How Many Raccoons Live in Manhattan, Anyway?

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.

Ledge walker

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2011, Central Park, Fall, In the City, Morningside Park, October, rabies, raccoons, Riverside Park, Seasons

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18 Comments on “How Many Raccoons Live in Manhattan, Anyway?”

  1. Suzanne Stumo Says:

    I’ve been doing research to see how many deer, raccoons, and like dogs and cats r on the planet- I came across this article and saw that u asked if anyone had seen a raccoon in Manhattan before 2000. I raised two small children in NYC and queens. Never saw a raccoon before 2000, but did in 2001 and there after, I saw raccoons in prospect park and and surrounding areas always not much but they were present. I just do not know how the raccoons got into Central Park we all thought they were gone 100 years ago. It’s very strange. My sons believe if their were any before 2000 the homeless ate them- I guess that’s the idea from back then! If they persist now why not then? R they swimming in from NJ? And why now when the city is cleaner than ever? I would have thought they would turn up during the garbage strike but not even then.

  2. As a kid I saw a raccoon in Kew Garden Hills in Queens, must have been in the 1980s. Just wandering around having a grand old time. I thought it was a giant cat for a moment, until I recognized it. In the early 2000s a friend of mine found a possum on Avenue B near 4th Street huddled in a doorway, who knows how he ended up there. I have also run into a raccoon in Central Park at night right near the roads where the cars drive, digging in the street garbage cans and eating sandwiches. This was in the last 10 years and he was fat and didn’t seem to mind the fact that I was standing only a few feet from him. He waddled away very slowly, probably more annoyed I was disturbing his meal than anything. But the most amazing wildlife I have seen in Manhattan was a beaver (yes, a BEAVER) wandering around Avenue A and 12th Street. Although NYC used to have tons of beavers, the water pollution got rid of them, but I have seen articles on how they are reappearing the past 5 years or so. But seeing one so far from the water was pretty shocking. I wonder how my dogs would have reacted to it?

  3. Fascinating – this subject of wildlife adaptation to the urban eco niche. The urban warriors, brazen too stepping from greenbelt / park area into the big wide concrete jungle. Amazing though how numbers can suddenly increase, and in close communities the susceptibility to disease. Topical subject…. i enjoy following your coverage :)

  4. […] is the same den I’ve been watching for years now. In 2009 or 2010, before the raccoon rabies epidemic hit, I once saw six raccoons emerge from […]

  5. James Says:

    I woke up this morning to find one resting outside my second floor window. I live in an apartment in the Bronx, and it was the first time in my 15 years here that I have seen such a sight. Ironically this is the third time in the past 6 months that I have seen a raccoon after never seeing or hearing about one in the past 20 years. The first one I saw was outside of the Bedford Park 4 train station, while the second one was, sadly, a dead one on the side of the street near the Kingsbridge Reservoir. This one stood outside our window for over an hour, until we called the cops, who scared it away. The last I saw of it, it was running down the street, possibly to find another place to crash for a while. I kinda felt bad for the poor fella.

    • Wow, that must have been quite a sight outside your window. For a while in 08 or 09, I was seeing raccoons pretty regularly in the street trees on my block. It would have been pretty easy for one of them to decide to hang out a nearby window ledge. That was before the rabies epidemic reduced Manhattan’s raccoon population to a more, well, reasonable size. I believe the raccoon population density was leading individual animals to leave their usual haunts within the parks to forage further into the streets for garbage. In my neck of the woods (UWS/Morningside Heights), I haven’t seen a raccoon east of Riverside Drive in a long time. The Bronx, being on the mainland, is open to wildlife coming and going far more easily than the island nation of Manhattan. Thanks for visiting Out Walking the Dog, and keep us posted on any future wildlife sightings!

  6. Jake Says:

    Just saw one going by a window at BMCC on West St. & Chambers St. At first, I thought it was NYC sized rat but even this raccoon seemed to big for that! lol

    • It was probably late for class. But seriously, that is a more unusual location for a raccoon than uptown near the big parks – Central, Riverside, Morningside. Wonder what its story is … let me know if you spot others, and thanks for commenting.

  7. […] caught and moved them–though the park still notes that it’s a good place to see them. Out Walking the Dog has estimated the raccoon population of central Manhattan’s parks is north of 400. Odds are, […]

  8. CGJ Says:

    My experience here in Dallas, TX is that when you least expect to find Raccoons, expect to find Raccoons. These little guys are very resourceful! They seem to thrive in an urban environment.

    • Yeah, raccoons are crazy creatures. I had them in the walls of my house when I lived in Dallas, running through the air system. Now that was living a little too close to wildlife, even for me. They do thrive near to humans. Like us, they are super-adaptable, omnivorous, curious and shrewd. As long as they keep out of my house & trash, I love them.

  9. nyc edges Says:

    When I lived on the UWS in late 80’s – early 90’s I did spot them 1-2 times at night near Central Park. Growing up in Brooklyn near Jamaica Bay we’d see them sometimes in the marshes, but also going through dumpsters on the commercial strips — wondered how they got that far across traffic until I saw one popping in & out of the sewers. One night while walking home I saw something lumbering across busy Nostrand Ave., not the shape & movement of a cat or raccoon. — gigantic mutant rat? no, it was an opossum! never seen one in the city before, nor since.

    • Thanks for the report – very interesting. And yes, I can see that an opossum could easily pass for a gigantic mutant rat . I’ve never seen one in Manhattan (an opossum, that is – I’ve seen plenty of gigantic mutant rats). I wonder if there is a possum somewhere, say up in Inwood Park. I know there are skunks up there, and I believe I’ve smelled the down here.

  10. p hoey Says:

    Blessings on the park rangers and all the higher-ups who found a humane and workable solution to the rabies problem in Manhattan.
    But what is the gardeners’ saying about weeds? ‘ A weed is a plant in the wrong place?’
    A great blog: photos, comments and links. Thanks!

  11. Susie Says:

    I was astounded to read that 130 had died of rabies. I didn’t know it was such a huge problem! Good to know that it is under control now.

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