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Raccoon Island: Vashon struggles with its cute but pesky neighbors
One sunny afternoon last fall Islander Martin Halliwell was pruning trees at a rental home near Tramp Harbor when he sat down for a lunch break. He had barely begun to eat when he turned to find eight little faces, just feet away, staring curiously at him.
Halliwell, an avid photographer, happened to have his camera nearby and snapped a shot of the fearless raccoons.
“They’re almost as cute as baby pigs,” he said with a laugh.
Since then Halliwell, who often works outside on Vashon, has seen even larger groups of raccoons.
“I’ve seen as many as 15 or 16 together,” he said. “It’s bizarre.”
Wildlife experts say that raccoons, intelligent and highly adaptable scavengers, are found in large numbers all around the Seattle area and aren’t necessarily more abundant on Vashon. But while the cute and pesky creatures knock over trash cans and pick fights with dogs in the city, on Vashon raccoons — who frequently raid gardens and massacre flocks of chickens — seem to have earned a special place of wonder, amusement and disdain among Islanders.
“If you’re ever lacking something to talk about on Vashon, just bring up chickens or raccoons,” said Will Forrester, who owns GreenMan Farm with his wife Jasper. “Everyone loves to one-up each other on raccoon stories.”
Indeed, the stories abound. From the disgruntled farmer who has killed more than 100 raccoons to the naïve neighbor who feeds 20 of them a day to the woman who arrived home from vacation to find raccoons had ransacked her home and killed her cats, raccoon shenanigans are endless.
Even those with seemingly nothing to attract raccoons have found themselves victim to the animals’ antics. Lesley Reed, like many Islanders, has been woken during the night by footsteps and thumps on the roof of her north-end home. And when her husband threw water and rocks on the raccoon invaders, she said, it seemed to barely phase them.
“They would look at us, and they just didn’t really care at all,” she said.
Most, however, will agree that the Island’s chicken owners seem to suffer the brunt of the raccoon mischief.
Forrester is one of many who have learned the hard way. After losing a number of chickens to hungry raccoons — he found they could even dig under a fence and unravel chicken wire — he and his wife built an extra-fortified pen complete with electric wire at the top and bottom.
“We call it Guanotanamo Bay because of all the chicken (poop) inside,” Forrester said. “It’s secure like a prison.”
Bob Norton, a local fruit expert who has a small orchard on Maury Island, said raccoons can’t stay away from his fruit either.
“They’ll strip a plum tree or a fruit tree totally overnight,” he said. “You’re just about ready to pick, and the next day you go out to pick and they’re all gone.”
Unable to build a pen around his trees, Norton has resorted to trapping and killing some of the most troublesome raccoons.
“I don’t enjoy killing anything, but I’ve got a lot of money invested in this little farm, and I can’t give it all to the raccoons,” he said.
Norton said killing raccoons seems to be a common practice on Vashon, as he knows many farmers who have trapped even more than he has. Some have buried 30, 50, even 100, he said.
“They’re just trying to protect their fruit and their gardens,” he said.
Chris Anderson, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said trapping and killing nuisance raccoons on one’s own property is legal, as is hiring a certified wildlife control officer to do so. However, he said, the state recommends those with raccoon problems try other methods to deter the animals first, such as securing trash cans, removing outside pet food and scaring the raccoons off when they do come around.
“If you get rid of one, another will probably come back,” Anderson said. “So we recommend people work on exclusionary measures and hazing to make the raccoons unwelcome.”
A rumor has long circulated the Island that King County has trapped raccoons in other parts of the county and released them on Vashon.
However, Tim O’Leary, a spokesperson for the county, said that has never happened. The county, he said, simply doesn’t handle nuisance wildlife.
“It’s not really our thing at all,” he said.
Anderson, with the state, said it is actually illegal to relocate problem animals such as raccoons from one property to another, a practice that has happened on the Island.
Multiple academic studies have found that raccoons that are relocated usually repeat the same troublesome activities in a new location, Anderson said.
“They’ll find the same situation and go back at it, and cause a problem for someone else,” he said.
However, particularly troublesome to state wildlife officials, Anderson said, is the surprisingly common practice of feeding raccoons. Though it’s not against state law, feeding raccoons is bad for both the animals and people, Anderson said.
Raccoons that gather near homes to feed are known to more easily spread diseases. What’s more, Anderson said, raccoons fed by humans become less afraid of homes and people and will likely cause problems for other neighbors.
“It’s creating a situation where wild animals might lose their wildness,” he said. “It may end in the animal having to be trapped and killed. If we love the raccoons, we don’t want to do that.”
Islander Bella Ormseth knows this better than anyone. A neighbor on one side of her home near Camp Sealth feeds raccoons, she said, while a neighbor on the other side shoots them.
“I’m like Switzerland — I’m in the neutral territory,” Ormseth said with a laugh.
Nell Coffman, a veterinarian at Fair Isle Animal Clinic, said she believes many people on Vashon feed raccoons. She’s heard the stories from those who sell pet food as well as Fair Isle clients whose neighbors feed them.
“It’s a real sensitive issue,” she said. “They feel like they’re helping the wildlife, and they name them and feel like they have a relationship with them.”
Several Islanders who are believed to feed raccoons did not return calls from The Beachcomber.
Coffman said she’s especially concerned about feeding raccoons because they are known to carry diseases. A few years ago there was a large outbreak of leptospirosis among Island dogs. It is unknown if raccoons played a part in the outbreak, but it’s possible for raccoons to transmit the disease through urine and feces, Coffman said.
Diseased raccoons have recently been reported not far from Vashon. Just last week a raccoon caught in the Fauntleroy neighborhood was found to have distemper, a highly contagious disease that can be passed to dogs. Last October there was an outbreak of distemper among raccoons at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma.
Coffman said raccoons can also carry rabies, though it’s not a problem in this area, and they are known to transmit a type of roundworm that can cause extreme illness and death in humans.
“There are a fairly low number of cases, but it’s pretty horrific when it does happen,” she said.
At Fair Isle’s request, public health officials from the state and county level will visit Vashon in May to hold a public meeting. They’ll give information and answer questions about leptospirosis, canine vaccinations and living with raccoons.
Islander Gary Gray said he, for one, is interested in such a public forum on raccoons. After losing at least a dozen chickens to raccoons and observing a large one come closer and closer to his home, he is searching for answers on how to deal with the persistent animals.
“A month ago I came home and one of the raccoons was running down the hill with a chicken in his mouth,” Gray said.
He said he has considered trying to trap the raccoons, but is uncomfortable with the idea of killing them.
“At the same time, when we’ve got so many in the area that are threatening some of our own animals with diseases and our own children, it’s something that I’ve considered,” he said.
Bianca Perla, a local ecologist and the director of Vashon Nature Center, said she wishes no one had to resort to killing raccoons. At the same time, she said, Vashon’s raccoon population, like its deer and rat populations, has gotten out of control due to a lack of predators that would normally kill the animals.
“Personally, … I don’t really like the idea of shooting an animal,” she said. “If raccoons are really a nuisance animal it’s hard to know what to do, but I personally don’t like it.”
Perla said perhaps Islanders should do something to discourage those who feed the raccoons and in doing so feed the problem.
“It might be something for us to think about as a community,” she said. “Do we want to do more education, at least? Do we want to pass some kind of ordinance?”
Dana Schuerholz, one of the directors of the farm-based Homestead School, agrees raccoons are a nuisance for anyone on Vashon with a farm or even a trash can. But she tries to take the problem in stride, she said, and has even turned it into a learning opportunity at the small school on Vashon’s west side.
Schuerholz has trapped and killed four or five raccoons that wouldn’t stay out of her chicken pen, and students at Homestead helped tan the hides. When they save up enough hides, she said, they’re going to make coonskin hats.
“I want to have wildlife on the Island, and you don’t get to pick and choose what kind of wildlife you get, and that’s OK,” she said. “I think we’ve disturbed the balance, and we kind of have to live with that.”