What you need to know about Toronto’s most feared wildlife

Toronto Wildlife Centre founder on the misconceptions that surround many city dwellers and how to live alongside them peacefully

The first time viewing the video, it does come as a shock. Nobody can watch an adult coyote lunge at a two-year-old girl and not be shocked. And that’s part of the problem.

In the video, in the green space behind a typical suburban home, two kids are cavorting when a coyote runs past and jumps at a young girl playing alongside her brother, scratching her back in the process. The clip went viral.

And why not? Everyone loves a big, bad wolf story.

For any parent, the video is cause for concern. For Nathalie Karvonen, of the Toronto Wildlife Centre (TWC), it was something else.

“Although we didn’t know the contributing factors in that situation, it didn’t appear that the coyote was trying to hurt the little girl,” she explained.

“It clearly wasn’t the intention of the coyote.”

Karvonen founded the Toronto Wildlife Centre in 1993, and it opened in 1994 in Downsview Park, to care for sick, injured and orphaned animals in the city with the goal of releasing them back into the wild — coyotes included.

“I love coyotes,” said Karvonen. “They are really beautiful and misunderstood animals. They are terrified of people, and they generally weigh no more than 30 pounds. As a comparison, my cat weighs 16 pounds.”

Karvonen said coyotes look bigger for two reasons: lots of fur and people are afraid of them.

“Generally speaking, they want to be left alone in our city,” she said, noting that problems can arise when they start to interact with people who feed them.

“They learn that you can go close to a house and get a food reward,” she said. “And then other people don’t know that is happening, and all of a sudden they are into other yards and find a guy’s cat or chihuahua.”

Toronto is home to an incredible variety of wildlife from deer, fox and muskrats to migratory birds, owls, salamanders and bats. Lots of bats. One notable absence these days are crows.

According to Karvonen, the birds were virtually wiped out due to West Nile virus, and have only now been spotted on the rarest of occasions.

Raccoons, although still plentiful, are also likely dropping in numbers thanks to the spread of distemper.

“There is always an ebb and flow in populations,” Karvonen explained.

“There is more development in the city, but more creation and maintenance of wildlife habitat than there has been in the past,” she said. “For instance, green roofs are now part of the bylaws and that is wildlife habitat. But what happens is that, when there is more wildlife, it just doesn’t stay in that area. And that’s where the TWC comes in.”

We asked Karvonen about a few of the city’s more unique creatures.

Opossums

These marsupials made their way north to Toronto from the United States in larger numbers in recent years. They are about the size of a house cat, have white faces, pink noses, greyish fur and long, hairless, prehensile tails that can be used to grab things like tree branches.

They are some of the most misunderstood critters in town, and finding one or a crew sitting atop the backyard fence first thing in the morning has surprised more than a few local residents.

“If you see one, it is perfectly normal, and there is nothing that needs to be done. It is absolutely not dangerous,” she said.

“It’s main mechanism if it sees a big scary human is to just freeze, and then it might drop its mouth open to show teeth — that’s about all they do. Once in a while they play dead.”

Opossums are also pretty useful in that they eat ticks and help slow the spread of Lyme disease. But, being southerners, their ears and tails are thin and sometimes get frostbite, which often sends them to the TWC. That, and getting hit by cars since they are nocturnal.

Snakes

The GTA is home to numerous types of snakes: common garter, green, brown and milk snakes, to name just a few.

“They are all perfectly harmless, like totally, unless you’re a cricket or a baby mouse,” said Karvonen. “They are very beneficial to have in the garden.”

Even if the TWC has numerous calls for rescues on the go, the team will drop everything to respond to a snake call.

“If we get a call about a snake in a backyard and we call them back, half the time it’s been killed already,” she said. “They just think it’s deadly.”

Karvonen cautions that the snake population is actually in trouble in the area, and some education is needed.

“Those fears are passed down from parents to children,” she said.

Next time you see a snake in the garden, give it a wide berth and let it find its own way.

Bats

“The big brown bat is the most common one in the city, and it’s a permanent resident,” Karvonen said. “They have very large colonies, and there could be hundreds of bats in old buildings or on old signs.”

Bats are of great concern lately after a B.C. man died of rabies last month after a bat lightly brushed against his hand, and he contracted rabies from the saliva.

Karvonen said bats keep to themselves, but there are often times when a bat might get indoors. If that happens, don’t panic but proceed with caution.

She said, bats are one of the species the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry hasn’t figured out how to vaccinate against rabies, so there is always a risk.

“In the summer, it is best to leave the doors and windows open and go somewhere else,” said Karvonen, of finding a bat in your home. “But if it’s winter, shut the door and call us.”

The TWC has treated more than 300 different species that live in the city, including 472 patients currently in care. They do so on a budget that relies almost exclusively on donations.

The TWC annual fundraising gala, Wild Ball, is on Nov. 14. Donations are welcome at Torontowildlifecentre.com.