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‘Unprecedented’: City begins emergency effort to clear dead raccoons following distemper outbreak

In August, the city received 54 calls requesting pick up of dead or injured animals. In October, there were 3,769
Nov. 11, 2022
Janiece Campbell and Ben Mussett

No, it’s not your imagination. In recent weeks, Toronto has experienced a dramatic rise of reported animal carcasses due to a deadly viral outbreak among the city’s raccoon population.

Now, following a recent flood of complaints, the city says additional members of Toronto Animal Services (TAS) will be assigned to respond to the influx of requests to pick up dead wildlife. Certain staff from Toronto’s Solid Waste Management Services and Transportation Services will also be redeployed to help clear the cadavers.

“This multi-divisional effort will help with the unprecedented level of cadaver service requests which has now reached more than 900 requests citywide,” the city said in a press release.

The sudden increase in dead wildlife was brought on by an outbreak of canine distemper virus, sometimes known as footpad disease, a highly contagious and deadly virus that can infect a variety of wildlife. The outbreak is concentrated in Toronto-Danforth and Beaches-East York, according to the city.

Typically, it takes 48 hours for TAS to respond to a request to clear a dead animal. However, due to the increase in recent calls, the response time is now averaging between 12 to 14 days.

When asked whether the city’s precarious financial state had constrained the TAS, Mayor John Tory said the department’s staff was “matched against the need that has existed in normal times.” Additional resources were only necessary due to the distemper outbreak, he added.

The flurry of service requests related to dead or injured animals came on suddenly.

According to Coun. Paula Fletcher, who represents Ward 14 Toronto-Danforth, the city received only 54 calls related to the pickup of dead or injured animals in August. The following month that figure spiked to 3,223 calls. In October, it increased to 3,769.

Over the past few weeks, several people have taken to social media to air their frustrations with the city’s lack of response.

As of Nov. 7, TAS has received 13,588 requests regarding sick, injured or deceased raccoons in 2022 -- over 2,700 more than the city received all of last year, when there was a total of 10,823 requests.

On Wednesday, Fletcher sent a letter to the city manager, urging the city to prioritize the clearance of dead animals.

Residents “just want the dead bodies off the street and from in front of their house. They’re unhappy as anybody would be,” Fletcher told the Star. “We want to have a clean and beautiful city. That’s very hard with a raccoon that’s been run over 20 times.”

Sande Terry, owner of AAA Sande Wildlife Control said distemper outbreaks typically occur every few years, between summer and fall. Some local reports said raccoons suffering from the disease have shown signs of aggression, but Terry said that’s not typical behaviour.

“When a raccoon is aggressive, it’s usually trying to protect itself,” he noted. “It takes 14 days from time of infection to them dying. Most of that time, they’re beyond disoriented.”

Distemper originates in dogs, but can be spread to other animals, including raccoons and skunks. The virus attacks the central nervous system, often resulting in unusual behaviour.

Usually, if a raccoon is out during the day and appears lethargic or unafraid of humans it could be a sign of distemper.

Raccoons with distemper can also exhibit signs of shaking or seizure. The disease is almost always fatal, meaning most afflicted raccoons will need to be euthanized.

Although the disease poses little threat to humans, the city encouraged residents to keep their pets away from wildlife and make sure they’re vaccinated against both distemper and rabies.