In the great clash of species, urban dwelling humans, particularly those in Toronto, are often pitted against the raccoon. A critter so crafty that the city spent $31-million on raccoon-proof compost bins in an attempt to stop the primarily nocturnal animals from sacking residents’ household waste and — on garbage day — leaving sidewalks awash in coffee grinds, egg shells, chicken bones, banana peels and pizza crusts.

Amid an ongoing narrative of urban war between raccoons and humans, a new study from Sudbury’s Laurentian University has emerged looking at whether the rotund city raccoons are, in fact, facing a health crisis similar to the human city dwellers who complain about them while consuming a less and less healthy diet of burgers, fries and pizza. 

“Google fat raccoon, and how many stories pop up because some raccoon is stuck in a garbage can because it is so fat?” says Dr. Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, the study lead and a professor of evolutionary ecology at Laurentian.

“As urban dwellers our diet, at least in North America and most of the Western World, is at least partly responsible for an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome — and these kinds of things. But what about the animals that are feeding on our garbage?”

Garbage wasn’t always the featured item on the raccoon menu. Before humans came along and built sprawling cities, raccoons, as omnivores, roamed the forests, dining on crayfish and mollusks, birds’ eggs, berries and grubs.  Extensive urbanization has made it almost impossible to find a pure, back-to-the-land raccoon population, so the Laurentian researchers relied on three clusters of raccoons — 60 in total — in areas with differing levels of exposure to human garbage for the study.

One group was in farm country west of Toronto, with limited garbage sources, the second in a conservation area with moderate garbage access and the third at the Toronto Zoo, home to an abundance of fast food joints, outdoor eating areas and trash cans.

Not surprisingly, the zoo raccoons were, on average, two kilos heavier and registered double the blood glucose level of their counterparts with the less abundant garbage sources to feast upon. In other words, the fast-food cohort was suffering from hyperglycemia.

“We all know that there are negative consequences to having elevated blood-glucose levels,” Schulte-Hostedde says.

“But the ultimate question is: what does this mean in terms of the evolutionary changes these urban raccoons are undergoing, and are they adapting to this change in diet? And, if that is the case, are they suffering from the same kinds of health consequences that we might expect from a mammal with elevated glucose levels? And we just don’t know the answer yet.”

Source: Joe O’Connor/National Post

Photo: onegreenplanet.org