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Latest raccoon attack raises question: Is this the new norm in Sacramento?

Published: Thursday, Sep. 8, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Friday, Sep. 9, 2011 - 10:33 am

Another raccoon attack in urban Sacramento on Tuesday night has seriously injured a dog and startled a neighborhood. The third attack in two weeks, it suggests a fundamental change in the city's relationship with its wild inhabitants.

The raccoon incidents come amid numerous skunk encounters in the city that have left dogs and people desperate for a bath.

Public health officials grew concerned after one skunk tested positive for rabies. Tests of other skunks and raccoons have turned up negative so far.

Rather than a varmint explosion, wildlife experts say Sacramento may be amid a shift in its relationship with its wild-animal neighbors.

Skunks and raccoons have always lived in Sacramento neighborhoods, not to mention the river and creek corridors weaving through the city. Their populations may have increased due to a bountiful winter, many housing vacancies that create more nesting habitat, or some combination.

Experts don't know if skunk and raccoon numbers have increased. The species are so common and abundant that nobody pays much attention to them until they cause trouble.

"Raccoons readily live in close association with humans," said Dirk Van Vuren, a professor of wildlife biology at the University of California, Davis, and an expert on human-wildlife conflicts. "Raccoons can get accustomed to people, and then they become defensive."

It may be that these animals have become dependent on human garbage, pet food and handouts – and are now acting aggressively in response to any threat to these resources.

"It might be a threat that is elusive to humans," Van Vuren said. "A human may have just been walking down a sidewalk. Well, maybe the raccoon was in the process of crossing the sidewalk to get to a garbage can."

Such a scenario could explain Tuesday's incident.

At about 8:30 p.m., a woman was walking her two small dogs near 21st and D streets. Suddenly, two raccoons dashed out from between two houses and attacked the dogs, said Gina Knepp, the city's acting animal services manager.

One dog was seriously injured, and the woman was scratched by the raccoons while protecting the dogs. Neighbors came to her assistance and the raccoons quickly retreated into a large tree.

City animal control officers responded 15 minutes later, and monitored the raccoons in the tree for 90 minutes as they waited for a bucket lift truck from the city's Tree Services division to arrive.

About 10:30 p.m., an animal control officer in the bucket lift fired three shots from a .410-gauge shotgun, killing three raccoons in the tree. All three are now being tested for rabies.

Similar incidents occurred Aug. 28 at Ninth and P streets, and Aug. 31 at Third and P streets.

"I have nothing scientific to support this," Knepp said, "but I do believe they have become accustomed to sharing space with us, and somehow we're perceived as a threat to their food sources."

She added: "It's definitely different. I have an animal control officer with over 34 years of experience who has never seen this before."

A common thread is that the pedestrians all were walking small dogs when they were attacked.

"My guess would be that they viewed the dogs as competitors – carnivores of generally similar size that need to be driven away from their home area," Van Vuren said. "Large dogs would be viewed as threats to be avoided, not attacked."

Knepp urged people to get pets vaccinated against rabies as a precaution. In areas where raccoons are known to be present, she said people also might want to avoid walking their pets after dark.

The long-term solution is for city residents to secure their garbage, pick up debris and fallen fruit around their homes and businesses, and not intentionally feed wildlife. Homes and outbuildings should be inspected regularly to eliminate potential denning sites in attics, under decks and foundations.

"It's substantially a people problem," Van Vuren said.

Other communities that experienced similar problems have passed ordinances to ban feeding wildlife. Sacramento has no such rule, Knepp said.

Reed Parsell, a resident of the street where Tuesday's incident occurred, has seen raccoons in the neighborhood every year – even in his backyard – and they have never been aggressive.

He called Tuesday a "surreal" experience.

"It's just strange that these poor, defenseless animals just got shot out of a tree," he said. "I've lived here for 11 years, and I've never heard gunfire. It woke up our 2-year-old."

While traumatic for humans and pets, such incidents almost always end worse for the wild animals.

It is not widely known, but if a homeowner calls a pest control company to trap a raccoon, state law requires the trapped animal to be killed, said Jason Holley, a supervising wildlife biologist at the California Department of Fish and Game.

Trappers and pest control companies are not allowed to relocate a nuisance animal, because this simply moves the problem and creates new competition for resident wildlife in the new area, Holley said.

Also, relocating a nuisance animal does nothing to correct the problem that created the nuisance. Another raccoon will likely move in to exploit the same abundant urban food source.

"People need to take responsibility in properly storing their food and garbage and not providing attractants," Holley said. "Anything we can do to keep the wild critters wild, that's where it's at."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Matt Weiser

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