RM: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.
RM: The city of Toronto has a special relationship with raccoons, or at least they think they do.
AD: We are not the only city with raccoons, but we often act like we are. We like to think Toronto is the raccoon capital of the world and we’re strangely proud of that distinction. But we really have no data to back it up.
RM: This is Amy Dempsey, a reporter for the Toronto Star.
AD: Do we have more raccoons than say, Chicago or Vancouver? Well, we don’t actually know. You can’t count urban raccoons, they’re all over the place.
RM: But who needs data when you can feel it in your heart?
AD: A few years ago, when a raccoon died on Young Street, Torontonians named him Conrad and built a vigil around his body with flowers and framed photo cards. So if science ever disproves this idea of Toronto as “raccoon nation” I really fear for Toronto. I think we’re going to have an identity crisis.
RM: But Toronto’s feelings about raccoons are not uncomplicated.
AD: Our relationship with our raccoons is kind of a love-hate relationship. We hate when they destroy our grass and break into our houses. And yes, they do break into our houses…
RM: Maybe worse than all of this though, was the raccoons’ proclivity for getting into the compost, which the city started collecting for the residents in green bins several years ago. From the perspective of the raccoons, these compost bins were an incredible development, an all-you-can-eat buffet with the plastic and other garbage already thoughtfully removed!
AD: And the raccoons would go to town on our stuff and just spread it everywhere. And you’d wake up, look out your window and go, “Shit.” and then you’d argue with your spouse or roommates about who’d have to clean it up.
(John Tory press conference): The green bins have become a feast a veritable feast for the raccoons once a free meal is found they return again and again.
RM: This is Toronto Mayor John Tory a few years ago, dressed in a blue suit in front of a row of Canadian flags as if he’s announcing a plan to step up the war on crime; and in a way, he was.
JTPC: There’s probably nothing that represents more of a nuisance in a big city like this than the feasting of the raccoons on the contents of the green bins.
AD: The war on Raccoons sort of started with Mayor John Tory.
JTPC: We’ve discovered that the members of Raccoon Nation are smart, they’re hungry, and they’re determined. But our job together with our private sector reinforcements is to show them that we are smarter.
AD: He said things like…
JTPC: We are ready. We are armed. We are motivated.
AD: We have left no stone unturned in our fight against Racoon Nation.
RM: The reason Mayor Tory felt so prepared that day was that the city was unveiling a new raccoon-resistant green bin for organic waste. During this same press conference, the mayor held up the new bin victoriously and hammed it up with reporters as cameras flashed.
AD: I would say it was 75 percent tongue in cheek, but there was also a hint of seriousness to it. It was pretty clear that he was confident the new green bins would solve our raccoon problems. Confident enough to stand in front of news cameras and say, you know…
AD: Defeat is not an option.
JTPC: Defeat is not an option.
RM: But Amy was about to find out for herself whether defeat was an option… and spoiler alert, it was an option (laughs).
Let’s back up just a bit. This all started the way most things start in cities, with an RFP dot PDF.
AD: Yeah they put out a request for proposals asking for a new generation green bin, and emphasizing that it had to be rodent resistant aka animal resistant aka raccoon proof, please. The company that won was called Rehrig Pacific.
DM: I’m Dennis Monastir with Rehrig Pacific, and I serve as the environmental sales manager for Canada.
RM: If the city of Toronto was in a war with Racoons, this, ladies and gentleman, was the general in charge of a major front. And he took his role very seriously.
DM: I mean, Rehrig Pacific takes new product development very, very seriously; and there’s a five-pronged approach which we initiate.
AD: Dennis is in many ways a classic sales guy. He wears shirts with his company logo. He has a firm handshake. I found him to be extremely helpful and genuine, and when he speaks about the green bin; you can tell he’s really proud of it.
DM: It’s something that I’m very, very passionate about. Not only being, part of the design team, but I’m also a resident of the city of Toronto, so I know what it means to me as a resident.
RM: Rehrig Pacific had a number of design criteria they were trying to meet with their green bin prototype. For example, the bins would need to be picked up and dumped by an automatic arm that reached out from the truck. So the bin was going to have a lid that closed and locked to protect against raccoons, but the lid would also have to open up automatically when the bin was turned upside down and dumped into the truck by the arm.
DM: So we had to ensure that the lock itself disengages 100 percent of the time. The container must function in extreme weather conditions. Ergonomics: easily open with one single hand. We were looking at you know, safety. Kids end up in the darndest places. You definitely don’t want them in organics container but more importantly, we don’t want them locked inside the container.
The elimination of internal catch points, any material that becomes trapped inside the container could pose a significant risk, with respect to the ick factor for the residents.
RM: But on top of the ick factor and the meddling kids, Rehrig Pacific had to think about enemy number one: the raccoons.
DM: Yeah so we worked with an urban raccoon specialist to basically understand raccoons likes, dislikes, their dexterity, what they can and cannot do.
AD: It was a local raccoon specialist by the name of Suzanne McDonald.
SM: I’m Dr. Suzanne MacDonald. I’m a professor at York University, I study animal behavior.
AD: Calling her a raccoon specialist really downplays her accomplishments. She is a professor of biology and psychology who has studied just about every animal you can think of.
RM: She may have studied every animal you can think of, but in Toronto, there’s only one animal that matters.
SM: In Toronto, everybody talks about raccoons. I work in Vancouver a lot and nobody talks about raccoons there. There are raccoons all the time.
RM: So she wasn’t that surprised when Rehrig Pacific got in touch as they were designing their bin.
SM: And they asked me to talk to them about how raccoons work, and I did.
Well, raccoons are omnivores, they can eat everything. They’re mischievous. Raccoons have really good teeth, they’ll use them, they don’t want to use them. They want you to go away.
RM: You go away! You’re in MY yard!
SM: They also get a taste for human food. So, once they get a taste for that Indian takeout that we’ve thrown out that they’ve enjoyed, from then on it’s like, “Berries? I’m not eating berries!”
We look we look at them, they look at us, you know, if you look at a monkey in the face they’ll look away? But raccoons don’t, they look right at us.
RM: They look right through us.
SM: You know, they have pretty good senses of smell, they have good vision, but touch is their superpower. They are very persistent; they will work at a problem for hours and hours and hours, and they’re pretty strong
RM: Rehrig Pacific took all of this information and applied it to their bin design.
DM: There were multiple iterations of the design. There’s multiple um, photorealistic renderings.
RM: In the end, they came out with a bin they believed in. It’s an olive green 26-gallon container with a lid that closes and locks.
DM: We felt very very confident with the success of that locking mechanism and the container itself.
AD: So the new green bin rollout took about 18 months from start to finish. People are waiting for their new green bins, and people are getting really excited about these things. Before they were rolled out on my street they were rolled out on some of the streets nearby. So, people on my street would have to walk by and see that homes near us had the new green bin and we didn’t. And you’d sort of be thinking on your walk to the subway to go to work like, “The hell? Where’s my bin?
RM: But eventually Amy did get a bin of her own.
AD: So, on the lid, there is a dial. Like, a handle that you turn and when it’s in the horizontal position it’s open, when it’s in the vertical position it’s secure, it’s locked. You actually have to turn it in a way that really would make it difficult, if not impossible to turn if you don’t have opposable thumbs.
RM: And Contrary to popular belief, raccoons don’t have opposable thumbs, even though they can move the thumb-like digit on their creepy little hands a little bit… in any case, for a while, everything seemed to be going according to plan. In fact, some people were worried that the new bins were working too well. In other words, people were afraid that without the green bins as a food source, maybe the raccoons were starving.
AD: So the way I became involved in all of this was that in January of 2018, a friend sent me a note saying that he believed the new green bins had eliminated the raccoon population in Toronto. He actually used the word “eliminated.”
RM: As any intrepid reporter would do, Amy decided to look into it.
AD: I wrote a quick email to Suzanne MacDonald, our local raccoon expert and I said, “Hey, could the raccoons be dying?” She said, “Eh, they’re probably just hiding from the cold.” But she said she would have more information in a few months. She said, “After I measure more dead raccoons.” So I, of course, wrote back immediately and said, “Can I come?”
RM: Animal control was collecting raccoons killed by cars and storing them in freezers for Suzanne, who would then come in and measure them in order to track the health of the population from year to year.
SM: And I do this four times a year. And when you go in July, it turns out, and you bring out frozen raccoon carcasses and it takes a while to measure them, um, they start to melt. Oh dear God! You can imagine the maggots and the blood and all the things. And that’s fine, I mean, this is science. We push through.
RM: Suzanne wouldn’t have the results of her data for a while but while Amy was there watching her measure dead raccoons, she asked her…
AD: Do you think it’s possible they could learn how to get into the new green bins? And she shook her head no. She said, you know, she’d filmed them trying and not one of them could do it. And she just said, “They won’t, they won’t get in. The raccoons won’t break into the into these green bins.”
AD: Then about a week later this story comes out. It’s basically a local Toronto resident who has filmed a video of a raccoon opening his green bin and just like, kind of winking at the camera almost.
RM: This was not the only report of a bin being broken into, although it was the first to include video which quickly went viral, much to the dismay of Dennis Monastir from Rehrig Pacific
DM: For somebody to come out and say, “The container doesn’t work” is um, you know, it’s frustrating.
RM: The videos, Dennis says, don’t tell the whole story. A couple break-ins doesn’t mean the design is flawed.
DM: The screw might be loosened too much, and if you just simply tighten it a little bit, it might prevent the issue.
AD: Dennis is frustrated by the fact that sometimes when people have issues with their green bins they don’t call the city, they don’t report their issues to 311, instead they sometimes call the local newspaper and then it becomes a story. I think he said something to me like, “You know, when your car breaks down you don’t call the Toronto Star, you call you call the mechanic.”
DM: I don’t know, for some reason you know, Toronto specifically, they love to glamorize raccoons.
RM: The city, for its part, blamed the handful of break-ins on user error.
AD: And the city’s response was to suggest that these homeowners weren’t locking their bins properly and to emphasize, you know, the city kind of emphasized that they had only had a handful of complaints out of 450,000 green bins.
RM: The suggestion being that if Joe in Yorkville had a problem with his bin…
AD: Then maybe the problem was Joe, and not the Bin.
AD: So soon after, I woke up one morning and walked outside, and saw that my neighbor’s green bin was on the ground in our Laneway and there was food everywhere. So I texted my neighbor and said, “The raccoons have gotten into your green bin.” She said, “You know, what the hell? Can the raccoons get into the green bins now?”
RM: At this point, Amy had been convinced by the city’s argument: there was no problem with the bins, the problem was the users.
AD: I wrote back and said, “More likely that you didn’t lock it properly.” I still have the text message and when I read it, I cringe a little bit. Like, it’s like, “No, I don’t think you locked it properly Caroline.”
RM: But Amy didn’t get to stay smug for long. Two nights later her own bin was plundered.
AD: My husband and I get a group text message from Caroline. “The raccoons have gotten into your green bin.” At this point I’m floored, because my husband is a person who locks things and checks locks like 7 times.
RM: It seemed the reporter had just become a character in her own story.
AD: I’m thinking like, first of all, this is so weird. Like, did they know that I was looking into this stuff? You know? Am I being targeted?
RM: Amy called the city who said, “Mam, please, you probably just have a broken handle.” And they sent some workers out to fix it.
AD: And they replaced the lid on my bin as a precaution. Even though they couldn’t find anything wrong with it.
RM: She also wrote to the raccoon expert Suzanne McDonald who was thrilled, because she’s always secretly been on team raccoon.
AD: She wrote back almost immediately and said, “That is awesome.” And she said, “I’m going to loan you a trail camera, and you have to see how they’re doing it.”
So I get the camera from Suzanne. We meet up at the zoo one day. I go to our local grocery store and I get a couple of chickens, put the chicken in the green bin, rubbed some of the chicken grease all over the green bin.
The first night raccoons did not come. The second night I went out to the front porch actually with my toddler. We peeked around the corner and my daughter said, “Uh-oh.” The bin was down, it was a mess. I took the I took the camera upstairs, then pressed play on the video that I captured.
It’s almost as though the raccoons knew what I was doing and they were like, “Let’s give her a really good shot here. This one is going to go viral.” The camera is pointing at the bins, and then all of a sudden this mama raccoon comes skulking out, and she just pulls the bin down like…. And she gets out of the way like, at this point, you can tell she knows what she’s doing. Like, she’s not going to stand there and get crushed by the bin. No. she’s going to pull it at the exact right angle and it just falls down with a BANG!
And turns around and looks at the camera as if to say, “Watch this.” And then she turns the handle and just opens it. Yoink! Just like I would and in they go.
RM: The key seemed to be knocking down the bin, which made the handle much easier to turn.
AD: When it’s on the ground you can just kind of pull on it. Like as if you’re pulling a lever. Like you know, you can almost bat your paws at it, or like, pull it to the side.
RM: On August 30th, 2018, Amy published an article in the Toronto star with her video and, as these things tend to do in Toronto, it went viral. Thousands of Torontonians watched as the protagonist handily pulled down the bin, and then flashing her glowing eyes at the camera, showed off how easily she could open it. Amy got a bunch of emails and comments on the article, people saying this was happening to them too. But the city maintained that were getting relatively few complaints overall.
When Amy told Dennis Monastir from Rehrig Pacific that the raccoons were getting into the bin his company designed, he decided to pay her a house-call.
DM: You know, I personally wanted to go out there myself to inspect the container and to do some torque force testing on the handle itself.
RM: Some heroes don’t wear capes, they wear polo shirts with the company logo on the breast pocket.
AD: The day Dennis came over, my neighbor Mike came over as soon as he saw this guy in my driveway working on the green bin, but Mike had no idea that this is THE green bin guy.
DM: It seemed like there was a gang of neighbors that came up all of a sudden out of nowhere. And it was just like, “Oh you know, we have some problems with racoons getting into our bins.”
AD: Getting into MY bin and getting into everybody’s bin…and just like, ripping on the green bins, and the waste of money and…
RM: Dennis took it all like a champ. He tightened up everyone’s handles so they’d be particularly hard for little raccoon paws to turn. But it hasn’t solved the problem. Having accepted defeat, Amy now keeps her bins tied to a wall so raccoons can’t knock them over. And she can’t help but wonder how soon before this knowledge about how to open the bins spreads to the rest of raccoon nation?
SM: Raccoons don’t teach each other these things. That’s called social learning. And even most monkeys don’t do that; so it’s not like this innovation is going to spread across the city.
RM: Suzanne McDonald doesn’t think most raccoons in Toronto currently have what it takes to get into the new green compost bins. That perfect combination of strength, intelligence and determination, Amy just happened to encounter and extra gifted one.
SM: We call her the genius raccoon because I think it’s amazing that she did it.
RM: Suzanne finally finished her dead raccoon study, and Toronto’s favorite frenemy is as fat as ever. She thinks that’s because even though most of them can’t get into the compost, they’ve moved on to a different solution: the good ol’ fashioned garbage.
SM: Our raccoons are not starving to death that’s for sure.
RM: But she doesn’t rule out that in a far-off future, we might end up creating an “uber raccoon,” one like Amy’s, that can get into just about anything. She’s studied raccoons incities and they are, on the whole, smarter than their rural counterparts. Urban raccoons are constantly having new problems placed in front of them to solve, and they keep figuring them out.
And Suzanne and Dennis both tell people that the green bins were never advertised as raccoon proof only raccoon resistant. Nothing is raccoon proof, they say, which is a small concession that while the front of the line is holding, for now, the war against raccoons continues.