Special Reports

Cute, fluffy – and no good

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
With nimble paws, raccoons make an easy feast of pet food left along the Promenade near Point Defiance Park's Boathouse. The animals, used to such snacks, are increasingly brazen.

The masked bandit didn’t appear to care that someone watched while he filched leftovers during a midday scavenger hunt in Point Defiance Park.

When a visitor approached, the bold raccoon didn’t even stop picking up litter. It took a loud hoot to capture the fat fellow’s attention. Then he halfheartedly started up a tree, but abandoned the escape when the visitor left the picnic area.

Raccoons are common in Point Defiance Park. Along with black-tailed deer, they have adapted readily to the luxuries the park provides.

Point Defiance might be a natural area, but it’s surrounded by the city. That makes it distorted habitat for some wildlife.

The deer population has boomed because of the absence of predators. Mountain lions don’t live in the park, and people don’t hunt. Instead, they grow lots of luscious deer browse.

For raccoons, the park offers a veritable smorgasbord. Raccoons don’t just rifle through the refuse. They cruise the zoo and the waterfront.

Scott Jackson, who serves on the park’s marine advisory committee and keeps a craft at the Boathouse, sees raccoons all the time.

Perhaps more significantly, raccoons tore up and killed two Magellanic penguins, part of a small population on display. ... After the first incident, zoo workers put up a mechanical scarecrow. 

“People actually feed them,” he said. “They’re very much a pest down there.”

Raccoons are suspected in the deaths of several chickens and peacocks, which are allowed to roam the zoo grounds, said John Rupp, aquatic curator.

Perhaps more significantly, raccoons tore up and killed two Magellanic penguins, part of a small population on display, Rupp said. The first one died more than a year ago. The other was killed last November.

After the first incident, zoo workers put up a mechanical scarecrow. After the second death, they moved the penguins to a new compound, erected a hot-wire fence and also trapped and killed two raccoons.

During the recent Point Defiance Flower & Garden Show, a raccoon climbed a tree near the duck pond and took a nap. Maintenance leader Steve Herbig said his crew roped off the area to keep people away.

Public safety could be an issue. Raccoons that are accustomed to feeding could become aggressive, experts say.

As for the deer, the park’s mounting population of delicate, but voracious creatures has for years been the bane of park gardeners and neighborhood plant fanciers.

No one knows how many deer live in the park area, but urban deer are a big problem in many U.S. cities where they are similarly safe from predators. Some cities, notably Princeton, N.J., have hired hunters to kill excess deer.

Not only do deer devour valued ornamental plants, they also harbor Lyme disease-carrying ticks. That’s a serious problem on the East Coast, but not much of a risk in the Pacific Northwest, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State wildlife managers have fielded complaints of deer damage from park neighbors for many years, said Michelle Tirhi, urban wildlife biologist. What’s needed is a communitywide response, with Metro Parks as a key player, she said.

In the past, Point Defiance Park managers have talked preliminarily with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s wildlife service division, which is authorized to eliminate nuisance animals.

The park has installed fences to protect ornamental flowers and bushes. The first went up around the Rose Garden in 1996. Others followed. Some bushes thrive only within cages that surround them.

Gardeners have pruned other shrubs to distract visitors from the destruction deer cause. Herbig calls it “the Q-tip effect.”

When deer see something that looks tasty, they go after it, said Herbig. “They’ll walk the perimeter of the fence looking for a way to get in.”