What Happens to Raccoons Trapped in San Francisco?

 (Photo courtesy of John Fife)

As part of our series Bay Curious, we’re answering questions from KQED listeners and readers. This question comes from Emily Shumway, who was working late one night and came home to a raccoon in the middle of her living room. Now she wants to know:

What happens to raccoons that are live trapped in San Francisco? Where do they go?

Raccoons are trapped for two main reasons: Either they were found on someone's property or they were found in pretty bad shape.

Sgt. Eleanor Sadler of San Francisco Animal Care and Control says that most of the raccoons she sees are in the latter group.

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“We’ll see raccoons with distemper that sort of judder, shake and wobble. In those cases, we need to impound them,” she says. She'll catch those raccoons and bring them into the station to see the veterinarians.

Her team won't handle healthy wildlife though -- for that, they direct people to specialists in animal exclusion.

Sadler's team picks up three to five dead raccoons around the city each day.
Sgt. Eleanor Sadler's team picks up three to five dead raccoons around the city each day. (Lucas Waldron)

These specialists work to force an animal to leave on its own instead of trapping it. That's because once an animal is trapped, California law limits what can happen next.

“When you trap the animal, you need to release it within a couple blocks or you have to kill it," Sadler says. "Trappers are either lying to you or doing something illegal if they say otherwise."

So if you were envisioning a farm up north where San Francisco's displaced raccoons can run free -- um, sorry about that.

Raccoon captured in live trap. (Brad Burkholder/California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

There is one exception to the rule. If officials find orphaned baby mammals in the city, they are brought to Jamie Ray, director of the San Francisco Rescue of Orphaned Mammal Program (SFROMP).

Ray runs SFROMP out of her home in the Outer Richmond. Climbing apparatuses have taken over all her outdoor spaces, on her decks and outside her kitchen window. It's here that she rehabilitates and raises the orphaned animals until they can be released back in the area where they were found.

“California Department of Fish and Wildlife presumably started that law to prevent the spread of disease," Ray says. "It’s also considered inhumane because animals are territorial. If you drop an animal off into someone else’s territory it can get beaten up and potentially killed."

So while most people try to get raccoons out of their homes, Ray welcomes them in to hers.

Jamie Ray Holds an orphaned baby opossum after feeding it in her kitchen.
Jamie Ray holds an orphaned baby opossum after feeding it in her kitchen. (Lucas Waldron)

Orphan mammals come to Ray for any number of reasons. The parents might be hit by a car, mauled by dogs, die of natural causes or are caught by a trapper. If the trapper catches the parent to kill it, they might miss the babies.

Ray also sends animals to a volunteer network of foster parents like Lila Travis, who raise mammals out of their homes.

Travis, who lives in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood, also runs the Yggdrasil Urban Wildlife Rescue Center in Oakland.

“When you’re raising wildlife, you don’t want them to be too habituated to humans,” she says.

When she took young raccoons on walks around her neighborhood, she'd show them how to jump into the bushes at the sight of her neighbors.

A young raccoon.
A young raccoon (Jenn Calder)

“We would often try to replicate the education that the raccoons would naturally be getting from their mom. We’d turn over rocks find grubs and I’d pretend to eat them,” Travis says. "We must have had quite a strange impression on our neighbors."

She's raised around 150 raccoons since she began 15 years ago, but she's currently nursing squirrels.

It's a bittersweet moment for Travis when it comes time to release the rehabilitated orphans into the wild.

“I’ll pack a picnic and drive somewhere close to where they were found. Then I’ll watch them for about 30 minutes as they explore and climb trees. It’s sad, but then we have room to help more animals,” she says.

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Lila Travis feeding a young squirrel
Lila Travis feeding a young squirrel. (Jessica Placzek/KQED)

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