On January 25 at 7:30 in the morning, two raccoons were found dead by Central Park personnel. One was found just below the reservoir and the other in the tangled stems of Shakespeare garden. Instead of just cleaning them up, as they might have done in different circumstances, they called the Urban Park Rangers. The Rangers too had been primed for this potential occasion. They retrieved the bodies and then prepared them to be sent to Ward Stone, wildlife pathologist for the State Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany.
In most cases, though, a dead raccoon — even two — found in a city park does not trigger such activity. They are by no means anomalies in the metropolis and don’t usually excite such interest. If a dead raccoon is found in Van Cortlandt Park, a large sprawling park in the northwest Bronx, it will be left alone, perhaps moved out of the way and left for food for the scavengers and decomposers. In Central Park, however, the subject of dead raccoons is fraught. Collecting these recent corpses brought back unpleasant memories of a killing spree last February and March that took the life of 28 individuals, almost half of the park’s raccoon population.
Last year, one by one, morning by morning, a dead raccoon was found. It was baffling and disturbing for the people who work in the park. For most of these folks, raccoons are omnivorous wild marvels. In suburbia, they can be agonizing pests that raid your garbage. Out in the deep country, they are just wild, to be shot at occasionally, but mainly ignored, part of the landscape. In the city, however, they represent, in a way, the country’s forgiveness of the city for paving over so much forest. They are family, living and surviving in New York City with the rest of us, but also deeply separate, long-lost kin who deserve our admiration and protection. And yet it seemed we were bad stewards, watching the population disappear in front of our eyes. In fact, so many dead raccoons were found it seemed like an extermination.
The bodies were collected each day and sent for autopsies to Ward Stone. “We anticipated,” he said, “that they were dying from rabies, distemper, or some infectious disease. But the result of the necropsies took me by surprise. They had all died of bite wounds. In fact, the bites were so hard that ribs and vertebrae were broken.” So who was the killer?
An anonymous caller reported that two men who play basketball in the park were supposedly bragging about their pit bulls killing raccoons. That the unpopular masters of fighting dogs would test their animal’s grit and strength on a raccoon was not that far a leap for any of the park workers to make. Furthermore, when the raccoons were found, their bodies were intact, no half eaten flanks or hanging tendons; no food had been garnered from these animals. Perhaps, some of the Park Rangers thought, a regular round of canine gladiators was taking the lives of these raccoons. The theory was founded on a vivid and unsettling notion: a secret underground fraternity of fighting dog owners. Late at night, they came into the park, had their dogs corner a raccoon, and then watched — even gambled — as it was tortured. It was a thought that was gruesome to many people because it was, in reality, harsh, but also because it made them think of “coon” hunting and antiquated customs. This stuff wasn’t supposed to happen in modern-day Central Park.
Ultimately, from what the evidence allowed, it probably wasn’t. Aside from the supposed bragging of these fellows, there were no concrete facts to support this theory. No chewed up or abandoned pit bulls were found. No tiny Coliseums were unearthed. Plus, there is 24-hour police presence in the park, and they were on the lookout and had seen nothing.
Attention then began to focus on two feral dogs that were living in the park. One of the strays was a rotweiler/shepherd mix, a fairly large male; the other was a medium-sized female mutt. Stray dogs are opportunists who eat what’s readily available. In fact, they had been seen by the Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) fighting over a cat, literally pulling it apart end-from-end. Still, park patrons had been feeding the dogs regularly, so it seemed unlikely they would kill a wild raccoon. What’s more, no marks, cuts, or bruises were noticed on the stray dogs. Raccoons are vicious fighters with huge claws and big teeth who have been witnessed taking bobcats. The idea that stray dogs were confronting an aggressive wild animal just for fun — and winning without suffering any cuts — was incongruous.
Yet, neither of these possibilities satisfyingly explained how 28 raccoons could be killed in such a short span. How could half the population have been so easily sneak-attacked? Why hadn’t they simply climbed a tree, at which they are experts? Why hadn’t anyone witnessed this massacre?
With little else to go on, the Rangers and PEP concentrated on catching the stray dogs. They set up stakeout points, and on spying a dog would give chase. Hobbled by big gloves, a lasso-type of instrument that is used to snare larger animals, bipedal posture, and a crowded park, the dogs outran their human pursuers. Even when the male was partially shot with tranquilizer, it out-sped and dodged its trackers.
Then, on March 18, the large male dog that Parks Commissioner Henry Stern had dubbed Wolfgang, was finally caught after three tranquilizers were shot into his body. His female mate, who was not captured, receded into the urban maze. Then, in a shock to Rangers and other Park workers, the killings stopped.
“Secretly,” Adena Schwartz, Acting Deputy Director of the Urban Park Rangers confessed, “I hoped another raccoon would die just to prove that the strays were innocent and that the pit bulls were guilty. We had feelings for the strays. They were just surviving. But still, I was glad not to discover another dead animal.”
What had happened? According to Ward Stone, who had also favored the pit bull theory, “Rotweilers, particularly if they’re mixed with shepherd, have big powerful jaws that could make a bite like those that killed the raccoons.” In addition, he continued, “The raccoons were feeding on earthworms before they died. Mixed in with some garbage, the earthworms were the most recent items in their stomach. To feed on earthworms, the animal had to be out in the open, away from the trees. They got nabbed.”
When Central Park was built in the 1860s, the animals, the ecosystem, didn’t matter all that much. In fact, the wild was to be tamed into a garden experience. To build the park, the span between 59th Street and 110th Street was flattened, all the past it carried upturned, heaved, and removed, all its streams, meadows, and swamps gone to history. But over time feral nature returned. There was too much vegetation, too many niches to be occupied, for nature’s beasts to ignore the wild slowly funneled back into Central Park. However, it was a shrunken and abbreviated landscape that resulted. Species that needed deep forest to survive, from bobcats to bears, migrated to open country, forever banished to more distant places. All the big mammals that would naturally kill a raccoon as prey or competitor were no longer members of the ecosystem.
The raccoon, in contrast to his larger cousins, adapted to life in smaller disturbed tracts of land, and had proliferated. In the reconfigured wild of Central Park, an island of designer forest amid the looming city, raccoons no longer had to look over their shoulder for an eager predator or skilled competitor. As Parks Assistant Commissioner Jack Linn asked rhetorically, “Have city raccoons become so civilized that they have lost their wild behavior?” He continued, “Were the ‘unfittest’ being targeted and the ‘fittest’ left to regenerate a new, and cautious, Central Park population?”
This, at least, was the hope. If humans (as the idea goes) learn from their mistakes intellectually and psychologically, perhaps the Central Park raccoons would learn from their mistakes genetically. A new lineage of raccoon would be spawned from last year’s debacle and it would now go about its business with one eye fixed behind its shoulder, with a new found respect for its feral competitors. If the wild had been bred out of the Central Park raccoon because of the deceptive safety of the big city they were now being tweaked back to their aboriginal state by some domestic dogs themselves “reverted” back to an older way of being.
But then, a year later, two more raccoons were found dead on January 25. And by February 11, ten individuals altogether had been found, each new body signifying the downward spiral of the park’s raccoons. Every population goes through its hard times, but the safety net here was very thin. And unfortunately, many of the raccoons that died last year were pregnant; and thus a new generation of “cautious” animals was destroyed too.
The raccoons, anthropomorphically speaking, had hoped their Central Park life had returned to normal, where open grazing was safe and worries were minimal. But, unluckily for them, the nightmare returned.
All the questions that surfaced last year were repeated. Who was responsible for the whittling away of Central Park’s raccoons? Was it a new set of stray dogs? Was it aggressive pet dogs after all?
That dogs were doing the killing no one disputed. Ward Stone, who again was performing his autopsies on the animals, said, “The cause of death was definitely dogs. There was no rabies or distemper. Their death was caused by bites, canine punctures to the body.” And that the raccoons were caught again by surprise was also the case. “One of the raccoons had cake in its stomach,” he continued. “This means it was close to the ground, away from the safety of a tree. It was caught red-handed.”
This year three stray German shepherd-like dogs (two nearly all black and one brownish-red with creamy white paws and underbody and all between 50 and 70 pounds) were seen roaming the park. Again, the Rangers and PEP were mobilized. As last year, they gathered their nets and poles with the lassos on the end. In addition, they had purchased two tranquilizer guns. A day after the first dead raccoons were found, the “armed” group assembled in the park.
The dogs had been seen living in the north end, on a steep glacial slope behind Conservatory Garden. This area is crowded with small scrubby black cherry trees that are filled with starlings and morning doves in the early light. On all sides of this hill, except east where the Garden led to Fifth Avenue, are dense woods. It is a near perfect place for strays to live and hide out. If they’re being chased, the large trees and tangled shrubs are used to great advantage as obstacles. And there are many nooks and crannies to take a concealed nap.
The Rangers and PEP started their reconnaissance in this area. Auspiciously, a few hours later, the dogs, very much a posse, were seen. Moving in, a Ranger shot one of them with tranquilizer, but the needle fell out and only a portion of the drug seeped into its system. Still, it was enough to make the dog a bit tipsy. Tracking it, they finally had the dog surrounded by the compost mound, which was at the bottom of the hill. The “hit” dog, panicked and cornered, was running towards Jibrail Nor, who is the assistant to Assistant Commissioner Linn. He poised himself with net and lasso, waiting to be a hero. But like a defender made flat-footed by a swift and wily runner, Nor found himself discombobulated and the dog escaped into the woods.
In addition to searching for the dogs, traps, lined with dog food, were laid. A couple of days into the chase, the black dog that Nor almost caught, was captured. Early in the morning, the sunrise streaked over Mount Sinai Hospital and the birds calling loudly, the dog lay still in the trap. As the PEP officers were moving it, the dog started growling and barking. Almost immediately, its mates moved within several yards of the officers and tried to intimidate them with their growls and bared canines. Richard Gentles, Director of PEP, said, “It was quite scary. We were caught a bit off guard, and these dogs were upset and angry. This was their friend, or at least teammate. Luckily, they eventually retreated.”
Later that day, a second of the black dogs was darted; but then escaped into Morningside Park, which is about two blocks northwest of Central Park. The next day, back by the compost mound, the dog was spotted. Ray Brown, Deputy Director of PEP, ran on top of a glacial knob and took aim with his tranquilizer gun. He hit the dog in the rump. “The dog then charged me,” he said, amazed. “I was hoping the medicine would take effect.” Caught off guard, he was somewhat vulnerable, preparing himself for the worst. “But it was just a bluff,” he laughed. “It ran around me.”
Then the dogs disappeared for a while. Early each morning, the traps were checked, but they were inevitably empty. Rangers and PEP continued to roam the park, but the dogs seemed to be gone. Either they had taken a vacation or figured out that Central Park was no longer a hospitable place for feral dogs killing off a now precarious raccoon population.
Then, a week later, another raccoon was found dead and the female dog, with a creamy underbelly and paws, was spotted. She was chased, darted, but at last never caught. The mixture of poorly functioning technology (the tranquilizer gun had been giving the PEP and Rangers headaches) and her determination kept her just out of reach. Then two more raccoons were found dead, bringing this year’s total up to ten, but the dogs were not seen.
Ultimately, the dogs will either be caught or decide to never come back to the park. The experience, though, has taught all involved that stray dogs are a real threat to city raccoons. In fact, Jack Linn had formed a peculiar but intriguing theory. Last year, the female partner of Wolfgang (Henry Stern’s name for the male dog) was never caught. Perhaps, Linn ventured, “she had been pregnant with Wolfgang’s offspring.” He laughed, “It’s Wolfgang’s legacy.”
The population of raccoons in Central Park is nearly bottomed out. Throughout evolution, competitors have fought for space and access to resources. In countless cases, one of the competing populations lost out and became locally extinct. All domesticated dogs come from their ancestor the wolf. In the new urban habitat, dogs are tame and on leashes and raccoons had consequently lost their fear of them. Wolfgang and his successors suddenly and unexpectedly injected some competitive pressure into the Central Park raccoons’ lives and they weren’t prepared. If Jack Linn was right, these dogs, here in our Central Park, were reverting back to wild pack-beings. If true, this experiment was happening deep within the metropolis.
However, the experiment is necessarily doomed. In the country, we hunt raccoons, with the help of dogs. Here in the city, stray dogs have to be controlled to save some of the vestiges of our wild past. In particular, if Central Park lost all its raccoons, migration back in would be very slow, perhaps never occurring. If city parks are, so to speak, living museums of natural history, then raccoons are a rarer exhibit than dogs. Just beyond our view, as we conduct our high-tech city lives, nature’s dramas unfold in their great complexity.