Posted tagged ‘city raccoons’

How Many Raccoons Live in Manhattan, Anyway?

October 3, 2011

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.

NYC Raccoon Sunset

September 2, 2011

One evening earlier this week, Esau and I strolled over to Riverside Park. The sun was already going down, and I thought with longing of those 15 hour days of June when daylight stretches into our nights. We’re down to 13-hour days now on our annual march to the puny gray 9-hour slivers that pass for winter days. I know, I know. The end of August is a little premature for the onset of my yearly Terror of the Shrinking Days. I’ll stave it off as long as I can. There will be plenty of time for obsessing over darkness come December.

The late summer sunset over the Hudson was a subtle beauty.

And the two raccoons that live high in the great retaining wall came out to enjoy it.

For a while, their fur was lit by the sun

as was the retaining wall itself

Raccoons begin their day as the sun goes down. Evening is morning for these two, who greeted the night with a little personal grooming

followed by some rather extensive inter-personal grooming

The Washer vigorously attacked the eyes, ears and neck of the Washed

which led to squirming on the part of the Washed and grabbing on the part of the Washer.

The Washer eventually interrupted the bath to perform some pretty serious self-scratching (most wild animals and birds host mites, fleas and other itch-inducing parasites), while the Washed looked on

The noise of a boisterous softball team traipsing up the otherwise quiet path set the raccoons on alert

and when a teenager, suddenly noticing the raccoons, made half-playful aggressive moves in their direction, they ducked swiftly inside their hole.

They peeped out again as soon as the team passed. But by then, the light was fading and patient Esau still awaited his walk. We ambled on, he and I, leaving the raccoons to their mysterious night business as the dusk slowly fell around us all.

Again with the Central Park Rabies Advisory

October 4, 2010

Strolling in Central Park with Esau yesterday morning, I was surprised to encounter dramatic new “Rabies Advisory” signs on lamp posts along the western edge of the park.

The new signs scream “Rabies” in multiple languages (La Rage! Rabbia! Tollwut!) and feature a realistic line drawing of a hulking raccoon that could probably hold its own as a National Football League center.

Last winter, when it had become clear that Manhattan was in the midst of a raccoon rabies epidemic, bright green signs appeared on park lamp posts, urging visitors to “Leave Wildlife Alone.”

Note the cute little cartoon-like drawing of a raccoon head and the small lettering for the words “rabies advisory.”

The new signs are striking, easy to read and, well, kind of scary. But why scare us now?  The epidemic appears to be mostly over, thanks to USDA’s humane and labor-intensive program to individually trap, vaccinate and release Manhattan’s healthy raccoons.  Over 130 already-infected raccoons have died off  since summer 2009, while the remaining, much-decreased, vaccinated population should serve as a barrier that prevents the disease from reaching epidemic proportions.

After a monthly high of 38 reported rabies cases in March 2010, the numbers began to decline.  June and July saw three rabies cases each, and August became Manhattan’s first rabies-free month since November 2009.

So I repeat, why the scary new signs?  Well, it ain’t over till it’s over and with rabies these days, it may never be completely over.  In early September, a single rabid raccoon was found in Central Park in the West 70s, reminding us just how difficult it is to eradicate a disease with a long incubation period.  And to maintain effectiveness, we’ll probably need an annual vaccination program to ensure that new babies are trapped and immunized.

But even if we were to succeed in immunizing the entire resident raccoon population, raccoon rabies is now endemic across the eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine. Raccoons and other wild animals, including skunks and coyotes, regularly find their way from the mainland to Manhattan, as juveniles seek new territory.  They cross the railroad bridge from the Bronx or swim a narrow channel. If in their travels, they have been in contact with a rabid animal, they will again bring rabies to our island paradise.

So heed the scary signs, and leave wildlife alone.  Enjoy the raccoons, but don’t feed them or try to lure them closer so you can get a better photo.

And while we’re at it, it’s probably better not to feed any of our urban wildlife, except maybe small migrating songbirds.

Grazing geese take over the outfield in Morningside Park

Feeding by humans encourages animals to overpopulate, which makes us consider them pests that need to be eradicated, as in this summer’s killing of geese in Prospect Park.  Unnaturally dense populations allow disease to flourish and spread.  So if you have a soft spot for  geese, raccoons, pigeons, squirrels and other urban wildlife, do the animals a favor and stop feeding them.

Red-eared sliders, expecting crumbs, mass beneath the Turtle Pond overlook

If you don’t have a soft spot for animals, count yourself lucky that we don’t yet have a need for these signs in Manhattan:

Sign in Vancouver, Canada proclaims: Warning! Coyotes in the Area

Then again, coyotes love goose eggs, so maybe you goose-haters want to roll out the coyote welcome mat. After all, as the sign says, coyotes are “smart, fast, and will take what they can get.”

Welcome or not, coyotes will be back in Manhattan. If not this winter, then next.  They may be here already, slipping through the old growth of Inwood Park and the tangles of Highbridge.

Esau contemplates ducks as a possible food source.

NYC Vaccinating Raccoons To Stop Rabies Epidemic

February 18, 2010

I spoke Tuesday with Dr. Sally Slavinski of the NYC Health Department to get the latest on the city’s response to the swiftly spreading rabies situation. I will write a more detailed post as soon as I can find time, but here is the news in a nutshell, with few details, few photos and little discussion.

As of February 10, 39 rabid raccoons have been found in Manhattan in 2010, most of them in or around Central Park. Add in 2009’s rabid raccoons, and the number is a staggering 49. (A number that makes us wonder just how large is the Central Park raccoon population – but that’s for a later post.)

Central Park raccoon by dscape/Flickr.com

One person and one dog have been bitten, and received post-exposure treatment. Another person received treatment after attempting to care for a sick raccoon. (In another post, I’ll fill you in on the latest from conspiracy theorists, who believe the city intentionally introduced rabies to justify eradicating a healthy raccoon population. Or something like that.)

So what is the city doing? On February 16th, in a multi-agency collaboration with the USDA, the Parks Department and the Central Park Conservancy, the Department of Health began a trap-vaccinate-release program to vaccinate raccoons in Central Park against rabies.

For the next four to eight weeks, raccoons will be caught in live traps that are strategically placed in less accessible areas of the park. The animals will be vaccinated on the spot by USDA workers, given ear tags for identification, and released back into their home environment. Raccoons that appear sick will be euthanized and tested for rabies.  The program will expand to include Morningside Park (two reported cases) and Riverside Park (no reported cases).

In summer 2010, a second phase of trap-vaccinate-release will be launched to vaccinate baby raccoons born this spring.

Raccoons that are already infected will die within days of showing symptoms. If we can stop the cycle of transmission through inoculation, we can, theoretically, eradicate the virus. At least, for now. And when the next rabid raccoon follows the Amtrak corridor into Manhattan, our local raccoons will already be immunized.

Snowed-in Raccoon Den in Riverside Park

I checked to be sure the Department of Health had plans to immunize the five raccoons I watch in Riverside, and am happy to report that a location has already been selected for a trap.

Much more to come. But meanwhile, if you come upon a trap in the park, leave it alone. Call 311 if the trap holds a raccoon. Also call 311 if you see a raccoon that appears sick or is behaving strangely. But leave the wildlife alone.

Esau imagines himself as King, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon's lead sled dog

And be sure your dog’s rabies vaccination is up to date.

Raccoon Babies at Play in the Dark

November 11, 2009

Esau has never understood why I won’t go into the park at night.  But though I’ve been sorely tempted, I’ve been ruled by an ancient taboo forbidding parks after dark, along with cannibalism and incest. But no more.

Last night, lured by the possibility that raccoon babies might be dancing in the night park, we descended the 116th Street steps. The rustling leaves gave me a little frisson, but I had just read the beginning of Marie Winn’s wonderful book, Central Park in the Dark. I mean, she walks in the Ramble at night – the Ramble, for crying out loud. I can handle Riverside Park.

Around 109th Street, we saw low shadowy figures just ahead: the raccoon family. The mother darted up the slope towards the wall, but the two babies bolted down the slope towards the lower promenade. Each ran partway up a tree, froze and waited. After a minute, the babies peeped cautiously around the tree trunks. They must have felt safe, because they climbed back down, and proceeded to chase each other up and down the slope in an exuberance of wheeling and turning. The babies were dancing.

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A young raccoon enjoys life. Photo courtesy of Michael Scheltgen, creativecommons.org

The taboo is shattered. We’ll be back tomorrow night.


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