It's winter. Watch out for falling raccoons.
Nov. 23 was not a typical workday at one Toronto-area office building. When employees showed up, there was a gaping hole in the ceiling above one desk. Underneath the desk, near the legs of a red chair, sat a masked intruder looking remarkably relaxed.
It was a raccoon, and it had crashed through the ceiling.
For Brad Gates and his team, the event was a typical workday. The wildlife control company he's run for three decades fields such a call - about a raccoon plummeting through a ceiling, stunning the people below - about every month, making this little fellow a usual suspect, if a bit heftier at 40 pounds. Also, Gates recalled, because it was morning, the nocturnal animal was "fast asleep under the desk."
Such incidents occur year-round. But wildlife professionals say they are a bit more common in the cold of winter, when raccoons, which are adept at locating and squeezing through even small crevices in buildings and houses, cozy down in nooks of human shelters for longer stretches of time. Squirrels love attics, too, but when testing the load-bearing limits of ceilings, raccoons have a weight disadvantage. That is particularly true in commercial buildings, which often feature dropped ceilings meant to hide infrastructure, not serve as raccoon terrain.
"They may have been living in the building for a long period of time and may have found the one tile that wasn't set in as it should be," Gates said. "And everything just comes tumbling down under the raccoon."
Their surprise appearances happen often enough that the Internet features plenty of hilarious video of raccoons, legs splayed, suddenly dropping into human habitat, as well as tales of havoc wreaked during their attempts to escape. This year, falling raccoons seem to have favored Texas, plunging into the apartment of an Arlington woman who told a local television station that she'd heard the animals "have a party" in the ceiling; dropping into a San Antonio College building as a cleaner mopped nearby; and crashing into a corrections office in Angelina County.
Raccoons flourish in nearly every corner of the United States, and they are super smart, so you might say nowhere is safe from an intrusion. In December 2016, a raccoon breached the ceiling of a liquor store in Bristol, Tennessee. In Facebook posts, storekeepers shared security camera video of the animal landing on all fours, collecting itself, then ransacking shelves as though hunting for the perfect vintage. At one point, it flips what the store manager reported was a $45.99 bottle of Baker's Bourbon onto the ground and "nails the landing." The manager's post continued: "Warning there is evidence of alcohol abuse in this video. . .the raccoon broke a few bottles."
Southern Canada also is home to the animals, and Toronto has been the site of several well-known raccoon capers. In May, for example, one peeked out of a ceiling hole above baggage claim at the city's airport; its masked face promptly went viral.
Raccoons frequently encroach on attics and ceilings, of course. But while invading protected and warm human space is certainly intentional, falling is not, said John Griffin, director of urban wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States. In houses, this usually happens when ceiling drywall has been weakened by moisture or mold - or raccoon urine and feces, if the critters have spent enough time above to have amassed a heavy latrine, as their toilet area is known.
"Believe me, when it happens, it is a surprise to everybody, including the raccoon," said Griffin, whose role used to involve responding to wildlife conflict calls in the Washington area.
One time, Griffin said, the owner of a townhouse in the tony neighborhood of Georgetown returned from a three-day weekend away to find the home plundered. The drapes were torn. The dishes were broken. But the giveaways were a hole in the ceiling and what Griffin calls "the final insult": a piece of raccoon scat near the bathroom sink, next to a tube of Colgate and a toothbrush.
"Eventually, the owner was able to laugh about it," said Griffin, who pinpointed the animal's entry point as an opening near a satellite dish that had not been properly installed. By the time the owner came home, the raccoon had escaped through a dryer vent - showing, Griffin argued, "the perseverance, and the ability for the raccoon to contend with these kinds of human-built structures and all the things it has to do to stay alive in a city."
It's not a good idea to have raccoons in the house, and not just for curtains. The animals can carry rabies and a very rare form of roundworm that can cause neurological damage, and even death, in people. Last week, a 4-month-old baby in Philadelphia was brutally mauled by a raccoon that had gotten inside their apartment.
That's why keeping them out in the first place is crucial. At businesses, Gates said, the animals usually make their way through ventilation systems and rooftop air conditioners. At homes, roof vents, openings where two sections of roof meet and structural flaws are their typical front doors, he said.
When he captures a raccoon, Gates releases it nearby, because the animal will be familiar with local water resources, competitors and denning spots - the natural, outdoor kind. (Laws about trapping nuisance wildlife, as well as whether and where it can be released, vary from state to state.) Then Gates talks to the property owner about blocking holes in the building.
By this point, an owner "has been given signs that this is not a friendly tenant in the attic, and it can do damage," Gates said. "It's easy to convince them that now is the time to seal the roof and make sure the animals can't get back inside."
It is particularly easy in the extreme cases of falling raccoons. Gates recalled one client who was reading in bed when she reached over to pet what she thought was her cat. When it growled, she observed that it was a raccoon - and that there was a hole in her ceiling. She corralled it out the door.
But Gates's ultimate raccoon-crasher story occurred four or five years ago. The animal had made itself at home in an attic, and it had established its latrine right above the master bed. When it ambled over to do its business in the middle of one night, onto the sleeping homeowners crashed 30 pounds of raccoon waste, drywall and the furry critter itself.
"It was a rude awakening," Gates said, but no one was injured. By the time he arrived, the raccoon was sleeping in a sink, as if he'd heard there was a guy who would come to escort him out.
"One thing about raccoons is they're so highly intelligent that they quickly can realize they're in a trapped environment and no effort is going to make a situation better," Gates said. "So they conserve their energy."