Feeding wild mammals like raccoons, opossums and Eastern gray squirrels could cause problems for your house and garden.
We share our gardens, our cities, our lives, with wild creatures, whether we notice them or not. The animals, too, go about their pollinating, plundering and burrowing ways, often oblivious to humans.
People used to have so much more of an adversarial relationship with nature. My father raised racing pigeons, and I don’t remember anyone in our Lake Forest Park neighborhood complaining when he’d sit on the back deck, shotgun in hand, waiting to blast any hawk that came close enough to frighten his birds.
I hope people no longer shoot birds out of the sky like that. But I know we still disrupt natural rhythms in so many heedless ways, like eliminating habitat, spraying poisons — and feeding these creatures. Ironically, it’s the wild-animal lovers who strip them of their wildness by serving them meals.
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Do you remember a couple of summers ago the reports of a marauding pack of raccoons in Olympia? Before state wildlife experts persuaded people to stop feeding the bullies, they had killed 10 cats and a dog.
This spring I received a spate of letters from readers complaining about these furry masked bandits. Jean Walker, who lives close to downtown Bellevue, e-mailed me a vivid example of a problem you wouldn’t expect in the city. She wrote: “One of my neighbors regularly feeds raccoons with dog food . . . The neighborhood raccoon population has increased until they are no longer nocturnal but boldly crossing and crisscrossing my garden each day, leaving their feces, devouring some choice and large koi and leaving the koi skeletons beside my pond.” When Walker urged the neighbor to stop feeding them, “She replied that if she stopped now they would tear the sliding screen off trying to get in for food. Anyway, she said she thought they were ‘cute.’ “
Russell Link, a wildlife biologist with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, says complaints about raccoons top the list of calls to his Mill Creek office (opossums and Eastern gray squirrels are numbers two and three, respectively). “Feeding wild mammals, intentionally or unintentionally, is a bad idea,” Link says unequivocally. When fed routinely, raccoons not only cease putting energy into finding food for themselves, but become aggressive when they don’t get handouts.
A serious raccoon concern, beyond destructiveness and pet safety, is that their feces are often contaminated with roundworm that can be fatal to humans. You don’t want to be digging in dirt raccoons have used as their bathroom, nor do you want kids playing where raccoons have passed through.
No need for a shotgun to keep raccoons out. Just scare your neighbors with the facts and keep the dog food locked up.
Valerie Easton is author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.