Trash pandas in Calgary? Sighting raises questions about raccoon population
Climate, habitat changes mean raccoons are here to stay, and you may see more of them says expert
When his porch light flicked on at 2 a.m., Douglas Dauncey thought the skunks were back. Instead, an unexpected visitor was crawling down the wooden fence, arms stretched out, headed straight for his full trash bags.
Dauncey admits he missed garbage pickup. His slip-up was the raccoon's opportunity.
"I managed to catch him before he tore it all apart," Dauncey said. "I kind of banged on my door and didn't want to scare away entirely because he was really adorable."
Many Calgarians like Dauncey have never seen a raccoon in the wild. While Calgary does have a raccoon population, they tend to fly under the radar. But according to one expert, over the past number of years there has been a turning point. They aren't as common as coyotes and jackrabbits, but the city's raccoon population is on the rise.
"I've been in western Canada most of my life, and I've never seen a raccoon in person," Dauncey said. "I've always had skunks … under my stairs. I'm always getting skunks in my garbage."
But raccoons? Dauncey said he's only seen them in zoos.
"I just watched him for a bit and caught him on video until he left the yard and he didn't make any mess, but he was really cute," Dauncey said.
Raccoon population small, but growing
Between 2017 and 2020, citizen scientists identified 263 photos of raccoons captured on wildlife cameras as part of a program called Calgary Captured.
The animals have called southern Alberta home for decades, according to wildlife biologist Chris Fisher. But, unlike their delinquent cousins in Ontario, the raccoons here aren't as brazen.
They mostly keep to themselves and hang out in the city's parks — only really coming out at night, and snoozing during the day.
Raccoons might come and visit the stray trash bag on occasion, said Fisher, as they thrive in urban environments. But, he added, they are just as happy eating crab apples or feasting on other urban fares that are not bundled up and waiting for garbage day.
They only come out at night
"There is no doubt the trend is we are seeing more and more raccoons in southern Alberta and specifically Calgary," Fisher said. "As our winters and harsh conditions are improving, [there are] larger populations of raccoons and certainly more observations of raccoons in the parts of the city that you would expect them."
The critters can be found in neighbourhoods backing onto Fish Creek Park, or the Bow and Elbow Rivers. Fisher said they seek out good tree coverage — they love to crawl into the hollows of cottonwood trees for shelter.
Fisher said Calgary won't see a population as large or as pesky as there is in a place like Toronto — yet. We don't have enough habitat. But he did note that climate change is helping these southern species to thrive here in Alberta.
He guesses there are dozens of individuals currently living in Calgary, whereas in Toronto there are tens of thousands roaming the streets in packs.
He thinks we have a few decades before the raccoons in Calgary undergo a full-on trash panda transformation.
"It's going to be just something that we're going to have to get used to as they're going to become a greater part of the character of Wild Calgary," Fisher said.