Let me start by saying that I think Toronto's green bin program is a brilliant idea. In fact, during the past year, I've become something of a zealot in directing my household's organic waste into the two-wheeled receptacle so it can be returned to the earth.
That said, I suspect that instead of making for a plentiful source of goodies for raccoons in my neighbourhood they clearly haven't figured out the latch the container is cutting off their regular food supply and making them increasingly desperate. All of which is leading to some rather tragic events in the vicinity of my home on an east-end ravine.
For more than seven years I've kept fish various species of koi and long-finned sarasa comets in three ponds in my backyard.
In all that time, I'd only had one problem with raccoons, and that was the night of the summer blackout in 2002. Under the cover of absolute darkness, and with the power cut to the ponds' waterfalls and fountains that provide cover to the fish, the masked critters struck my smallest pool and carried off a beautiful pair of silver butterfly koi. The 22-centimetre fish must have made quite a feast.
As devastating as the loss was, I figured the raccoons were only doing what comes naturally, so I quickly made some changes to the ponds' underwater structures so the fish would have places to hide should the four-legged predators make further forays.
The raccoons didn't bother the fish again. A family of five remained regular evening visitors to the backyard but only seemed to stop by the ponds for a drink or an occasional nibble on the water hyacinths.
But that all changed this past summer.
First, the raccoons hit the sarasa comet pond and fished out two large breeding females. I found what was left of them, flowing tail fins and gill covers, under a table on the patio.
A week later, another nice-sized koi from the smallest pond was the victim, its scales littering the nearby rocks. I raised the water level, made some more structural changes and consoled myself with the fact that my largest pond the one nearest the house, home to four magnificent 32-centimetre koi was untouched.
But that didn't last. One morning I found what was left of an orange, white and black male under a nearby Japanese maple. All the potted plants growing in the shallows along the pond's edge had been pushed into the deeper water so the raccoons could use them as a base for their fishing expedition.
A few days later, I opened the back door and found the male koi's three-year-old sibling lying there dead, its body half eaten. Next, the white and black speckled female showed up on the steps with her entrails eaten away.
Over the course of the next few weeks, the raccoons destroyed my entire stock of 10 koi fish raised from 2-inch fingerlings that would each cost hundreds of dollars to replace.
All the efforts I made to prevent the carnage including putting sheets of plywood over the ponds at night were of no use. The raccoons won, and the koi ponds now sit empty.
Totally demoralized, I sat down and tried to figure out what had changed in my environment over the course of the past year that might have contributed to the sudden raccoon crisis.
After racking my brain for several days, it dawned on me that I started using the green bin last fall after the fish had all been moved indoors for the winter. Before that landmark event, the raccoons had been regular visitors to the
little shed where we keep our garbage and recyclables. The animals had long ago figured out how to pull out the garbage bags, rip them open and help themselves to the delicacies inside.
But when the green bin arrived, those treats were no longer so readily available. With the old garbage bags now offering up little more than meagre traces, the raccoons have decided to help themselves to what's available.
Fishing may require a little more effort than scavenging, but the food doesn't come any fresher.
Last week I dropped in on John Bostanci, the owner of North American Fish Breeder, the Kingston Road shop where I often go for pond supplies and fish food. It turns out that Bostanci also lost more than a few koi from his personal stock to hungry raccoons.
"I've never had a problem like this before," he says, sharing my exasperation.
Apparently, we're not alone. Bostanci says more than a few pond enthusiasts have come into his store lately looking to order electric fences that might keep raccoons away from their fish.
"I've never had so many requests," he says. "I had a guy out from the city's animal control department who said it's like there's some kind of food shortage or something."
I shared my green bin theory with Natalie Karvonen, executive director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre.
"It certainly is possible that it's a contributing factor," she says. "All the raccoons are going crazy eating right now to fatten up for winter. I'm sure they're trying to get whatever food they can get their hands on."
Naturalist Barry Kent MacKay agrees.
He says the green bin has caused an "abrupt and very significant change" in the raccoon food supply.
"They usually wouldn't touch fish if there's garbage available," he says. "But it makes sense when you're taking away a major and very easy source of nourishment that the animals will move up to the next level of exertion."
MacKay figures that over the next year or two the green bin might actually cause a reduction in Toronto's raccoon population.
"That's the good news," he says. The bad news? Raccoons are quick learners, and an animal that has discovered koi may well start teaching others how to catch them.
"It wouldn't surprise me if fish become part of the regular repertoire of food sources in the absence of choice number-one," MacKay suggests.
With that in mind, I'm going to see if I can find a raccoon who'll teach his buddies how to open the green bin. It's either that or put out a tray of tuna sandwiches before I turn in every night.