacant lots, and hollow trees. They also live in porch roofs and attics of homes, which they enter through holes.

To help keep raccoons away from homes, authorities recommend that food trash be kept inside until collection day. They said residents should fix any holes in porch roofs and eliminate potential sources of food or water.

"Wild animals are part of our environment in the city. They are something we're going to see," Cosby said. "This time of year is when they're coming out and when people notice them."


Contact staff writer Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

 

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