In North Philly, they’re known as raccoon houses, and neighbors know where they are. Like the abandoned property near the corner of 23rd and Berks. It’s full of raccoons.
“Every day, every night,” said Ruth Birchett, a North Philly resident and community leader. “We know where they come in and out of. A lot of people can tell you the address.”
Philadelphia has — and for a long time has had — a raccoon problem. Blame it on vacant homes, littered streets and even Harrisburg. In 2011 City Council passed a bill that ended up more ceremonial than practical because state law got in the way. Five years later, the damn raccoons are still everywhere.
“Especially now that the weather is getting ready to get cool like in mid-spring and late fall,” said North Philly resident Amjad Nasir. “You start seeing families. You see the mom and dad first — they’re huge — and then two or three babies come behind them.”
The evidence that Philly is overrun with raccoons is more than anecdotal. Tara Schernecke, the assistant director of operations for the Animal Care and Control Team of Philadelphia, says the agency receives phone calls about raccoons daily. Unfortunately they can’t get precise numbers on raccoons because of the way their incident filing system currently works.
The ACCT would also rather people not call them about raccoons, at least in most cases. The group has two specific instances for when it will deal with the animals: If it gets a phone call about a visibly sick or injured raccoon, or if a raccoon is in the common area of a house, like the kitchen or family room. But if a raccoon has invaded somebody’s walls or attic, the ACCT won’t do anything.
“People are frustrated,” Schernecke said. “They think that we can handle all the animal related (calls) and unfortunately we can’t handle everything.”
City Council President Darrell Clarke, who presides over much of North Philly, said over email he sees raccoons “all the time.” He proposed legislation in 2011 that would have led to the ACCT taking a more active role in controlling the raccoon population. He wanted Animal Control to catch and relocate raccoons.
But the Pennsylvania code prevented any sort of useful bill from passing. That’s right: Even when it comes to raccoons Harrisburg is getting in Philly’s way.
“State law,” Clarke said, “ties our city’s hands on this.”
Pennsylvania does not allow for trapping and releasing raccoons. It mandates trapped raccoons be killed. So when Clarke’s legislation passed Council, it had no possibility of being enforced. The resources for such a program were also difficult to come by, and the bill lacked the support of Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration.
Clarke would like the state to modify its law so Philadelphia could have its own raccoon-trapping measures. He said his office has been encouraging residents who call about raccoon problems to notify state lawmakers, noting that City Council has more pressing concerns with state government, like education funding.
“If you’ve got raccoons messing up your street on trash day, and the City of Philadelphia can’t do very much to help you, your lack of faith in us gets reinforced,” Clarke said. “I understand that this issue is funny to some people, but that is a very serious problem.”
Not long ago, Birchett’s neighbor asked if she had mice in her home because she kept hearing scratching noises at night. It turned a raccoon had nested in her chimney, which is no longer in use, and had four babies. She’s also had problems with them rummaging through her trash even after she got a RubberMaid trash can with a lid. Birchett began keeping food she intended to throw away in her refrigerator until immediately before trash pickup day to keep the raccoons at bay.
“You literally change your own living habits based on what these critters are doing,” she said.
The ACCT’s recommendations for preventing raccoons from gathering are notifying L&I of abandoned buildings, keeping alleyways clean and calling pest control services if raccoons invade property.
Raccoons have been less of a problem for Nasir’s block in recent years as vacant buildings have been getting rehabbed. But even with well-kept properties the struggle continues. Nasir has trees and vines on the side of his house, and the raccoons love those.
“You have to secure your house because raccoons are very bold,” he said. “They find a way in. They’re coming.”