By Carol Tannenhauser
A class of small, chattering children was walking in the West 80s, just off Central Park West, one recent afternoon, when the teacher stopped and said, “If you look up, you’ll see a raccoon.” She pointed to a sidewalk bridge across the street. Sure enough, a surprisingly big one was slipping into the bridge behind a loose piece of plywood, like a masked bandit. There were going to be some very surprised construction workers! If they’d left for the day, they’d better have locked their toolboxes well, because raccoons are capable of remarkable things.
“They are among the most intelligent animals there are in urban settings,” said Angie Ioannidis, a field technician for the Wildlife Unit of the NYC Parks Department, in a recent presentation to the Parks & Environment Committee of Community Board 7. “Raccoons do really well living alongside of people. They learn how to do human things. Their hands are so amazingly dexterous they can untie knots in garbage bags, unscrew jars, and even try to open door handles. The more complicated a latch you have, the better. If it’s too simple, sometimes they can figure it out.”
Don’t forget, these raccoons are native New Yorkers.
“Because they live in the city, they are very adaptive and very intelligent,” Ioannidis said.
So far, so good.
But she also called them “opportunistic omnivores,” which sounds a little Wall Street-y, but actually means they eat almost anything, including our trash. “We don’t need to help them with food,” Ioannidis stressed. “If we do, that’s when they learn, ‘Oh, humans equal food, so, I’m going to walk up to every person I see and ask for some.’ We want them to have a natural fear of humans. That buffer is what keeps the animals and people safe.”
Last year, we heard an uproar about a man who regularly feeds raccoons out of his hand on Central Park West.
Speaking of safety, what was this raccoon doing out of the park in broad daylight? Doesn’t that mean it is sick, possibly, rabid?
“One of the biggest misconceptions about raccoons is, if you see them during the day, they have rabies,” Ioannidis said. “Although they can carry and transmit rabies, the Department of Health keeps track and has shown that a very, very low number of raccoons in our population are known to carry rabies, less than a handful in the past several years. [There was a rabies outbreak in 2010.] Today, it’s very rare and not something we have to worry about. Raccoons have learned that there are no natural predators in the city and there’s food all the time. They don’t mind leaving the park. They’re very comfortable walking up and down the streets. They use scaffolding as jungle gyms! So, although they’re naturally nocturnal, you may see them out and about during the day. It doesn’t mean something’s wrong.”
Some raccoons may just be…lounging.
— Adriana Pratt (@adrianampratt) May 4, 2018
So, what do we have to worry about when it comes to raccoons? (We’re Upper West Siders, we have to worry about something!)
“It’s not overpopulation,” Ioannidis said. “It’s more how we relate to each other, specifically, how we humans do things that cause them to annoy or become a nuisance to us. First and foremost, we do not want to feed our wildlife. There’s plenty of food for them to find on their own.” Aside from pizza and pretzels, raccoons eat fruit, vegetables, insects, small rodents, shellfish (they’ve been known to crack a turtle), and fish, as well as compost, pet food, and garbage. The latter is how we “passively” feed them.
“Tip number two is making sure our garbage is kept secure on our property,” Ioannidis said. “If we don’t want raccoons hanging around our house or building, or setting up shop, we have to make sure we keep our garbage in secure containers. Pet food left out and bird feeders, even vegetables in your garden, will also attract them.
“Third, we should always observe and enjoy our wildlife from a distance. If we get too close, they get scared and might feel like they have to defend themselves. That’s how people get scratched or bitten, which happens not a lot, but more in recent years. We want to make sure we know they’re wild animals, not pets. If you are bitten or scratched by a raccoon, wash the wound and see a doctor as soon as possible. To report sick or injured animals call 311.
“Number four is being prepared and doing things so you don’t have problems down the line. You need to seal any holes in your house or building, under the building, in the roof. Any opening a raccoon can squeeze itself through, it will try to use as a ‘denning’ location, meaning, it will want to live there. They’re not picky. They love trees, but they will take a basement or attic…or sidewalk bridge.
“Finally, it’s very important to keep up on vaccinations for cats and dogs. It’s required by law. We also advise that you keep your dog on leash when you’re in a more vegetated area of the park or a place where you’ve seen raccoons before. During off-leash hours, use your discretion about when and where it’s safe.”
Raccoons are only one of 600 species of wild animals that live within the five boroughs, from red-tailed hawks to white-tailed deer to coyotes! The Wildlife Unit would greatly appreciate reports and locations of any sightings, which you can submit on their photo- and-fact-filled website, nyc.gov/wildlife.