Toronto has a huge population of raccoons - so many that the great Canadian city has become known as the raccoon capital of the world. Last week, the war between humans and raccoons got out of hand. A man was arrested and charged with cruelty to animals and possession of a dangerous weapon for allegedly hitting a baby raccoon in his backyard with a shovel. That sparked a heated debate about how to control the animals. Anita Elash reports.

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Unidentified Man: First to our top story, an anti-raccoon rally is taking place this afternoon...

ANITA ELASH: A few days after Dong Nyugen was led away by police in handcuffs his neighbors held an anti-raccoon rally. Jack Fava lives just down the street from Nyugen. He said he was outraged by the way Nyugen was treated. He said he doesnt condone violence against animals, but he and his neighbors are fed up.

Mr. JACK FAVA: Ive been dealing with it since 98. You know, theyve done damage in my under crawl where the kitchen is, insulation and vapor barrier. I dont grow any more vegetables, because I never get to eat them, because, you know, other animals, raccoons, get to them before I do.

ELASH: Fava said he has spent hundreds of dollars to repair the damage and keep the animals away. Instead of charging Nyugen, he says the city should work harder to control the raccoon population.

Mr. FAVA: If we have that many raccoons I dont see why we cant, you know, cull the population down a bit. I dont think theres anything wrong with that. We have a cat program here that they spay and neuter. I dont see why they cant spay and neuter raccoons.

ELASH: Torontos policy is to leave raccoons alone, and encourage homeowners to keep them away by doing things like keeping the trash locked up. Behavioral psychologist Suzanne MacDonald says that even if the city wanted to get rid of them, it wouldnt be quite that easy.

Dr. SUZANNE MACDONALD (Comparative Psychologist): The idea that we can get rid of them is hilarious to me, because theres no way.

ELASH: RACCOONS thrive in cities, partly because theres plenty of food. There are twenty times more urban raccoons in North America than there were 70 years ago. MacDonald says city raccoons are smart, and theyre getting smarter.

Dr. MACDONALD: One of the things were doing is providing them with bigger and bigger�challenges, so youve probably seen raccoon-proof garbage cans and, you know, and I come up with all these things - bungee cords and all sorts of things - to try to keep them from figuring things out. But in fact they always do. So humans are selecting these traits in raccoons and were actually shaping a bred or, you know, an uber-raccoon that is going to be able to compete in an urban environment.

ELASH: The bottom line, says MacDonald, is that raccoons are part of modern urban life and people have to get used to them.

For NPR News, Im Anita Elash in Toronto.

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