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Published: July 13, 2009
The Brooklyn neighborhoods just across the harbor from Lower Manhattan were remade by the arrival of indoor plumbing. Once the outhouses were swept away, the adjoining backyards evolved into islands of green walled in by 19th-century townhouses.
The miniature forest behind my house startled us recently by disgorging a pair of raccoons. They had scaled a perimeter fence at the far end of the block and ended up at my reflecting pool. I was still asleep when the animals touched down in the yard, but a neighbor later described one of the them as roughly “the size of a small bear.”
As the news spread, houses went into lockdown. Cats and small children were swept indoors. Windows were shut tight. I got caught up in the moment and dialed 911. The emergency operator was cordial, but said that police officers didn’t like raccoon duty. The operator at 311, the city’s help line, asked if my raccoons where “rhabeet.”
I gathered this much: We were on our own with raccoons, unless they were frothing at the mouth. This policy has worked up to now. But, with the raccoon population growing and moving into more and more urban neighborhoods, a new approach might soon be needed.
My raccoon visitors were the first I had heard of in the area. But after canvassing the neighborhood, I found that their brethren had been closing in on our patch of ground for a few years now. There were raccoon stories from neighborhoods in every direction, including one to the south, where masked raiders had pilfered food by entering houses through cat doors. An elderly neighbor told of friends who no longer walked on a nearby street at night for fear of running into big furry foragers.
Suburbanites and rural folks are no doubt laughing at us. But city slickers are entitled to be unnerved. Meeting 20 pounds of fangs and claws in a fenced-in urban yard and glimpsing the masked animal in a grassy country meadow make for two very different experiences. The shock is metaphysical. The raccoons are bringing an unadulterated wildness into a place where nature has traditionally been neutered, domesticated and kept on a very short leash.