Urban wildlife gets too close for comfort
Susan Charlip was enjoying an evening stroll in her Berkeley neighborhood on McGee Street with her dachshunds Jim and Maemi when she heard the sudden hullabaloo of barking dogs behind a nearby fence. Then she was attacked from behind. Her attacker—a ring-tailed marauder—scratched, clawed and bit Charlip before she and her dogs ran away.
“I called the police and they were very nice about it,” says Charlip, a teacher on special assignment with the Albany School District. “The officer who responded said, ‘I know this is a delicate question for you, but did you get a good look at the raccoon?’ What could I say? Yeah, about 30 pounds, sharp claws, and he was wearing dark glasses and a fur coat.”
All over the East Bay, people have stories to tell of tangles with urban animals. Deer and coyotes roam the hills, rats live comfortably in sewers and basements, and legions of skunks, raccoons and opossums dwell in our city centers.
If it seems like the wild animals are more ubiquitous these days—carousing in Oakland and Berkeley’s flatlands, not just in the hills—it’s because they are more prevalent. Last year was a good year for East Bay wildlife: The cold weather meant a longer breeding season for skunks, and heavy rains meant plentiful food for growing families of raccoons and rats.
It’s difficult to get a fix on the exact population numbers for city critters (they don’t fill out census forms), but county and city animal control agencies report a gradual upsurge in the number of animal-related complaints. Alan Kaplan, district wildlife program manager at Tilden Park Environmental Center, estimates that there are at least one family of raccoons and one family of skunks for every couple of blocks of housing in Berkeley. And the Department of Fish and Game estimates that the East Bay hills are home to more deer per capita than any other area of the state.
“These are animals that live among us,” says Daniel Wilson, community outreach coordinator for Alameda County Vector Control. “We’re never going to get rid of them completely, but the real problems arise when there are large numbers, because they can start getting into people’s houses or foraging in the daytime when people are about.”
There may be a population boom among four-legged animals, but the human sort is multiplying, too.
“People are having more contact with animals now,” says Susan Heckly, director of wildlife rehabilitation for the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek that treats 5,000 to 6,000 injured and orphaned animals every year. “If we build more subdivisions, that’s just more habitat for them, more decks and crawlspaces for them to live under, more backyard swimming pools for them to drink from. And with people spending more time outdoors as well, it’s natural that they’d see more animals.”
And sometimes those creatures are a little too close for comfort.
When Auban Willats bought her first home in north Oakland last year, she didn’t expect that she’d have to share it.
The house came with a cat door—perfect for Willats’ three cats—but also perfect for other visitors.
“We quickly started getting visits from other neighborhood cats,” recounts Willats. “That was all fine, but then we started getting raccoons, opossums and even a skunk coming in through the cat door. At first, our cats would hiss at the animals coming in, but now they just sit quietly, watching, waiting for the interlopers to be done eating.”
Gary Bogue, wildlife columnist for the Contra Costa Times and author of The Raccoon Next Door, reports that in 36 years of writing about urban wildlife, the vast majority of complaints he sees involve deer and raccoons. Deer like to jump fences and nibble in gardens, but raccoons go even further.
“Raccoons probably cause the most damage,” says Bogue. “They have paws like little hands and they know how to use them.” They can learn how to use a cat door faster than a cat, and they get inside people’s homes. “No one knows exactly how many raccoons there are in the East Bay but my educated guess would be a lot—with a capital Lot!”
Every year since 2004, Alameda County Vector Control has received more calls about raccoons tearing up lawns, ruining gardens and knocking over garbage cans. An open garbage can is a veritable smorgasbord to an omnivorous raccoon.
Oakland resident Jane Sherman put fresh sod in her backyard a few years ago, only to have hungry raccoons roll up the edges every night as they searched for grubs underneath.
Each morning, she’d unroll it. “I tried everything: stakes and netting, big lights, cougar urine and mothballs,” she says. “They come in our cat door at night, if we forget to close it, and eat the cat food. The little buggers would surprise us in the kitchen. It’s happened to unsuspecting guests and a very freaked-out new babysitter. Sometimes, they even scratch at our back French doors at night—as if we’re going to let them in.”
Once inside, raccoons can pose a bigger threat than merely making a mess. They can carry diseases deadly to humans and other animals, such as rabies or toxoplasmosis, which can sometimes cause death or blindness in young children. So far, no East Bay raccoons have ever been found to carry these diseases, although a rabid bat was recently found at an Alameda school playground.
Not everyone sees raccoons as interlopers. In the 17 years that she has been watching raccoons frequent her backyard, Marianne Robinson insists she has never seen them misbehave.
For a time, Robinson edited and published Raccoonteur: Friends of Backyard Wildlife, a newsletter to share stories and observations about local raccoons, opossums, skunks and even chipmunks.
“When one of my raccoon visitors knocks something over or drags household items all over the yard I am annoyed,” writes Robinson in an edition of Raccoonteur. “But let’s face it, we have cars and dogs and poison and traps and guns and we’re bigger. All a raccoon has is its innate intelligence, curiosity, wits and courage. Coexistence takes far more patience than confrontation with ‘The Other.’”
Robinson says she is impressed by raccoons’ ability to thrive in urban environments: they can climb up and down trees, travel through storm drains and escape predators by scaling fences.
“I love to use the term ‘neighbors’ because that’s how I feel about them,” says Robinson, who leaves a shallow ceramic water dish in her sparse Virginia Street backyard to attract raccoons. She says it looks like the raccoons are washing their food, but really they are just playing in the water.
A patch of loose dirt by Robinson’s fence indicates that raccoons burrowed under the during the night. Robinson plucks a small red stone from a flowerpot. “This didn’t used to be here,” she says, turning it over in her hand. “It’s like a game to them, leaving things in different places.”
Robinson props up a decorative ceramic jug that had fallen on its side. She says the raccoons pull down anything they think might contain water. But instead of getting mad, she chooses not to leave out anything that can break. She likens it to raising children. She’s just setting some limits.
In Berkeley, a city that prides itself on compassion toward animals, getting rid of unwanted houseguests can be quite a challenge.
A city ordinance passed in 1997 on a recommendation from the Berkeley Humane Commission forbids Berkeley Animal Control from catching, killing or relocating healthy wild animals, so residents have to think of other ways to control these visitors.
In the past, Berkeley has considered some innovative solutions to burgeoning animal populations. In 2001, the city tried a spay-and-release program to control squirrels. A year later, City Councilwoman Linda Maio proposed applying the same solution to troublesome raccoons.
“I asked some friends if they thought it would be a good idea to spay and neuter raccoons,” said Maio in a 2002 interview. “They thought it was. One of them had a connection to the Los Angeles Times, so she told them and the next day the Times called about it. They ran the story, and then the Berkeley Daily Planet picked it up.”
Almost immediately, in typical Berkeley fashion, the controversy began. Whether Berkeleyans saw raccoons as cuddly neighbors or annoying pests, few residents paid much mind to the mammals until Maio’s suggestion launched a debate that briefly attracted comments from as far away as Sacramento and Los Angeles.
“I was deluged with e-mail from animal-rights activists and from people who thought it would be a good idea,” says Maio. “I just got reams of information. It just snowballed out of control.”
After receiving dozens of objections, Maio decided against bringing her idea before the City Council. Today, Berkeley locals are still struggling to find adequate solutions to living with troublesome raccoons.
While the Berkeley ordinance prohibits moving or killing healthy wildlife, state law only bans moving the animals. In the rest of the county, when animal control agencies receive a complaint, their only recourse is to catch and euthanize the offending animal. Unless an animal is obviously sick or dangerously aggressive, it’s an extreme solution that many animal control experts are reluctant to enforce.
“Over time, animal-rights advocates have had an effect on the way animal control is done,” says Wilson of Vector Control. “The new philosophy is that if an animal is just walking by there’s no reason to trap it.”
Berkeley Animal Control advises people to discourage raccoons by covering their trashcans with heavy snap-on lids and keeping their pets’ food dishes indoors. Banging pots and pans, slamming doors or blowing New Year’s Eve-style party horns can frighten away raccoons that have already taken up residence in chimneys and attics. Flashy pinwheels and rubber snakes can drive away skittish critters and soda pop bottles buried, mouth up, in the yard will produce an eerie whistling that annoys them.
For more permanent solutions, homeowners can turn to the professionals. Berkeley Animal Control responds to calls about feral cats and dogs, and Alameda County Vector Control deals with rats, roaches and mosquitoes. Only private “nuisance control” companies respond to problems with larger mammals.
On any Saturday night, Gloria Ashby takes her old red Corolla—festooned with environmental bumper stickers and animal decals—out to the county backroads, driving up and down the East Bay hills in search of urban animals. An amateur wildlife photographer, she meanders down narrow hillside roads, occasionally wandering as far as Sacramento in hopes of snapping the perfect photograph. She slams on the brakes as she catches sight of a pair of eyes glinting in the underbrush, only to mutter in disappointment when it turns out to be a startled cat.
“I see a lot of skunks, coyotes, gray foxes, hares and deer,” says Ashby. “Once when I was driving I even startled a bobcat as it was dragging some roadkill into the bushes. Away from the city, I’ve even seen mountain lions near Lake Berryessa, and bears up at Lassen Volcanic Park.”
But Ashby has a special soft spot for opossums, the slow, ungainly marsupials that, with their bald tails and white faces, give the impression of giant, ghostly rats.
On one of her nocturnal drives around Davis, she stumbled across an injured opossum lying in a ditch. The creature was dazed with a huge gash across her leg, too weak to do anything other than hiss faintly as Ashby approached.
“I usually watch for foxes and coyotes, since I really like dogs,” says Ashby. “I hadn’t given too much thought to opossums before that.”
Ashby gathered up the limp opossum in a towel and brought her to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Months later the broken leg healed but the opossum still walked with a limp and couldn’t climb trees anymore. Instead, the opossum—whom Ashby named “Blossom”—chose to hang around Ashby’s backyard, where she spent her days sleeping in a cat bed on the porch and her nights foraging for snails and insects.
Ashby says opossums have a bad reputation because people see their mangy fur and big, sharp teeth and figure they are vicious and aggressive. She explains that her experience with Blossom and other opossums has been nothing but gentle. Blossom has never bitten anyone and has hissed only once when startled by the noise of the vacuum cleaner.
Opossums aren’t native to California. They’re a relatively recent arrival to the coast, having slowly migrated west from warmer climates in the American southeast. Ashby remembers that Blossom’s twitchy little ears were ragged and torn—a not-uncommon sight since harsh California winters can give naked possum ears frostbite.
Although by some counts opossums may be the most common urban mammal—the Lindsay Wildlife rehab center saw 260 opossums last year as opposed to 120 raccoons—these shy, dim animals rarely run afoul of people.
“They’re really kind of dorky animals,” says Wilson of Alameda County Vector Control, who reported just 166 opossum complaints last year, compared to 441 skunks, 572 raccoons and more than 1,000 rats.
Opossums are a special case, since their natural laziness and low intelligence make them less likely to get into trouble than most animals. But even opossums can cause mischief—Blossom once tried to eat a snowglobe left on a porch table, possibly mistaking the smooth, round object for a tasty egg.
Although many wild animals adapt well to living near humans, they’re still far from tame. In some parts of the country, exotic critters like skunks and opossums are raised as pets, but trying to turn a wild animal into a household companion is a risky business that rarely turns out well.
“Most people who want to keep wild animals as pets don’t really want a pet wild animal,” says columnist Bogue. “What they want is a dog or a cat in a wild animal’s skin.”
The king of urban animals, though, is the lowly rat, a cunning scavenger that’s traveled the globe in ships and cargo planes, putting down roots wherever people live.
Two kinds of rats are prevalent throughout the East Bay. Roof rats nest in trees and attics, whereas their cousins the Norway rats prefer dank underground places like basements and sewers. And while opinions may be divided over raccoons and opossums, few people can tolerate a nest of rats living nearby.
Several times over the past year, Greg Risotto found that rats had chewed holes in the walls of his Pleasant Hill garage. He boarded up the holes, but still sometimes ran into the culprits outside, skittering around near the creek behind the house.
“These rats were bold,” he says. “And they weren’t afraid to come out in the daytime, which is something I’d never seen before.”
Seeing rats during the day is a sure sign of trouble, since that means the swarm has grown too large to get all its foraging done at night. Rat populations fluctuate in cycles depending on weather and food availability. Rat complaints to Alameda County Vector Control dipped sharply in late 1990s, but for the last few years there’s been an upswing again as damp weather ensures good fruit harvests and plenty of food.
In 2006, Alameda County Vector Control received 1,439 rat complaints, up almost 10 percent since 2004. Above that, the Berkeley Health and Human Services department received an additional 840 rodent calls in 2006.
In Berkeley, rats became a real problem at Willard Tot Park last year. For some, it recalled another Willard—the movie about a man who trains a swarm of intelligent rats—when the rats began venturing out in broad daylight, spooking kids and parents alike.
“People were inadvertently feeding them when they held picnics in the park, dropping leftover food and snacks,” says Manuel Ramirez, manager of Environmental Health for the city of Berkeley. “It really got out of hand at Willard because there was a redwood deck around a tree that provided the perfect shelter for them to dig burrows.”
And when rats have both a nice, safe place to sleep and a steady source of food, they start to multiply.
Environmental Health Services solved the problem by taking out all the things that made Willard so hospitable to rats—they cleared out some of the dense shrubbery that gave the rats cover and scraped out the soft soil from beneath the deck, replacing it with rocks.
Other outbreaks were reported at Thousand Oaks Park and at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Allston Way in Berkeley, but rats aren’t confined to any one section of the city—they go where the food is. In both cases, Ramirez says the root of the problem was the same: abundant food from scattered garbage and available shelter from thick plant undergrowth.
Since the Thousand Oaks Park infestation was near an elementary school and the tot park a draw for scores of local toddlers, the agency took special precautions, setting up a temporary fence around the area where the exterminators worked. Environmental Health agents trapped rats and cut down plants, but didn’t use the most common rat control method: poison.
“We only use poison baiting in the most extreme cases,” says Ramirez, citing environmental concerns and fears that poisons could unintentionally harm predators like cats and owls. “It’s something that we would only use as a last resort, and then we’d only bait inside the rats’ burrows. After baiting, we’d block the tunnels with cement to prevent anything other than the rats themselves from eating it.”
Most people are glad to see rats go, but even rodents have their champions, like Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun, a Chico-based rat lover with 22 pet rats. Ducommun founded the Rat Fan Club 20 years ago to promote the good things about rats.
Domestic rats make friendly and affectionate pets; many people compare their personalities to that of dogs. But wild rats, while equally intelligent, are far less friendly and can carry disease and parasites. Ducommun has occasionally hand-raised orphaned litters of wild rats found in garages and woodpiles. When they are able to live on their own, she releases them outside of town, near water and far from humans.
“If there’s water around, it ensures that there’s going to be adequate food for them,” says Ducommun. “That discourages them from getting back into people’s homes. They’re just like other animals. It’s not that rats are attracted to people. It’s just that that’s where the food is.”
Some citizens have taken matters into their own hands with disastrous consequences. Wilson Ogg, a retired lawyer and judge living in the Berkeley Hills, voices a strong belief in kindness toward animals—he refuses to eat pork if he thinks the pig was killed inhumanely—but he still bristles at laws that he thinks put animals before humans. Last July, Ogg tangled with the city of Berkeley after he tried to get rid of a problem skunk on his own.
Skunks generally don’t cause a lot of mischief, but they have been known to pop in and out through cat doors in search of pet food. Ogg first realized he had an intruder coming into his house when he caught a whiff of skunk smell in his kitchen.
After Ogg caught the skunk in a live cage trap, he called Berkeley’s Animal Control to figure out what to do.
“They told me something that sounded very strange,” says Ogg. “They said I should dispose of it by killing it or driving it up into the hills and releasing it. I thought just leaving it on someone else’s land to become their problem wasn’t being very neighborly, so that wasn’t acceptable.”
Ogg asked his handyman to kill the skunk in the most humane way he could think of—and ironically, the way Ogg says the city used to kill troublesome skunks years ago—by drowning it in his garden pond. After they thought the skunk was dead, Ogg called Animal Control to pick up the body.
“When the woman came from Animal Control, she said the skunk was alive but looked like it had been half-drowned,” recalls Ogg. “She was infuriated, saying it was cruelty to animals, and called the police. Three patrol cars showed up. My neighbors must have thought I was being arrested for some horrible crime.”
Ogg was detained for several hours as both Animal Control and the police questioned him about the incident. No charges were filed, although Ogg briefly considered suing the city for what he felt was false imprisonment.
“I don’t believe in cruelty to animals, but this policy puts animals above human beings,” says Ogg. “And that’s just absurd.”
Ogg says he hasn’t had any problems with skunks since, but he’s not exactly sure what to do if he does.
Mike Rosen-Molina once surprised a coyote in a Dumpster late at night. He’s a frequent contributor to The Monthly whose work has also appeared in the East Bay Express, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Fairfield Daily Republic.