So just how many of you guys are out here, anyway?
Back in 2010, I asked several wildlife experts how many raccoons were living in Central Park. Not one would venture an answer. But the Great Raccoon Rabies Epizootic of 2009-2010 has apparently yielded enough data for an estimate. Dr. Sally Slavinski of the NYC Department of Health places the population at close to 300 raccoons, according to a 2010 Powerpoint presentation that I unearthed on the web.
The estimate was based on analyzing the raccoons that were trapped and evaluated in the two-round Trap-Vaccinate-Release program managed by the USDA in 2010. Here’s a terrific video of the TVR Program in action in Central Park, narrated by Lee Humberg, Supervising Biologist with the USDA’s Wildlife Services.
The number of raccoons trapped was staggering. A total of 460 raccoons were trapped in Round One (February 16th – April 9th, 2010). Of those, a number were recaptured animals, meaning raccoons that had already been trapped, vaccinated, ear-tagged, and released – some more than once. Over 50 were sick or injured animals that were euthanized and then submitted for rabies testing. By October, 2010, more than 130 rabid raccoons had died of rabies. When the USDA conducted a second round of TVR in early fall, they didn’t find a single sick raccoon, indicating the immunization program was preventing further spread of the disease. The epidemic was over.
So how many raccoons were there, before the die-off? My personal, unofficial guesstimate is upwards of 400 in Central Park and Riverside Park combined. (How many raccoons make their home in the northern Manhattan parks of Inwood and Highbridge, I have no idea.) When I returned to NYC in 2008, after almost 20 years away, the raccoon population was overflowing the natural boundaries of the parks. They were regularly seen running along the top of the Riverside Park retaining wall, eating trash out of dumpsters near the basketball courts, and hanging out in sidewalk trees on West 108th Street, a full block and a half from Riverside Park. That means they were crossing busy Broadway. Why would they do this? Best guess: food.
John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times (click photo to go to article)
According to the New York Times in September 2008, raccoons were also turning up on 110th Street across from Central Park, to eat out of garbage cans and trash bags. The sightings prompted a range of responses from superintendents (“I don’t know what to do; they’re big, like dogs,”) and residents (“They’re lonely and they don’t talk back”). I speculate that the population had grown so large that some animals were venturing out of the protection of their park habitat in search of new food sources. In New York City, you don’t have to go far to find some easy pickings. Garbage is available 24 hours a day in the city that never sleeps, and is especially easy to come by on trash nights when plastic garbage bags line the sidewalks like miniature mountain ranges.
As a child living in New York in the 60s and 70, I don’t remember ever seeing a raccoon in the city or hearing anyone talk about seeing one. I’m not saying raccoons weren’t here. But if they were, their population must have been small enough to go unnoticed. (If you ever encountered a raccoon in Manhattan in the decades before the 2000s, please let me know by leaving a comment below.) As recently as 1995, Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern estimated the total Central Park raccoon population at a mere twenty. Twenty!
Why the tremendous increase? I have some ideas, but need to do more research. (As ever, your speculation is welcome.) Meanwhile, I’ve been delighted to see fewer raccoons on my walks in Riverside Park. With no natural predators, there’s little to keep a wildlife population in check, and too many animals means they’re bound to start showing up where they’re not welcome – and that’s when people start seeing them as pests. And as we have seen, when a population becomes too dense, disease easily sweeps through it. In the case of rabies, this places both wildlife and humans at risk.
Before the epidemic, I used to see five or six raccoons emerge from their den at dusk. For a long time now, I’ve seen only one or two. A week ago, one was chilling out at the usual spot.
Queen of all she surveys (or King, I don't really know)
And then a little further north, I spied a second, looking remarkably like a little man in a bear suit.
This surprised me, because they usually hang out together. And then, wait a minute, what’s this? Two more raccoons.
Is there room for me?
Okay, let’s be sure the first raccoon is still in place at the regular den.
Yup, still there.
Still there. So, hmmm.
Hey, careful with the face.
So who are you guys and where did you come from?
I’m guessing these are young raccoons just venturing out on their own, or two juveniles with their mother. But who knows? Size is hard to estimate, particularly when they’re climbing around high on a wall. Well, I’m sure USDA will be launching follow-up vaccination campaigns. Here’s hoping the new recruits stay healthy.