Peter Pekelny works seven days a week. His office is a dirty white van, with the name Pro Pest written in red and black on the sides. Strapped to the roof is a pair of extendable ladders; one reaches a maximum of 26 feet, the other 38. The front of the van is decorated with the tracks of a raccoon scurrying across the engine. The red band that circles the vehicle lists a series of nuisance pests, such as skunks, squirrels and bees. However, the one that keeps him busy is the raccoon.
Pekelny’s day starts at 8 a.m. and continues for the next 10 hours. The job takes him from one end of the GTA to the other. Today he’s starting out west in Mississauga, but he’ll also work in North York, along the harbourfront and out east in the Beaches. “There’s a lot of work out here, it’s kind of crazy,” says Pekelny starting up the engine. The rattle of his metal tools picks up as he hits the highway. “Yeah, it’s kind of junky,” he says, looking back at the pile of tools and metal wire. However, despite the noise he’s still able to converse with clients. Every 20 minutes or so he says, “Pro Pest can I help you?” Some days he receives over 100 calls.
Like a waiter at a restaurant, he writes down the orders. He captures clients’ names, telephone numbers and addresses on blank business cards, which he organizes using the van’s cup holders. “It’s a system that only I understand,” he says. Despite having two trucks on the road, there are more calls than he can handle. The purchase of a third vehicle will help, as will the addition of a fifth employee.
Pekelny has been operating Pro Pest for over 14 years. It’s his third business and he believes that one of the reasons why it has been successful is fear. Unlike his previous efforts, a health food store and a window and awning cleaning company, people’s fear of wildlife is recession proof. “The job we do is a necessary part of the urban lifestyle,” says Pekelny, pointing at various properties that he’s working on as they pass. “What we do is not easy for the average person.” He’s right—although his clients often don’t see the animals, they can hear them in their walls. Homeowners feel violated by their presence and worry that they might attack.
For the past four nights Laura Pearson has been sleeping downstairs. When she comes to the door she is still dressed in her pyjamas. Her dark dishevelled hair masks her bloodshot eyes. This is the third time in five years that she has had problems with raccoons.
Manny Quintos, a homeowner in North York, worries that raccoons will fall through his roof and land in his bedroom. He’s particularly worried about their claws, saying, “I hear that they can rip through your stomach.” Like Pearson, he has had to redo his roof on more than one occasion because of raccoons.
Kenji Kong and her husband Stephen live in Markham. They worry that the raccoon in their roof may have rabies. The fact that raccoons in Ontario haven’t had rabies for over 10 years does nothing to alleviate their fear. They’re also worried because raccoons are known to carry roundworms, which they secrete in their faeces. These worms, if ingested by humans, can cause neurological damage.
And it’s not just fear of the animals that cause people to call Pekelny. The roofs that he climbs are high and cold in the winter. The attics he inspects are dark and cramped and confronting the raccoon inside is frightening.
I experienced this fear when I crawled into one of these attics. Unable to stand, I had to lie on my belly. My only hope of spotting the raccoon in the darkness was to catch the reflection of its eyes with my flashlight. No easy task, considering the piles of insulation surrounding me. In order to keep from falling through the ceiling my body rested on a narrow plank, which I could only see by brushing the insulation to the side. I felt like a swimmer from the movie Jaws, except instead of a shark there was a 10- to 35-pound raccoon hiding beneath a yellow sea.
My only defence against the raccoon was a two-foot long metal stick, with a handle on one end and tongs on the other. However, my limited mobility made me an easy target. The sight of a dead baby raccoon, blood and guts spilling from its headless body, instantly increased my heart rate. According to Pekelny, this raccoon infanticide was either caused by the mother, who preferred to kill her young rather than surrender them to a predator, or by the father, if he suspected that they weren’t his children. Either way, I now understood why people hire a professional.
“People blame raccoons, but the problem is not the raccoon, the problem is that people’s houses have weak spots and the raccoon is simply a good inspector.”
Pekelny’s skills are on display as soon as we arrive on sight. He calls this part of the job, “CSI for pest control.” It’s the process by which he deduces what type of animal he’s confronting.
“Look here,” he says, pointing to the torn lawn, “raccoons do this when they’re searching for worms.” Dressed in a pair of brown cargo pants, a blue vest and dark shades, he begins prowling around the client’s property. “And here, you see,” he says walking down the gravel driveway towards the back yard, “these shingles are from the roof.” The bite marks along the edges belong to either a raccoon or squirrel. The only way to know for sure is to climb.
Pekelny carries the 36-foot ladder by resting it on his right shoulder. “Just breathe,” he says, “that’s the trick to climbing.” He then adds with a wry smile, “It also helps if you don’t think about falling.” His movements flow as he climbs the ladder. Halfway up he stops and yells, “Droppings,” as he looks across the lower roof, “it’s definitely raccoons.”
“Watch your step—it’s slanted,” warns Pekelny, his shoes grinding against the roof. Pulling out his phone, he begins to photograph the torn shingles and exposed wood. “It’s like a war zone,” he says as he begins testing the vents. On the first try he discovers the entry point.
“People blame raccoons,” says Pekelny, holding the vent open with one hand as the other picks at a piece of fur that stuck to the edge, “but the problem is not the raccoon, the problem is that people’s houses have weak spots and the raccoon is simply a good inspector.” He says part of the problem lies with construction companies that use cheap materials like plastic and aluminium to build houses. In most cases, these companies are simply unaware of the raccoons’ abilities. The raccoons come because they’re attracted to heat, and all it takes for them to get inside is a crack.
Pekelny, however, argues that it’s all about food supply. The City of Toronto agrees, offering residents the following advise on its website: “By learning how to share the environment with them [raccoons] and reducing conflict by eliminating sources of food and shelter on our properties, we can be entertained by catching sight of these visitors as they make their way to a more suitable home.”
On average, the minimum Pekelny earns per job is $250, if all he has to do is work on the entry-point. However, on this particular roof the raccoons are attacking three other vents. The cost for re-enforcing these is $30 each. There will also be a $120 charge for repairing the shingles, bringing the grand total to $460 plus tax. The price will be higher if babies are discovered. In addition to these costs, the homeowner will also need to repair their roof, and that will cost thousands.
"What we do is not easy for the average person."
As Pekelny begins working on the roof, he switches from CSI to MacGyver. At least, that’s how he refers to the task of securing the roof. In fact, his peppered hair and facial features resemble that of Richard Dean Anderson, the star of the popular eighties TV show. His hands appear massive as they bend and conform the metal to his will.
Once built, these wire cages will be placed over the vents to ensure the raccoons can no longer access them. “Hey, look over there,” says Pekelny shifting his concentration from his drill to the house next door. “The raccoons are working on their roof as well. Let’s hope they notice,” says Pekelny checking on the location of his van.
After the vents, all that remains is the entry-point. However, since we’re currently in the raccoon’s mating cycle, February to May, Pekelny must first inspect the attic to ensure that there aren’t any babies.
Fortunately, there is room to stand inside this attic. Pekelny’s flashlight spots four glittering eyes peaking out from the corner. “They’re like little bears,” he says pulling back the pink insulation that conceals them. “Keep the light in their eyes,” commands Pekelny, “this way they can’t tell us from a hole in the wall.” As he steps forward he takes a crate for a shield. He then pinches the nearest raccoon. Instantly, it swivels and hisses its displeasure. Pekelny pinches it again, and this time it growls, swiping at the metal tongs with one claw and then the other.
It takes a third pinch for the raccoon to relent, but instead of leaving it simply scurries to the other side. Realizing the futility of these efforts, Pekelny says, “Let’s get out of here.” Since there are no babies, he doesn’t wish to stress the animals further.
Back on the roof, Pekelny explains that it’s illegal to transport a raccoon beyond a kilometre from where it’s trapped. The one-kilometer rule is one reason why wildlife operators prefer to use a system known as a one-way-door. Instead of catching them, they use this glass door to cover the entry-point. The door will allow the raccoons to leave, but not re-enter the premises. Should Pekelny be forced to trap a raccoon, he tells me that he will simply drive around the corner and release it.
Suddenly, it’s apparent that fear is only one component of this thriving industry. What makes it self-sustaining is that raccoons are left free, to go from one home to the next, in the same neighbourhood. And since raccoons have excellent long-term memories they will continue re-visiting the same properties. The only incentive for them to investigate a new home is better access. Beyond a doubt, the one-kilometre rule has created a perpetual business model, one where neighbours unwittingly compete to pass on the raccoon, like a hot potato.
According to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, there are two primary reasons for this law. The first is to stop the spread of disease, from one raccoon population to the next. The second is to protect the raccoon from suffering stress associated with relocation to an unfamiliar area.
Animal protection laws, which make it illegal for wildlife operators to kill raccoons without a fur trapping licence, further aids the raccoon industry. However, since it’s illegal to hunt raccoons within the city, it’s unlikely that any operator will have this licence. Above all, it’s not in their interest to carry it.
Homeowners do have the right to protect their properties, but if they choose to kill a raccoon they must do so humanely. In the summer of 2011, a Toronto resident, in the process of defending his garden, attacked a family of raccoons with a shovel. He killed one raccoon and injured another. His neighbours reported him to the police, who then arrested him on charges of animal cruelty. This summer the man was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine of $1,365, in addition to serving 100 hours of community service.
The one-kilometre rule has created a perpetual business model, one where neighbours unwittingly compete to pass on the raccoon, like a hot potato.
The argument that raccoons will simply go away if we change our habits is unlikely. They have already spread from Central America to Alaska. Without question they are survivors. Driving through downtown, Pekelny tells of a raccoon he was pursuing in a nearby building. “Yeah,” he says, “it climbed to an apartment on the 48th floor.” After a slight pause he adds with a chuckle, “It then drank from the toilet before hitting the fridge.”
Remarkably, Pekelny’s clients rarely question the use of the one-way door or the City’s approach towards them. Professor Stanley Gerht, a wildlife ecology expert from Ohio State University says that he has never before seen “this level of tolerance.” He say’s that it’s remarkable because, “It’s not clear that raccoons offer any great virtue for humans.”
Compared with Toronto, Gerht says that wildlife operators in Chicago catch between 1,500 and 3,000 raccoons per year and that 90 per cent of them will be euthanized on the spot. This is despite the fact that Illinois has stricter regulations regarding the relocation of raccoons. In their case the rule is 100 yards instead of one kilometre.
Furthermore, last year, the City of Chicago’s Park District spent $25,000 to capture and euthanize 120 raccoons. The action was labelled a public safety issue, after boat owners complained that raccoons were acting aggressively and making a general mess of people’s property. There was also concern that raccoons were frightening tourists away from the harbour area.
Another way that the Americans are controlling wildlife populations is through sterility drugs. One of the most successful is GonaCon. Developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it sterilizes wildlife with a single shot. The USDA is currently developing an oral version of this vaccine.
Considering the availability of the food supply to urban raccoons, Envac presents one of the best alternatives. Its underground garbage collection system is already in use in 30 countries, including major cities like Barcelona and London. The system works by removing garbage from the streets and using wind to transport it underground. In 2014 Montreal will become the first Canadian city to adopt this cleaner, urban-friendly garbage collection system.
Without this level of infrastructure it’s unlikely that Toronto’s status as the raccoon capital of the world will change. Despite the damage being caused by raccoons, Torontonians continue to tolerate them. It’s a choice that is being aided by laws and practices that have helped to perpetuate the problem. It’s all good news for Pekelny and his colleagues, who recognize that their business has as much to do with people as it does raccoons.
© Ignacio Estefanell 2012