Raccoon-proofing your garbage: A compendium of knowledge for battling and besting the backyard beasts.
Several times a week, I get someone coming to my blog via a Google search for â€œraccoon-proof garbageâ€, landing on my previous diatribe on the subject, Procyon horribilis.
Iâ€™m obviously not alone in my battle against the fell creatures. So - and this is new for me - I'm writing this entry strictly for those frustrated Googlers. The rest of you can get your CBC trivia, pithy anecdotes and lame stories about my kids next time around. Iâ€™m hardly running out.
I understand that raccoons don't really have a choice about whether or not to eat garbage. They just make a bad mess and don't put anything back.
You might think, "Raccoons don't read." Well, people don't read either, but here I am on the internet, typing anyway.
No truer words. Though I expect the raccoons in my neighbourhood can read, are probably reading this on their Blackberries, and are developing countermeasures at an undisclosed location under my deck.
Oh, and they tried to eat my jack-o-lantern.
Why donâ€™t I just chill out?
OK, nobody likes sweeping up banana peels, used diapers and coffee grinds, but itâ€™s not really any worse than changing said diapers or coffee filters.
But I should mention two specific problems I have, which make the raccoon issue vexing instead of just a mild irritant.
1) Storage. I live in a semi-detached house with an extraordinarily narrow alley between it and the house next door. Thereâ€™s no room for a storage shed or other clever device. And the wall is covered in vinyl siding, so Iâ€™m loath to drill holes in the wall to tie back the containers.
2) Location. My street is exactly one block from the yard where the City of Toronto garbage trucks begin their rounds. So they arrive at 7:00 a.m. on the dot. I donâ€™t get up that early, so I need to put out the garbage and recycling the night before. Also - and this may become a later blog entry - the garbage men are not on their best behaviour first thing in the morning. They look for any excuse to avoid collecting our stuff, so bungees etc. are out.
Hence my search for a way to make the city-provided green bin raccoon proof. Read on.
Scope of the problem
Torontoist claims that Toronto has one of the largest raccoon populations of any city in North America. Wikipedia says they are second only to the grey squirrel here. On average, they weigh 25-30 lbs.
According to the Toronto Humane Society, many people believe Toronto has a lot of raccoons because of all the parks and ravines, but the real answer is garbage (read: food.)
Toronto is known as a "clean" city, but it still has enough readily available garbage to support a very large raccoon population. The city is able to provide necessary shelter (in the form of attics, chimneys, garages, porches and mature trees) and a convenient supply of food from your garbage. The number of raccoons in an area depends on the amount of available food and shelter. If one of these factors is reduced, the raccoon population will decline.
(Of course, the Humane Society also says, â€œRaccoons cannot cause problems unless people allow them to do so. Instead of blaming them, we should work together to find a solution, satisfactory to both humans and raccoons.â€ Well, fuck that.)
Raccoons are built for getting into your garbage. The Project Wildlife website says:
Raccoons have keen senses of smell and hearing. They are strong and agile, hence good tree and fence climbers. Each foot has five long and slender digits, which operate with remarkable dexterity. In the wild, they use their front feet for finding food in water, opening shellfish, and conveying food to the mouth. In adapting to human habitat, they often apply this dexterity to opening garbage cans and pet food storage containers.
Whatâ€™s more, they pass on their nasty habits:
Zoologists attribute the raccoons adaptability to transmission of culture, a mammalian trait this creature has developed to a high level. The young quickly pick up new skills from adults and then can make their own adjustments or adaptations to new circumstances.
Because Iâ€™m sticking to the garbage issue, Iâ€™m not going to get into the diseases (Baylisascaris roundworm, canine distemper, parvovirus and rabies) and other problems (attacks on pets, damage to houses, gardens, etc.) associated with raccoons.
Green bin grocery
Today more than half a million Toronto houses put organic waste in a separate, green container for compostable food waste.
Though almost all downtown residents know how often raccoons get into the bins, the city seems to think it isnâ€™t a big deal. They did a survey of 900 Etobicoke homes that bordered golf courses and ravines (this decidedly does not describe my neck of the woods!) to see if the bins were opened:
During the four weeks that curbside set-out was observed, only seven bins out of 900 were opened. While one canâ€™t be sure exactly how they were opened or by whom, it appears that raccoons were not a problem. The City followed up these findings with a further inquiry to Torontoâ€™s Customer Service staff, who verified that from January to July, there had not been one complaint about raccoons getting into green bins from those homes audited.
So, we must all be imagining this problem, I guess.
When city officials introduced the green bin program, they swore on a stack of bibles that theyâ€™d be raccoon-proof. Theyâ€™ve since toned it down a little, claiming it is â€œdesigned to be animal-resistant.â€
Hereâ€™s what the Green Bin FAQ has to say of the container:
It is durable and has a tight-fitting latch. In fact, the latch on the bins produced for Toronto, East York and York has been further tightened to resist the prying claws of various animals like dogs or raccoons.
Meaning they didnâ€™t really work.
An article published on the excellent CBC Unlocked site (created by locked-out journalists like myself during the 2005 CBC lockout) exposed the latch issue further:
The biggest problem was the latch. It was stiff and raccoon-proof at first, but became easier to open over time.
A wise friend told me that all green bins have not been created equal. He had two, one that opened with the flick of a finger, and another that required hands of steel.
But Norm "Trapper" Torrie, who makes a living catching raccoons, said business has never been better since he began five years ago.
"I've yet to hear of any raccoon who can't open a green bin," said Torrie of Racoons.ca.
"They get on top of the bin and pull the latch up," said Torrie. "Raccoons don't turn their wrist the way you and I do. They always pull. What green bins need is a sliding latch, but even that I'm sure raccoons would solve."
Though the problem is usually with the green bins, the Humane Society site says that different garbage cans help keep raccoons out of the garbage, if thatâ€™s a problem. â€œGarbage cans with twist-top lids are the best deterrents. They are available from hardware stores at a reasonable price.â€
While claiming the green bin latches are fine, the city green bin site admits that extra measures may be needed.
So, rather than offering a better bin, they sell you an upgrade.
To provide additional security against persistent pests like raccoons, the City provides residents with the option of purchasing a latch lock addition to your current green bin latch. This extra latch costs $9.00 and is available at the same Works Yards serving as recycling container pick-up locations (PDF) and at local Community Environment Day events (not Home Hardware stores). It comes with easy to follow installation and usage instructions.
This mystical latch was in development longer than the space elevator, and I've never seen one. I called the city today (416-338-2010), and was told that they are "white plastic latches called Raccoon Latch", and that they CAN be bought at Home Hardware.
There is another product available there, though, and my aforementioned sister - always the wiseass - bought one for me for my birthday.
The product is called Raccoon Check, a nifty strap and buckle system that bolts onto the lid of your green bin. It costs under $8. It was developed by Toronto residents Warren Walker and Jim Millar, and is getting rave reviews.
"Raccoon Check is the first really effective system for keeping raccoons from turning your trash can into a smorgasbord," says Jane Wall, Product Manager for Home Hardware. "It's simple to install. It's easy to open and close. And unlike bungee cords, which don't work that well anyway, you don't have to worry about that springy, whiplash effect."
Though Iâ€™m the first one on the street to install one, other residents of my neighbourhood seem happy with it too:
"It's so satisfying to see the green bin laying on its side in the morning knowing I don't have to clean up what would have been a disgusting raccoon-made mess," says south Riverdale resident Mary Ann Sievert.
I found the device easy enough to install in about ten minutes. The instructions say you need to drill holes in the bin to put the bolts through, but I found the green plastic soft enough to just poke an awl through. Then screw in the straps (which come adjusted to the right size for a green bin) and youâ€™re good to go. Iâ€™ll let you know if it works.
The CBC Unlocked writer tried it too:
My own solution, after nearly abandoning the green bin for old-fashioned composting in the back yard, was a woven strap called Raccoon Check, purchased at Home Hardware. It's not the city-approved latch, which is still in the works.
Garbage collectors have no obligation to undo the strap for dumping, but so far they have.
The day after I'd mounted the new strap, I walked out onto our porch to see our green bin lying on its side by our neighbour's air conditioner about six metres away. It had been pulled down our stairs and dragged through the garden. I could tell because a deep groove was cut through the dirt.
It was not open.
See, thereâ€™s the rub: the garbage collectors donâ€™t have to unclasp the simple buckles, because as with bungees, the city says "the collectors donâ€™t have time to do so.â€ And in my neighbourhood, trash collectors would view this as a reason to skip the whole block.
A rep from the city tells me that garbage collectors WILL unlock the "raccoon latch" clasps - if you can find one.
So, alas, Iâ€™ll still have to get up at 6:55 a.m. every Friday. But at least it wonâ€™t be to sweep up the mess.
People have tried everything from bungee cords to moving tape, string, chain, nylon stockings and weights to keep the bins shut, usually without success.
From experience, I can say that the usual M.O. for a raccoon is to knock the bin over, using the weight of the container to pop the lid open. They are often able to slide bungees and string aside just enough to pull garbage out. To keep your garbage upright during the week, here are some suggestions gleaned from the web:
1) Make it harder to tip over
If you use a bag (strictly optional) to line your outdoor green bin, make sure it is completely tucked into the bin when you set it out; otherwise the edges may be used by animals to pull the bin over, but more importantly you want to avoid any food residue left on the plastic from attracting animals.
Source: Toronto Green Bin FAQ http://www.toronto.ca/greenbin/faq.htm
A simple and very cheap way to keep raccoons out of your garbage. Simply hook the securely closed garbage pail a few inches above the ground, against a wall. To pry open lids the clever animals use leverage by tipping the pails over, then using their wieght and position to knock the lid off. This way, the pail swings back and forth but never rests horizontally - frustrating the masked creature into submission. I've watched and it works for me.
Source: WhyNot.net http://www.whynot.net/ideas/269
To prevent cans from being knocked over and rolled around, secure the handle to a metal or wooden stake driven into the ground.
Source: Project Wildlife http://www.projectwildlife.org/living-raccoons.htm
Another neighbour anchored eye-bolts into cement, and hooks rubber straps from there to the green bin latch.
Source: CBC Unlocked http://www.cbcunlocked.com/artman/publish/features/article_523.shtml
2) Make it unavailable
When you take your bin to the curb is important. If you know youâ€™ve had a problem with animals, rather than putting your bin out the night before pick-up, wait until early the next morning and put it out before 7:00 a.m. on your collection day (raccoons usually feed at night). If you store your bin in a garage or shed, make sure the doors and windows are closed.
Source: Toronto Green Bin FAQ http://www.toronto.ca/greenbin/faq.htm
Keep garbage bins locked in the garage until the morning of pick-up and reduce access to the underside of decks where they will burrow and nest, suggests Ohio State University Extension's website. Raccoons only need an opening of 2.5x4-inches to gain entry.
Source: Home and Garden http://homeandgarden.canoe.ca/Homes/2005/07/04/1116754.html
3) Discouraging smells
As a last effort, place an inch or so of ammonia-soaked newspaper or rags in the bottom of the garbage can and sprinkle cayenne pepper on top of the garbage to discourage raccoons. Handle ammonia carefully, and keep in mind that it is toxic to children and animals. The ammonia is intended to deter raccoons with its odor, not to injure them.
Source: Project Wildlife http://www.projectwildlife.org/living-raccoons.htm
Make a raccoon den unlivable. Sprinkle naphtha flakes or predator urine around the area or hang ammonia-soaked cotton rags near the entrance and keep the area brightly lit. Raccoons dislike loud noises, bright lights and strong smells. Use the same methods in your garden or in the area where you keep your garbage or composter.
Source: The Gableâ€™s Raccoon World http://www.geocities.com/rainforest/vines/4892/raccoonfaq.html
Place mothballs, ammonia or pour hot pepper sauce at the bottom and around the outside edges of your composter or garbage container.
(Iâ€™ve found that a little Lysol spray works well too, at least for garbage pails.)
There you have it. A little long, a little obsessive, and I still havenâ€™t found a way to stay in bed on garbage day. But itâ€™s been a week without having to clean up the side alley, and thatâ€™s a start. If you have any anecdotes or tips, Iâ€™d love to hear them.