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Finding peace with the raccoons in our backyard

Four years ago , my husband and I bought a house in an old Toronto neighbourhood. What we didn't realize when we signed the purchase agreement was that we would be sharing the property - with raccoons.

Our first encounter was shortly after we moved in and were eating dinner outside. As night fell, the raccoons emerged from between the houses. They sat on our fence and watched us. Disturbingly, they were unafraid of us higher mammals.

Then they started getting into our garbage. Lacking a shed, we have to keep our bins outside and even the new "raccoon-proof" ones are susceptible. No matter where we put the bins or what kind of fancy locks we used, the raccoons managed to get in and shred up our garbage. I started to think they had super powers.

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I would have been elated if our encounters were limited to garbage. But last spring we put sod down in our backyard and that's when the real frustration began. Every single night the raccoons ripped up the sod looking for grubs, and each morning our yard looked as if a small bomb had gone off.

At this point we realized we had to make an active effort to repel these vermin.

A brief Internet search suggested peeing around the yard so the raccoons would think a predator had moved into the area. The simplicity of this approach appealed to me. I had my husband and son pee around the property for a week.

Evidently the urine of a middle-aged software salesman and a three-year-old boy didn't indicate a threatening enough predator to deter the raccoons. So I purchased a three-litre bucket of coyote urine. Yes, they sell this and no, I have no idea how they collect and crystallize three litres of coyote urine for only $39.99. Two weeks of sprinkling this stuff everywhere yielded no results; the sod was still torn up every night.

Back to the Web I went. I learned that microscopic organisms called nematodes could be sprayed over the sod to kill the grubs. I immediately bought the nematodes and the application equipment, but the store clerk warned me raccoons are habit forming and may continue to dig up the sod even if the grubs are gone. Sure enough the clerk was right. This was getting expensive.

In desperation, we consulted a wildlife expert, otherwise known as a trapper. She explained that our options were limited since the perpetrators were likely nursing females and their pups. Trap-and-release methods would be ineffectual. According to Ontario law, a trapped raccoon must be released within one kilometre of the capture site. At this short distance, the female would always return to her young.

Finally, my husband bought chicken wire and pegged it down over the sod every night until the snow flew. This managed to keep the grass in good enough shape to finally take.

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Just when I thought our problems were over, I happened to read an article about raccoon latrines. It turns out raccoon feces can carry a debilitating parasite to which young children are particularly susceptible. As the mother of two kids under 4, my resolve and my neuroses doubled.

Come spring, I combed our yard every morning looking for droppings, examining every wood chip and dirt ball. I covered our property in materials raccoons are supposed to hate - mulch, Tabasco sauce and oil of mustard.

This year, the raccoons seemed interested in our second-floor balcony, which we never use because we're pretty sure it's structurally condemned. One morning a couple of weeks ago, I decided to venture out there to look for feces. I discovered the heavy exterior door was glued shut by several years of neglect. I had to shove it open with my shoulder.

It's hard to say who was more alarmed, me or the five sunbathing raccoons.

Based on my research I had thought raccoons spent the days hiding in attics or under sheds. Apparently not always. As I crashed into their home, the mother raccoon was sleeping while her four pups nursed. In that split second, the pups dashed for cover while the mother bolted awake, met my gaze and prepared to attack.

Then something unexpected happened. I wasn't looking at the nursing female pest that had dug up our lawn for months. I was looking at a mom - a mom who expended all her energy feeding her babies, a mom who was prepared to rip out my throat if I took one step closer. I retreated.

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At that moment I knew two things: 1. That raccoon mother and her babies were going to live on our balcony as long as they wanted; and 2. I would have to hide the fact I was harbouring the enemy from our neighbours.

The raccoons became our pets from afar. My son checked in with them countless times during the day by peering through the one window where we could just see them in the corner of the balcony. He learned raccoons breastfeed their babies, just like I breastfed his younger sister. He learned animals clean their young by licking them, which made him thankful I opt for a washcloth during his baths.

Then, a few days ago, they were gone. I suspect our surveillance drove them away and I hope they found another safe home.

Our urban wildlife experience was brief, but it was an amazing learning opportunity for my son. It also reinforced my own respect for life - all life. Even life that eats garbage.

Christina Trotter lives in Toronto.

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