They are the inevitable result of urban sprawl and they’re in almost every neighbourhood, masked bandits who try to get into your garage, your roof and your garbage.
But these aren’t human intruders. They’re raccoons and they’ve become an increasing annoyance as their numbers continue to proliferate in the GTA. A 2003 report indicated there were as many as 160 raccoons per square mile in Toronto.
But the wildlife pests can be more than just a nuisance. They can also be a big threat to your children, even if they never come near one of the animals.
How can that be?
Raccoons are disease carriers and in addition to well-known dangers like rabies, can be infected with a parasitic worm in their intestines that’s especially harmful to young toddlers who may be exposed to it.
It can be transmitted through simple contact by being in the same place where the animal feeds or defecates, like a playground, a park or outside on your front lawn or back deck.
And it can be deadly.
It’s a reality one Hamilton family knows all too well.
One-year-old Daniel Chevrier (pictured) was a normal toddler up until about a month ago, when he somehow came in contact with the dreaded matter. He survived an infection that doctor’s have dubbed raccoon roundworm, but weeks later, he’s lost the ability to walk or see.
Worse still, his parents didn’t even know they had a raccoon problem. There were some traces of excrement on their balcony, but their young boy was never allowed out there.
The only explanation they can come up with is that either they or their dog tracked some inside, a possibility health experts are quick to endorse.
“We have to treat any pet as a mechanism of transmitting disease,” said Dr. Donald Low, a microbiologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital.
In the meantime, little Daniel’s put on a lot of weight thanks to the steroids he needs to take in order to battle the infection and reduce swelling in his brain. And that’s saying nothing of the experimental anti-parasitic medication he’s taking to kill the worms ravaging his body and mind.
“They probably taste very horrible and this medicine could kill him,” admits Daniel’s heartbroken father, Josh Chevrier. “But you know, if we don’t do something this disease is going to kill him anyway.”
Doctors say Daniel may eventually get some of his mobility back, but will likely never regain his sight.
“He won’t ever be the same again,” the boy’s father admitted. “He’ll never be the same little boy that he was and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
But there are things others can do to avoid finding themselves in the same boat. And they’re precautions worth taking.
Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources estimates that about 80 per cent of the creatures in this province carry the worm, known as Baylisascaris procyonis.
The good news is the infection is relatively rare. The bad news is the effects of the disease on humans can be devastating. See below for specific effects.
Among the symptoms:
Loss of coordination
Lack of attention to people and surroundings
Loss of muscle control
In the worst case scenario, it can go to your brain, triggering an immune response. The toxin our bodies use to defend against the invader also has an unexpected side effect – it destroys brain matter, and can lead to fatal consequences in the young.
It can begin with a child gradually starting to lose coordination or balance over a matter of weeks or months. If left untreated, the symptoms progress and a patient may wind up in a coma. Death often follows.
In many cases, doctors are baffled by what’s wrong, because it’s not the first cause they’d suspect. And by the time symptoms start, it’s often too late.
Still, it’s not a hopeless battle. The disease can be prevented if it’s treated early but it can take up to 2-4 weeks to become apparent in humans.
Here are some things you can do now to keep the pests at bay.
Make your homes unattractive to raccoons. Remove garbage, waste or anything that might be seen as a food source. They’re not picky and will eat what you wouldn’t consider food.
Close off access to your roof, basement or garage.
Cover any sandboxes in your backyard so that the night scroungers don’t use it as a bathroom.
Don’t let your kids play in areas where raccoons are known to frequent. Be on the lookout for signs they’ve been there, like tracks or droppings.
Don’t get a raccoon as a pet. They’re wild animals and their presence increases the risk of spreading the disease.
Make sure your kids wash their hands thoroughly after playing outside.
Ensure toddlers keep their hands out of their mouths, especially after playing outdoors.
Get rid of any suspected raccoon droppings using gloves and careful handling. Don’t let it come into contact with your hands or your clothes. Use a double bag to dispose if it and then wash the area down with boiling water to ensure you’ve gotten rid of any traces left behind. The City of Toronto goes so far as to suggest the feces be burned.
Watch for animals that appear disoriented or have trouble moving.
Find out more here.
For the best ways to evict raccoons from your property,
A trust fund has been established to help the Chevrier family. Here’s where you can contribute.
Branch # 01982 Account # 5054424 730 Main St. E., Hamilton
Sources: Centers For Disease Control; City Of Toronto