Philadelphia's raccoon problem

Posted: November 02, 2011

When City Councilman Darrell L. Clarke was campaigning door to door before the last election, people wanted to talk about crime, to be sure. And jobs, of course.

But what blew his mind was how many complaints he got about raccoons.

Talk about a nuisance and a public-health concern: Raccoons were reportedly clambering up downspouts, trotting across rooftops, and, in one case, burrowing through an outside wall into a woman's bathroom.

Not long ago, one reportedly chased a young girl near Cecil B. Moore Avenue. In Germantown, an entire family of raccoons was spotted sauntering down the street.

He decided something had to be done.

On Thursday, Council is expected to consider Clarke's bill requiring officials to use stronger control measures.

Again.

Raccoons have not been an easy matter for Council.

Earlier this year, Clarke introduced a measure that would require the city to capture raccoons pretty much any time someone called.

Impossible, other officials said, not to mention prohibitively expensive. You might as well try to eradicate squirrels from city environs.

Now, the measure has been toned down, requiring the city to come up with "abatement" measures whenever a raccoon is destroying or damaging personal property, disturbing "the peaceful enjoyment of property" by the inhabitants, or is clearly sick.

Testimony at an Oct. 25 hearing ran the gamut.

Some people felt that raccoons, whatever their nuisance factor, are simply part of the ecosystem and have a right to be there. Others felt the animals had no place in a populous city.

Currently, officials respond only if the animal is visibly sick or actually in someone's home, said Brian Abernathy, a spokesman for the managing director's office, which now handles raccoon policy.

According to the state Health Department, raccoons represent the largest percentage of animals reported to have rabies statewide.

In 2010, nearly 53 percent of animal rabies cases were in raccoons.

The runners-up for the dubious distinction were cats and skunks, at 13.7 percent each.

That year in Philadelphia, rabies was confirmed in one cat, one dog, and one raccoon.

So far this year: two bats and a now-infamous beaver that attacked a couple fishing in Pennypack Creek.

In the five preceding years - back through 2005 - Philadelphia had four rabid bats, one skunk, one groundhog, a dog, two cats, and two raccoons.

So one might argue that bats are the bigger health concern. But it's raccoons that are getting the rap.

"To date, nobody has been bitten by a raccoon," Clarke said. "But up until earlier this summer, nobody had been bitten by a beaver. We don't want to wait until a child is bitten by a raccoon."

Suburban officials can sympathize up to a point. "You definitely do not want to develop any kind of relationship with a raccoon," said David Damsker, director of the Bucks County Department of Health, which has seen two rabid raccoons this year. "Don't approach raccoons. Don't interact with them whatsoever."

Bucks County officials don't get many complaints about people who have merely seen a raccoon. Mostly, it's people whose pet dog or cat got in a fight with one.

"We're not going to pass any special legislation here in Bucks County because of raccoons. Half our county is rural," Damsker said. "The most important thing we can do is educate people to avoid raccoons."

Mike Weilbacher, executive director of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, notes that raccoons are just one of the many kinds of wildlife making a return to city environs - mostly because cities give shelter in abandoned homes and a smorgasbord in every open garbage can.

"We give them what they need to survive and then act surprised when they're moving in," he said.

The city's Abernathy said Clarke's and the residents' concerns were real, but instead of trapping the animals, he said the city needed to do a better job at persuading people to clean up trash, secure garbage-can lids, use wildlife repellents, and turn on lights at night to frighten them away.

Verne Smith, who teaches animal law at Widener University, said cities - especially Philadelphia, given its wealth of parkland - "have a rich diversity of wildlife that city residents, we would hope, would be able to coexist with peacefully."

That's not what Clarke is hearing. "It is clear this is not the type of animal that people expect to see on their block."


An online health channel and guide to medical care features videos, patient forums, hospital performance data, and a wellness page at www.philly.

com/Health


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at philly.com/greenspace.

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