In January, as the city of Toronto rolled out its final fleet of new raccoon-resistant green bins, Suzanne MacDonald was flooded with emails from citizens fretting about the fate of the masked bandits known for pillaging our food waste.
The worried residents wrote to MacDonald, an animal behaviourist and known raccoon sympathizer, because they hadn’t seen the creatures creeping through their backyards lately, and were beginning to wonder: Where are they? Are they starving to death? Have they been forced to relocate in search of nourishment? What have we done to the raccoons?
Designed with a special raccoon-resistant lock, Toronto’s new organic waste bins, which the city began distributing to great fanfare in 2016, were perhaps the greatest human effort in what we like to call our “war” against the raccoons. The animals had been effortlessly pillaging our first-generation green bins for more than a decade, leaving morning messes for us to scrape from our driveways and sidewalks. The city’s search for a new-and-improved bin had identified animal resistance, “especially for raccoons,” as a top priority.
The $31-million contract gave us roughly half a million bins, a decade of maintenance and a promise: that raccoons would have great difficulty penetrating the clever new receptacles. City politicians called the bins “raccoon-proof.” The bin maker — and MacDonald, who ran field tests on the prototypes — used the term “raccoon-resistant” because, well, you just never know.
As the new bin was unveiled, the city released a triumphant video of raccoons trying and failing to break in. Humans cheered — take that, you adorable pests! — but some wondered what the raccoons would eat, if not our scraps. When the question of their nourishment was raised, Mayor John Tory made his feelings clear. “The diet of raccoons is not my problem,” he said.
But in the dead of winter, people were starting to worry.
MacDonald has grown accustomed to Toronto’s strange love-hate relationship with the creatures we affectionately call urban trash pandas. While she may, occasionally, roll her eyes at our human behaviour — our reeling between disgust and affection, frustration and concern — she can relate. MacDonald marvels at the curious antics of raccoons caught on camera, but she also swears at the ones who wreak havoc in her backyard.
I wrote to MacDonald in January after a friend told me that he believed the new green bins had “eliminated the raccoon population in Toronto.”
“We used to have a family in our backyard,” my friend said. “They’re gone. My boss said he had the same situation at his house on the other side of town. I think they’ve moved to the ’burbs.”
“Eliminated” — the idea that all raccoons had fled the city — must have seemed laughably implausible to MacDonald. And yet there was no evidence of annoyance in her chipper response. The raccoons, she said, were probably hiding from the cold.
But that was just a guess, which is not good enough for a scientist. “I will be measuring dead raccoons again in February,” MacDonald said. “So I might have more to say then.”
Twelve months before the rollout of the new bins in Toronto’s west end, MacDonald had started logging the body mass index of raccoons killed in traffic. “Very glamorous work,” she called it. Her goal was to find out whether the loss of a steady food source would make our famously fat raccoons leaner.
MacDonald said I was welcome to join her for the next weigh-in. I put the appointment in my calendar: “Measuring dead raccoons.”
Over several months, I followed MacDonald’s research, expecting to learn how raccoons were adapting to life without green bins. But as a long winter melted into spring, things got weird, and my simple inquiry turned into an accidental investigation. A viral video with a curious backstory and suspicious activity in my own laneway shifted my focus from whether the green bins were starving the raccoons, to whether the animals had found a way, once again, to outsmart us.
On a cold February morning, I met MacDonald outside a Toronto Animal Services building in Etobicoke. Tall, pale and freckled, with long copper hair, MacDonald, 55, has been known to joke that she resembles an orangutan. She wore cheetah-print gloves and drove an SUV with a bumper sticker that said “98% chimpanzee.”
MacDonald escorted me through the security gate and to a parking lot at the back of the squat brick building, where she set up a folding table in front of an enormous walk-in freezer. She laid out her tools: scale, measuring tape, scissors, pen and a research notebook marked “Dead Raccoons.”
“Either they get smaller, they get fatter, or they stay the same,” she said. “We’ll see.”
Raised in raccoon-free 1970s Edmonton, MacDonald grew up in a house full of animals — cats, rabbits, horses, ducks, rescued birds — and started a conservation club when she was 9. After studying zoology and genetics at the University of Alberta, then getting her doctorate in psychology, she moved to Toronto for her dream job: a professorship at York University, where 30 years later she still teaches courses in animal behaviour while researching creatures that fascinate her.
MacDonald is also a volunteer animal behaviourist for the Toronto Zoo, where she once used a vial of Calvin Klein’s Obsession perfume to put Sumatran tigers in an amorous mood, an intervention that resulted in three tiger cubs. “It works for leopards, too,” she told me. “It’s like catnip.”
MacDonald has tracked hyenas and lions in Kenya, cats in Costa Rica and turtles in Ontario. She has studied pigeons, polar bears, gorillas, orangutans, monkeys, cheetahs, elephants, rhinos, Vancouver Island marmots and black-footed ferrets. And yet in recent years she had come to be known for her research on one animal in particular, and on TV and radio and in newspapers, she’d been given a title that underplayed her accomplishments, but made her laugh: Suzanne MacDonald, Raccoon Expert.
Putting on gloves and a mask, MacDonald got to work. The dead raccoons, which all perished in encounters with their biggest predator — the motor vehicle — are kept on metal shelves, in black garbage bags. An icy breeze and the sour stench of animal carcass wafted across the parking lot as she opened the freezer door.
MacDonald has a special affection for raccoons. She admires their ability to thrive in our world.
“We humans do our best to eradicate everything,” she shouted from the freezer. “And they manage anyway.”
Outside, she dropped a bag to the ground with an icy thunk. “I find that admirable,” she said.
MacDonald sliced open the plastic and pulled out a female raccoon frozen in the fetal position. She held the creature close for a moment and gave her an affectionate pat. “Oh, honey,” she said.
She placed the raccoon on the scale, recorded the weight — 6.2 kilograms — and then measured her from nose to tail. Later, MacDonald would use these figures to calculate the body mass index of the 36 raccoons measured today and compare them to previous samples.
MacDonald knows one thing for sure: our raccoons are very fat. The difficulty of tracking raccoons means we have little comparative information about their size, but urbans tend to be much larger than their rural cousins and, anecdotally, Toronto’s are known to be largest of all — “or at least we like to think so,” MacDonald said. This fits with Toronto’s proud vision of the city as “the raccoon capital of the world,” a distinction popularized by the 2011 CBC documentary Raccoon Nation.
Raccoons are omnivores who will eat almost anything. Much like the urban human, they seem to enjoy roasted chickens from the grocery store and Thai takeout. Our green bins are hardly their only food source, MacDonald said. They still have dumpsters, park trash bins and domestic food waste from the homes of residents who haven’t sorted their trash properly.
Back in 2015, MacDonald spent a week testing three prototypes from companies that made it to the final stage of the city’s green-bin procurement competition, baiting the raccoons in her Thornhill yard with Loblaws chickens.
The bin by Rehrig Pacific, based in Los Angeles with a branch in Toronto, was the winner. The olive-green receptacle was twice the size of the older model, with bigger wheels, a rodent-resistant rim and a capacity of 100 litres. But its most important feature was the raccoon-resistant lock. The old bin merely had a latch. The new one has a rotating handle on the lid that connects to a disk on the inside, which, when the lid is shut, fastens into a made-in-Germany gravity lock.
There are two ways to open the new bin. The first is by hand, which is easy: you simply turn the handle from the secured vertical position to the open horizontal. The second method is tipping the bin upside-down to an angle of 110 degrees, which triggers the release of the gravity lock. The gravity feature allows the robotic arm on Toronto waste trucks to do the dumping, saving employees from injury.
MacDonald filmed the raccoons for a week. “Dozens and dozens” attempted to break in, she said. A lone female showed remarkable persistence, trying for six hours. Not one raccoon breached the bin.
“I think the urban environment selects for certain types of raccoons, ones that are less afraid of people, more likely to investigate new things,” MacDonald said. “They don’t give up right away like rural ones do, they keep at it. And I think we’re probably responsible for that, selecting these kinds of behaviours in our urbans and turning them into a different kind of animal.”
Long before she tested the bins, MacDonald believed that with every effort we make to thwart the raccoons, we may be helping to make them smarter, creating an uber-raccoon.
Does that mean, I asked, that they could learn how to breach the bins?
Packing up her scale for the day, MacDonald shook her head no. She watched hordes of them try and fail. Their hands, which lack opposable thumbs, cannot turn the handle. “It’s physically impossible for them,” she said.
“They won’t learn how to get in.”
As she stuffed the last raccoon back into its bag, MacDonald scanned her notebook: the largest today was 12 kilograms, the smallest 3.5. She doesn’t have enough data to draw conclusions yet. She will have to wait for the final summer weigh-ins. “But I can say right now they’re not starving to death, that’s for sure.”
Doubt was cast on the impermeability of the new green bins in April, when footage surfaced of a raccoon in the Beach neighbourhood easily turning the handle and popping one open.
The headlines were gleeful:
“It took this raccoon 30 seconds to break into a raccoon-proof green bin.”
“The uprising starts with Toronto raccoon opening locked compost bin.”
“Trash panda figures out how to open ‘raccoon-proof’ green bin.”
Before the video, there’d been a few reports of bin breaches in Scarborough, including claims in this newspaper, but no concrete evidence. Believers in the bin had cast doubt on the claims of residents who reported raccoon troubles, questioning whether their bins had been properly latched. But now here was a video that appeared to be the real deal.
When MacDonald saw the footage, she laughed and thought, “Oh boy, here we go.” The raccoon expert was flooded with interview requests. On CBC’s Metro Morning, Matt Galloway playfully took her to task.
“We spoke with you last year as these new green bins were being rolled out and you told us that you thought it would be impossible for a raccoon to get into these bins,” Galloway said. “That appears not to be the case. What’s going on?”
It was an interrogation, but a gentle one. Galloway and MacDonald were laughing, having fun with the subject, as Torontonians do.
“I am firmly on team raccoon, I think that’s pretty clear,” MacDonald said. “So I laughed when I saw the video. I thought it was kind of awesome.”
She stressed that the bins are raccoon-resistant, not raccoon-proof, but said she was suspicious about whether the handle was functioning properly. “Because I’m a scientist I need to know, was that bin actually properly locked, or latched?”
“Is it physically possible for them to open the bin?” Galloway asked.
“Well, I mean, I said I didn’t think it was because I tested it with dozens and dozens of raccoons who could never do it,” MacDonald admitted.
She remained skeptical, saying she didn’t think the raccoon could have done it if the bin had been properly latched.
“But this video is a win for team raccoon?” Galloway asked.
“Oh, absolutely,” MacDonald said, playing along. “Yay team raccoon.”
The viral video had not yet reached city hall when Jim McKay, Toronto’s general manager of solid waste services, sat down for a meeting with Mayor John Tory.
They were in Tory’s second–floor office that morning in early April, three months after the green-bin rollout ended. As the mayor was about to leave, he turned to McKay with a final question: “Have we had any problems with raccoons getting into the new green bins?”
“No, sir,” McKay said. “Touch wood, we have not heard anything in months on that issue.”
McKay rode the elevator back up to his office on the 25th floor. He sat down at his desk. He turned on the TV. And there, streaming on CBC, was the video of that damned raccoon, turning the handle she wasn’t supposed to be able to turn.
McKay told me this story when I called him to ask whether raccoons had learned how to open the new green bins. Months had passed and he was able to laugh about the video, in part because it had turned out that the sneaky Beach raccoon wasn’t as clever as people thought. “The locking mechanism on that bin that went viral was broken,” he said.
Broken! So the raccoon hadn’t done it after all?
Workers investigated the bin, McKay told me. “There is supposed to be tension on the handle when you open it. And in part it’s that tension that a raccoon isn’t supposed to be strong enough to turn the handle. And this handle you could just practically spin it around like a top. It was broken inside.”
Two years into his job, McKay, who lives outside Toronto, has developed a very Toronto relationship with raccoons.
“I hate raccoons. I love the furry little critters, but when it comes to these conversations” — the one with me, a reporter — “I hate ’em.”
Despite the fuss over the video, McKay said there have only been 15 reports of raccoons getting into the new bins. That was a rough estimate, he said, because the city has not received enough complaints to track it as a special item.
“Every one of those we’ve been able to go out and either fix the locking mechanism or replace the lid, and we haven’t heard any issues since,” McKay said.
(Since our interview, McKay has left his role with the city “to pursue another job opportunity.” A city spokesperson could not answer my half-joking question about whether the decision had anything to do with the raccoons.)
McKay said if people are having raccoon troubles, they should call 311. Instead, it seemed to him that citizens were aching to capture a video of a raccoon getting into a bin. Staff had come up with a name for the quest.
“We call it the Big Foot of Toronto,” he said. “Everybody’s got their smartphone out.”
One morning in June, I found my neighbour’s bin toppled over in the laneway between our East York homes, banana peels and chicken bones strewn over the concrete.
“The raccoons got your green bin,” I texted.
My neighbour, Caroline, replied with a four-letter word. After cleaning up, she said: “Can raccoons now unlock the new bins?”
By then, I’d become a true believer. “More likely it wasn’t locked fully,” I said.
Most people in our neighbourhood don’t have the space to store green bins out of raccoon reach. We keep them outside, against the brick walls of our houses.
Two nights later, I heard a bang in our laneway. I ignored it. Minutes later, my husband and I received a group text from Caroline: “A raccoon has gotten into your bin.”
It was 9:30. The sun had just set. This raccoon was a brazen one.
“Just saw it climbing your fence,” Caroline wrote. “Amy, you sure they can’t open those bins?”
If I had been responsible for locking our bin, I would have assumed I’d forgotten. But my husband is a zealot with locks. He was certain he’d secured it, and I believed him.
The raccoons were opening the bins. But how? One thing was clear: they were knocking them to the ground, which was the same technique reported in Scarborough a few months earlier. But what happened next? How did they open the lid? It was far-fetched to imagine they were turning the bins upside-down and triggering the anti-gravity lock; even I couldn’t do that with my human hands (I tried). Could the raccoons twist the handle, despite their wonky thumbs?
“We need surveillance,” I wrote in our group chat, where we had given our bandit a name: The Smartest Raccoon in East York.
Since our neighbourhood borders Scarborough, where raccoon breaches were reported in the fall of 2017, I began to wonder if there was some kind of migration of enlightened raccoons taking place; the spreading of raccoon knowledge across neighbourhoods. I imagined meetings led by genius raccoons like ours who had successfully broken into green bins and now enjoyed prestige in the raccoon community. They were armed with diagrams and spreadsheets, and they were showing each other the way.
I emailed MacDonald to share the news of our breached bin, thinking she might be skeptical. “That is AWESOME and interesting news,” she replied. She wanted me to put a camera up, to see how they did it.
A week later, I met MacDonald at the zoo. She handed me an HD trail camera and gave me a brief lesson: flip the switch, check the batteries and tie it to a post tight enough that the raccoons can’t steal the evidence.
“I can’t wait to see what you get,” she said.
At home, I strapped the camera to my fence, aimed it at the bins in our laneway and waited.
The first morning, nothing. The second, a breach: my bin had been knocked down, compost bags ripped open, refuse strewn. Yes! But when I checked the footage there was nothing to see. I had stationed the camera too high. Drat! I adjusted it, but for several nights the raccoons did not come.
Then one morning my husband hollered up the stairs: “They got Caroline’s bin.”
The neighbours had cleaned up the mess already, so I grabbed the camera to see what it captured.
At 4:33 a.m., a large raccoon — a male, I think — grabs the front rim and tries to pull the bin down. But the neighbours have pushed their other two waste containers against it for protection; the green bin is stuck. The raccoon shoves the garbage out of the way, then the recycling. Then he knocks the green bin down like he’s been doing it his whole life.
But, ugh, the toppled bin lands out of the camera’s range. The camera was still too high. The raccoon opens it, but I can’t see how. If this was a test of raccoon vs. human intelligence, I was proving a poor specimen.
That night, I spent two hours testing camera angles. I settled on tying it to a chair stationed in the laneway. I remembered MacDonald’s advice on baiting: roasted chickens, takeout, cat food. I had only one such treat on hand, so I sprinkled some cat food inside and around my bin.
Before this story, I had never cleaned up a green-bin mess. I had renounced the chore, blaming my acute sense of smell and sensitive gag reflex. Somehow, my job gives me a can-do attitude that I lack in my personal life. “Can I borrow your green bin as bait if I agree to clean up whatever mess may come of it?” I asked the neighbours, who had been keeping their compost inside to avoid attack. They agreed.
In the morning, the laneway was glistening with the remnants of a week’s worth of their kitchen scraps. Flies had gathered around the downed green bin and the stench was hanging in the morning air. A trail of bones picked clean of their meat led into my backyard. It was beautiful.
The raccoons hadn’t gone near my bait. (MacDonald later clarified that they prefer wet cat food, not dry. Rookie mistake.)
The motion-sensored camera records in 60-second bursts, then takes a break. This time, it missed the raccoons knocking the bin over, but captured what happened next.
At 2:42 a.m., a mama raccoon tugs at the handle while her babies wait nearby. She is strong, able to drag the bin right and left in the laneway. She pauses for a moment, perhaps considering whether to give up, then resumes the struggle. One more yank and the bin opens with a satisfying click.
It’s unclear how long she’d been trying, but what is captured on camera takes nine seconds. She makes it look easy.
Toronto’s new organic waste bin had to meet strict design requirements. It had to be suitable for temperatures of 40 C, above or below 0. It had to withstand rain, snow, flash freezing and water pooling. It had to have a handle with enough resistance to keep raccoons out, but still suitable for people with disabilities. It had to be light so as not to cause injury, but heavy enough so as not to be easily toppled over. And most importantly, the lock had to be raccoon-resistant.
“Let me tell you, a lot of thought went into this,” said Dennis Monestier, the Canadian sales manager for green-bin maker Rehrig Pacific.
Monestier was almost breathless when he finished describing the bin’s features. “As you can tell, I’m very, very passionate about this,” he said. “I have a unique situation where I’m a resident in the city” — he lives in Etobicoke — “and I’m also responsible for Rehrig Pacific in Canada.” Monestier ran the green-bin project from start to finish. He is proud of the bin. He believes in it. “When people say it doesn’t work, that doesn’t sit well with me.”
When I told him about my local pest, he said my bin likely needed a tune-up. Rehrig has advised the city to expect a gradual loosening of the screw that keeps the handle taut — an issue, he said, that can be fixed with a few turns of a screwdriver. The bins get slammed around when the robotic arm picks them up for collection, which can lead to wear.
That was likely the problem with my bin, Monestier said. A loose handle.
“I don’t know to what tension it was tightened, but I can assure you that if I come out there and tighten it, they won’t get in,” he said. “If they do get in, I would love to see the size of this thing.”
The city is “very, very happy” with the bins, he said. “They’ve had significant downturn in failures.”
I met Monestier a few days later at the warehouse in Mississuga that stores Toronto’s garbage receptacles, where a large banner ad with a picture of the new olive-green organics bin proclaimed, “It’s here!”
As Monestier demonstrated how the bin works and took me on a tour of the facility, he spoke of his frustration with how raccoon stories get “blown out of proportion.” He wondered why residents appeal to social media or reporters when their bins are breached, rather than call 311.
“What will it do by contacting the media? Will somebody from the Toronto Star come out there and fix your green bin? No. Call the city, the city will assess the damage, and we’ll fix the problem,” he said.
“Everyone loves their five minutes of fame, and all I say is if you’re having a problem with the cart, follow the proper channels.”
I wondered: if Monestier is so confident, why did the company call it raccoon-resistant, rather than raccoon-proof?
“Because we don’t know what these raccoons are capable of,” he said. “And we know they’re highly intelligent.”
That didn’t change his outlook. The raccoons, he said, would not conquer the bins.
“En masse?” he said. “No.”
I reported my raccoon troubles to 311, as a good citizen should. Was my bin broken? I did not believe so, but it appeared that it wasn’t going to be as straightforward as I’d anticipated to prove a breach.
The morning city workers came to look at my green bin, a neighbour two doors down was sweeping up a mess in her driveway.
“The raccoons?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Ugh.”
Another neighbour had drilled a buckle onto the lid of his bin after the raccoons breached it a few times.
The city employee inspected the bins on our block. He told me he could find no issues with mine, or the others. “They’re smart,” he said of the raccoons, chuckling.
I followed up with a city spokesperson, who told me they’d replaced the lid on my bin as a precaution, in case there was an internal issue. “We also inspected a few of your neighbours’ bins and tightened any latches that were loose,” she said. “Please let us know if you continue to have issues.”
Curious to know how others who’d reported issues were faring, I called Alan Somerset, a Scarborough resident who had spoken to CBC about his battle with neighbourhood raccoons.
Somerset’s trouble started last fall, when residents on his street — Springbank Ave., near the parks that cradle the Scarborough Bluffs — woke to find raccoon messes spilling out of their supposedly raccoon-resistant bins. A city employee who inspected Somerset’s bin told him that three of the 15 raccoon complaints across the city had come from residents on Springbank.
“We must have had a superhuman muscular raccoon operating locally,” Somerset said.
The city replaced his bin. Within weeks, the raccoons had breached the new one. He didn’t bother to call again. He fashioned his own $10 safety lock with a screen-door compression spring and a couple of bolts.
Somerset was tired of the suggestion that he hadn’t locked his bin properly. (“I mean, it has two positions: locked and unlocked.”) He was confident it was not damaged. And anyway, he told me, there was proof the raccoons could do it. Didn’t I see that viral video?
I explained what the city had told me: the bin from the video was broken.
“That’s what the city says, but I don’t believe that,” he said.
Intrigued, I tracked down Graeme Boyce, the Beach resident who filmed the daylight break-in on his front porch in April.
Boyce had been watching a Leafs game in his living room when he heard a bang. From the window he could see that a toboggan he’d laid across his waste receptacles had been knocked down. A raccoon was sitting on the garbage bin, reaching a single paw toward the handle of the green bin. Boyce grabbed his phone and recorded: the raccoon turned the handle, popped the bin open, reached in and pulled out a bag of organic waste.
Boyce was baffled when I told him the city said his bin was broken. He never reported his raccoon issues to 311 and had no idea staff had come to tighten the lid.
“I think I would notice, hey wow, my lid is tighter,” he said.
A city spokesperson said staff inspected Boyce’s bin on collection day and “were able to move the handle using just the pinky finger.” They tightened it and went to his door to let him know, but there was no answer.
Boyce disputes the loose-handle bit, but said there have been no further break-ins. Did the tightening work, or has he been lucky?
The doubt was starting to get to me. To silence the skeptics, I would need to capture the raccoons getting into my fresh-from-the-factory, definitely-not-broken green bin.
I was going to need a lot of chickens.
Suzanne MacDonald has finished her measurements, and the findings from her “Dead Raccoon” notebook aren’t surprising: Toronto raccoons are just as fat as ever. In fact, the creatures measured after the rollout of the new green bins were slightly larger on average than before, but the difference wasn’t statistically significant.
The largest raccoon recorded over the two-year project was 15 kilos, roughly the size of a coyote. He died after the arrival of the new bins, but was probably fat long before.
“Tell your friend the raccoons are fine,” MacDonald said.
I had been updating her on my progress. “I am dying to hear what happens with your green bin,” she emailed one day. “Go team raccoon!”
Two weeks after the new green bin arrived, I didn’t have an answer. My family had been away on holiday. We hadn’t left much in our bin. There had been no breaches during our absence, the neighbours said. As I returned from the grocery store with a bag of roasted chickens, I wondered if I’d have to spend the rest of the summer filming my bin, maybe even the rest of the year. How long before the neighbours told me to get lost? How long before my editors took me aside and said enough was enough? What if months passed without signs of raccoon activity?
I hated the idea of being left in a state of uncertainty about whether I had a broken green bin or a genius raccoon. I wanted an answer no one could argue with.
In the end, it only took three nights and two chickens.
The first night, no raccoons showed up. That day had been garbage day. Perhaps they’d had their fill elsewhere.
The second night, I left a piece of chicken skin at the foot of our laneway as a draw. The raccoons came, knocked the bin down, but did not get in. The trail camera showed a plump, slow-moving creature tugging half-heartedly on the handle, then trudging away.
The morning after the third night, I stepped outside with my toddler on my hip. Together we peered down the laneway.
“Uh-oh,” my daughter said.
A telltale mess. But did the camera capture what happened?
The footage shows two small raccoons climbing atop the row of bins against my neighbour’s house, awkwardly attempting to pull down the green one. As they fumble, along comes a larger raccoon. Their mother? Likely.
The mama ignores the kits tugging helplessly at Caroline’s bin and goes straight for mine, easily pulling it to the ground. She pops a piece of my chicken-skin bait into her mouth. Then, in one swift motion — no fumbling, no struggle — The Smartest Raccoon in East York turns the handle and opens the bin. Just like that.