The week before Christmas, a news story about an apparent attack by a raccoon on a 4-month-old infant in a run-down Philadelphia row house went viral. Read the article here.
We obviously deplore the injuries the little girl suffered. However, the tidal wave of bad press about urban wildlife that ensued compels us to comment on what there is to learn from a very unfortunate situation.
Several versions of what happened can be found in the media. Some of the first articles claimed that the child, Journi Black, had been pulled from her crib. This led many wildlife professionals to doubt the story given the improbability of even a large adult raccoon being able to pull an infant out of a crib. Subsequent stories seem to suggest that the child was alone on an adult bed before being pulled off by the raccoon, who was then reportedly seen leaving down a stairway but never tracked down.
It’s likely that we will never know exactly what happened in those few minutes. Here is what we do know however, and we can learn a lot from it. Firstly, this is not fundamentally a wildlife problem, but a social problem. The child was living in a row house owned by an unlicensed landlord in a block that had already been reported for wildlife issues. Certain Philadelphia neighborhoods are notorious for being like “Swiss cheese”: derelict homes (occupied and unoccupied) riddled with wildlife access points, and trash-strewn neighborhoods providing wildlife with a food source. As a result, the wildlife “carrying capacity” (food + shelter) for these neighborhoods remains high. While that situation persists, trapping and removing individual animals is a bit like trying to empty a lake with a teacup.
There are definite parallels between the prevailing conditions in that Philadelphia neighborhood and many here in Pittsburgh. Let us learn from this unfortunate incident and take this opportunity to set a viable course of action to prevent similar incidents here in our own city. Any wildlife policy aiming to efficiently reduce trapping and also human-wildlife conflict (or perception of that) must not only work to educate the population and provide residents with hands-on assistance in wildlife-proofing their property, but also pull in all actors in the non-profit and government spheres that in some way or another encounter these wildlife issues: environmental non-profits, urban agriculture groups, housing organizations, community associations, and organizations dealing with trash/litter issues. The list is potentially long, but all of these groups can help ensure a wholistic approach to managing wildlife issues. If landlords are unlicensed, they need to be reported and sanctioned. If landlords are not doing their jobs in repairing homes, action needs to be taken. If residents need assistance in wildlife-proofing property, community organizations must reach out to assist, failing any measures being taken to free up city budget for this purpose. There is so much that can be done to improve interaction between wildlife and residents in Pittsburgh to vastly reduce both pointless trap-and-kill and the type of clash that was observed in Philadelphia last week, both of which are completely unacceptable as we move into 2018.
Rabies cases down
And while on the subject of avoiding unnecessary panic… Some good news on the rabies front.
Of note in the Allegheny County bite statistics by species for 2015 and 2016: only 3 positive raccoons, 0 positive groundhogs, and only 1 positive skunk in two years. Only 20 total positives across all reported species in two years, and half of those were bats. Raccoons only accounted for 0.6% of all possible exposures. Look for a more detailed article on this subject soon.