Road Kill

The urban animaL population is thriving, but the streets are strewn with skyrocketing numbers of four-legged bodies

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To be sure, the reason for crossing the road has always been to get to the other side. But on Toronto streets this year, 2,264 animals ­– raccoons, squirrels, cats, dogs, foxes, coyotes and pigeons ­– fell miserably short of that simple goal. Tears were shed for some. Others were cursed for blocking a lane or two, or, heaven help them, even three. Impediments they were, to an open road. While two tons of steel travelling over five pounds of flesh is never pretty, the death toll continues to mount as the city’s wildlife populations grow fat on balmy winters, accessible trash and suburban sprawl.

“The faster the vehicle is going, the more likely you are to get just catastrophic trauma,” says the head of veterinary services for the Toronto Humane Society, Stephen Sheridan.

“The animals are just dying as you look at them.” His downtown emergency room has seen the number of hit animals climb 41 per cent this year, to 164.

While an amalgamated Toronto Animal Services (aka the pound) handles all roadkill, Sheridan’s Humane Society is contracted to pick up and treat those animals who live, if only briefly, after tangling with the city’s cars and SUVs.

It’s a service for which Toronto pays just under $800,000 annually, says the Society’s spokesperson, $250,000 short of actual costs.

But the vast majority of the victims breathe their last on pavement, not surgical tables. And the job of picking up what’s left goes to the 40 or more Animal Services officers (ASOs) paid to patrol the streets and highways in yellow vans with, quite understandably, tinted windows.

On this fall’s coldest morning, I head out to Animal Services’ Riverdale location. Mine’s not a request that ASO Pat Piercy gets often ­– or at all ­– but she puts her lunch pail down on the floor of the van to clear me a seat. Really, she’s glad for the company on the downtown route, which on a summer’s day, she tells me, will take her across 100 kilometres of territory and fill the van’s three wire cages and its storage cooler with what was once wildlife.

After 12 years on the road, Piercy’s picked up thousands of carcasses, and while raccoons, pigeons and squirrels are always counted among the unlucky, there have been some changes in the roster.

“If I had to put a number to it, it’s always been about 60 per cent wild animals and 40 per cent domestic. But if you’d told me five years ago that I’d be picking up dead coyotes (four this year) in Toronto, or as many foxes as I do, I wouldn’t have believed it,” says Piercy, who’s seen the number of wild canines killed climb as that of domestics falls more and more each year. “People are keeping their dogs on a shorter leash.”

For our first assignment, the dispatcher sends Piercy and me down the Gardiner on what everyone in the biz calls a “10-38” (a road-kill pickup). The department is informed of 90 per cent of these incidents by someone’s phone call, but I’m told it’s almost never the same “someone” who ran the thing down in the first place. Drivers needn’t worry, though: striking an animal is in no way a crime.

“Roadkills would be classified as accidents,” says sergeant Gord Jones, an officer with Toronto Police Traffic Services. Our yellow van comes to a stop just east of High Park, on Parkside Drive, and Piercy reaches for her tools. At the very least, I’m expecting to see a full-body suit, a nose plug, a pair of goggles, maybe a vacuum. Piercy pulls out a glad bag.

But God is good! At my first “10-38,” we find no blood or guts, but just a pelt, the remains of what was probably, says Piercy a cat.

A what? I’ll have defer to my colleague on that. I watch as the cat (?) gets scooped up into the plastic bag. At no point does Piercy actually touch it.

“In the summer, I can count on picking up three to five animals on this street in a day,” she says. “The High Park area is a hot spot.”

Toronto’s largest park harbours the city’s highest concentration of foxes, coyotes, skunks and raccoons, yet on the streets that box it in, no more than three warning signs are posted asking motorists to remain alert and to check their speed. The city’s official in charge of traffic signs and pavement markings, Myles Currie, says the department’s efforts are hamstrung by fiscal constraints and more pressing concerns.

“We don’t have the resources to justify spending the thousands of dollars necessary to carry out studies of roads with high animal fatality numbers,” says Currie. He’s eager to point out that while Animal Services provides him with neither the number of roadkills nor their locations, his department has made some progress of its own.

“We’ve put up two or three signs in selected areas of the westbound Lakeshore Boulevard, on the approach to Parkside Drive, as well as some on Victoria Park and Ellis in the Beaches,” says Currie. He’s unable to provide the locations of the other “10 or 15” signs strewn across a city with more than 10,000 roads, avenues, boulevards and streets criss-crossing its landscape.

But according to Currie, any complaint filed with the transportation department about a particularly dangerous roadway will be investigated and, if necessary, the appropriate signage will be installed.

Even animal activists leave the question of roadkill at the bottom of the list. “Roadkill has not been one of our active campaigns, nor is it a current campaign for any North American animal rights organization that I know of,” says Jackie Barnes, a director with the Toronto-based lobby organization Animal Alliance.

While Barnes and other members of the 10-year-old non-profit value all life ­– equating animals with humans ­– alas, they, too, must prioritize.

“We (Animal Alliance) have a mandate to get laws changed to protect animals in the long term. We’re lobbying to have animal abuse made a federal crime, to stop animal research and for the care of animals raised for food. When it comes down to genetically modified organisms or roadkill ­– well,” says Barnes, “I can’t imagine that we’d be too successful in getting taxpayers to support funding to protect raccoon and other “nuisance’ animals, do you?”

But Barnes’s own inaction on the issue doesn’t prevent her from pointing a finger at a city that, she asserts, asks its animals to read traffic signs and, more ludicrously, obey them: “Gandhi said, “You can judge a society by how it treats its animals.’ Well.”

In trendy Bloor West Village, our next roadkill pickup is a lot more animal than the last one. At just under 10 pounds, the 10-38 was once a big, fat raccoon ­–the kind only a city can boast ­– and we find him splayed out in the middle of an alleyway just off Windemere Drive.

The alleyway, believe it or not, just happens to be 2 feet away from a playground full of primary-schoolers on recess. I get out my pencil and pad to record the drama as the kids, from James Culnan Public School, gather to watch Pat work.

But they evidently see it as more of a comedy than a drama. The kids laugh as Pat fights to get the masked bandit into a bag (again, without touching it).

“Is he dead?” asks one little girl through a toothy grin. “Yes”, says Piercy. The yuk-yuking gets louder. I can’t imagine the Mahatma’s smiling down on this little tableau. I ask God to lie to me and tell me the kids are only “nervous.” My old-age social security cheque depends on them.

Back in the van, Piercy logs in the old city of Toronto’s latest victim for the year 2000: “#1,663 ­– a large adult raccoon sex, unrecorded.”

“Toronto’s raccoon population is one of the biggest in North America,” says Alita Purdy, manager of Toronto Animal Services, pointing to the city’s northern altitude and its aging and decaying housing stock as ideal conditions for any raccoon. The food’s not so bad either, although it’s quite often their undoing.

“There are several ways that we inadvertently encourage animals onto the road,” says Purdy. “We put out garbage the night before pickup ­– in plastic bags instead of secured bins. We throw food out from our cars, and that attracts them out into the road. If they’re then killed on the road, they in turn attract other animals to scavenge the remains.” says Purdy.

On the move again, Piercy and I stop to pick up a fresh kill spread-eagled on Annette Street just west of Jane. Ten per cent of her pickups are those she spots herself, not assigned by dispatch. My gut, quite literally, tells me to sit this one out. Alone, she grabs another garbage bag, leaving me, Mr. Useless, to look on.

As I do, two more cars slice over what was a black squirrel, opening its chest and painting the pavement red. Piercy’s bag nets the carcass in one, but she drops some of its innards and has to go back. Inside again, she reaches for an apple.

While the pickup of squirrels and other small animals, which usually die instantaneously, falls to ASOs like my partner, the Humane Society’s emergency workers rush to collect the cats, dogs, foxes and raccoons that have survived their run-ins with traffic. What for them has been an ordeal rarely means more than a trip to the car wash for the vehicles.

Treatment for cats and dogs often includes intravenous feedings, painkillers, radiography, fracture-setting and surgery, and is never withheld. But veterinary intervention for these animals’ wild counterparts falls lower on the triage totem pole.

“We treat all dogs and cats that come in, unless the injuries are such that there is absolutely nothing you can do. Then we are forced to humanely euthanize,” says the Humane Society’s Sheridan. Not so with the injured skunks, raccoons and other nuisance animals that with even minor fractures and internal trauma are routinely given 25 ccs of a barbiturate to induce a final sleep.

“Only some of the smaller, simpler injuries like nicks and abrasions you can treat, but we don’t repair fractures in, say, adult raccoons or skunks,” says Sheridan.

It’s a two-tier health-care system that’s rigorously enforced not only at the Toronto Humane Society but also at T.O.’s largest private animal hospital, the Veterinary Emergency Clinic on McMurrich Street. The Humane Society reroutes all of its late-night and early-morning injuries to the private Yorkville hospital.

“We are instructed by the Humane Society to humanely euthanize all raccoons, foxes and squirrels unless the injuries are very minor, and certainly those with fractures,” says Jeff Silver, head of the clinic’s 16-member veterinary team.

“Does the public think we operate on raccoons?” he asks. “I don’t think so.”

Piercy’s last call of the day ­– a day with only five pickups, a sure sign that the city’s animals have taken cover to wait out the winter ­– sends us to Parkdale to collect a cat.

On Seaforth Avenue, we find the grey, long-haired tabby in a pile of leaves. Rigor mortis has beaten us here. I catch sight of its ­– I mean “his” ­– blue flea collar as Pat slips him into the plastic coffin, then ties it closed.

In contrast to the declining number of dogs killed on Toronto’s streets, cat numbers remain high. Its a problem fuelled by pet abandonment, a feral feline population estimated in the thousands and cat owners who insist on letting ’em roam.

Danielle DiVincenzo wasn’t driving recklessly or speeding, she says, when, this summer, she hit “a soft rock.” She soon made a U-ey and found the rock had moved. “I felt sick to my stomach. His head was wide open and his back legs were totally crushed,” says the anti-fur activist with Ark II. She had never seen a porcupine before, or, needless to say, picked one up, put it in her trunk and driven it to the Humane Society. DiVincenzo did it that night, although it wasn’t an easy decision.

“As a kid, I remember my father hitting a rabbit on the road. We never stopped to move it off to the side, and a few hours later when we passed it again, there were two dead crows beside it,” says DiVincenzo. “So the least I was going to do was move it. But it was still alive, and I seriously asked myself if I had it in me to put it out of its misery ­– just hit it over the head with something. I couldn’t.”

I actually met DiVincenzo’s porcupine at the Toronto Wildlife Rescue Centre, on the old Downsview Airforce Base in North York, where the Humane Society had sent it. I spoke there with administrator Nathalie Kavonen. After hours of surgery on a shattered skull, jaw and pelvis, the creature was just starting to climb, and eat, the tree in his enclosure.

Kavonen, a staff of 17 and the free clinic’s 50-plus volunteers are dedicated to the work that saves hundreds of city critters each year and educates the often frustrated people they share neighbourhoods, parks and, increasingly, homes with.

“We sometimes answer more than 200 calls a day from people who are just desperate for answers on how to get the raccoons out of their attic, or have pigeons they’ve found that a cat’s been at, or they’ve hit something and don’t know what to do,” says Kavonen.

The centre’s current inventory of injured wildlife includes a couple of foxes hit by cars, some pigeons and more than 60 other animals. Yet prevention’s worth a kilo of cure, and it could be argued that Kavonen’s work is useless if her patients are released to the same dwindling habitat and the same hard roads.

Back at the Animal Services office, my day in the van with Piercy comes to a close, and I look on as she transfers the deceased to a meat freezer in the building’s garage.

But the corpses haven’t reached the end of the line quite yet, and I brace myself to witness the final disposition of all the dead animals picked up, shovelled or scraped off the city’s blacktop: incineration.

My stomach still empty, my appetite gone, I arrive at Animal Services’ Etobicoke centre. Michelle Anselmi, the acting supervisor, ushers me past the room of stray cats and the room of dogs, which are for the most part macho men’s best friends ­– pit bulls. At the back of the building, we enter the room housing the centre’s incinerator, which, at 5 feet wide and 10 feet deep, isn’t small but has its limits.

“We used to load it down with more than 500 pounds, but the service guys tell us the max really is about 300,” says Anselmi.

During roadkill high season, spring and summer, the natural gas oven burns every day. And it’s a helluva recipe ­– 200 to 300 pounds baked at 1,600 degrees C. for five hours ­– that Anselmi and staff follow.

Winter, however, brings a marked decrease and the Glad-wrapped carcasses are stored in the centre’s freezer until a sufficient number have been run down. They’re then loaded in ­– body bags and all ­– as the stove warms up.

I put on a brave face as Anselmi opens the furnace, still warm from last night’s burn. All the dark fur and red blood are gone. The dross, while not gold, is stark white, and, dare I say, almost beautiful.

My host picks up a small skull resting toward the front of the furnace for my examination. When I’m done, which is soon, she throws it back in. It crumbles to dust. Two hundred pounds of flesh reduced to 20 pounds of ash, she tells me.

Later, the staff will shovel it up into a paper sack for another of the city’s agencies, sanitation, to haul away. All of this is like water off an eider’s back for 18-year veteran Anselmi. Not so for me.

More than 100 million animals are wasted on North America’s roads every year, and still we’re slow to react, says an ecologist with the Florida department of transportation. With its $50-million system of culverts, over- and underpasses, that southern state leads the union in its efforts to stem the loss of animals.

“Ours is a state that has seen a 200 per cent increase in development of its swamp lands,” says Gary Evink on the phone from his office in Tallahassee. “By buying large tracts along the highways, completely fencing them off from the roads and forcing the animals to use tunnels, the department of transportation has managed to save tens of thousands of animals ­– from raccoons and opossums to endangered species like the Florida panther and the ocelot.”

But the superintendent of expressways for York, East York and the old city of Toronto, Dave McKay, isn’t buying the idea of completely fencing off the DVP, let alone digging tunnels. For what? Raccoons and skunks?

“We get one or two calls a week from motorists reporting dead animals on the DVP,” says McKay. “Those numbers go up in the summer months, but we can’t close off the DVP completely. It’s not really practical.”

Fencing along the expressway, which groans under the weight of an average 30,000 cars during eight hours of rush-hour traffic, is incomplete. Nearly two kilometres of the municipal route are still exposed to the floor of the valley and to the animals that call it home.

On my drive back from Animal Services, and its incinerator, I reach for my cellphone to order a pizza. My fast is finished, baby! Glimpsing the speedometer, I notice I’m moving at 65 clicks, which is fine except that I’m in a 40kph zone. I can just hear myself: “That dumb squirrel! It just darted out into the middle of the damn road.”

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