By Mike Sula
In late September 1999, WGN TV aired a report on the celebrated raccoons of Rosehill Cemetery. Over the years the animals had become a popular attraction along Rosehill's wooded Western Avenue fence between Peterson and Bryn Mawr. After dark, people lined up on the sidewalk to toss junk food through the wrought iron bars, attracting scores of obliging coons. WGN mentioned that the city's Commission on Animal Care and Control frowned upon fraternization with wild animals, but the broadcast featured footage of nature lovers feeding the photogenic little buggers by hand.
When Renee Cajandig saw the news that night she worried. "I was like, 'Ehhhh, I don't think they want to do that,'" she says. "'It's probably gonna get a lot of publicity it doesn't need.'" Cajandig has always taken in stray and injured animals, and when she'd volunteered at the Trailside Museum in River Forest two and a half years earlier she'd become smitten with raccoons in particular. At the time Trailside had a roomful of orphaned babies that needed to be trained to live in the wild. "They are the happiest animal I know," she says. "Everything is so interesting. They must dissect and play with everything that's in their path. They leave a wake of destruction behind them and you can't get mad at them. It doesn't matter what they do, because they look at you with these eyes, like, 'What? I didn't do anything.' And they actually will cover their faces if you yell at them."
At the time of the WGN report, Cajandig was an animal handler for a traveling zoo and living with four of the zoo's raccoons, which she planned to reintroduce to their natural habitat. A few weeks earlier she and her boss had visited the fence for the first time. "When we went out there, there was just one guy there and just two raccoons," she says. "And we were like, 'What's this? We thought there was gonna be a bunch of them.' And we brought dog food with us and we decided to throw some over the fence just for the hell of it. And like magic--bink, bink, bink--all of these raccoons came out of nowhere and they were just swarming. It was hysterical. I've never seen so many before, and they were really quite well mannered. They would take the food right out of your hands with their paws."
Cajandig visited the fence a few more times that fall, but she had her own raccoons to care for and a sudden series of personal problems to deal with. In May it was time to let her last two raccoons go. She'd released the first pair in November, so she knew this wasn't going to be easy. "I know I cried for a week after I released the first two and I was going to have to do it again," she says. "And I wasn't in the best state of mind at the time anyway. That's when I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm not gonna have raccoons in my life. And right now I'm having a hard time in general. What can I do?' That's when I decided to go back to Rosehill."
She revisited the raccoons at the fence but the experience didn't measure up. "I don't know, I guess because I had a more personal relationship with my raccoons I wanted to have a more personal relationship with these raccoons," she says. "I knew if they came out on the Western side they've got to be inside the cemetery somewhere. So I just decided to take a foray into the cemetery one day."
Learning of spots in the woods where some people were depositing huge amounts of food, Cajandig began going to Rosehill every day, spreading a blanket, and waiting for the coons.
The animals weren't shy about coming out to eat and many of them soon lost all fear of the human in their midst. Sometimes, she says, there were a hundred or more scattered in the clearing around her, peacefully feasting on piles of dog food and bread. She got to know many of the coons by sight and gave them names. There were Pretty Girl, Floppy, and Rupert. And Bear, who had chewed-up ears, and Star, who had a white dot on her forehead. Roo 2, named for one of her old raccoons, was skittish at first but gradually came to trust her. "It got to the point where she would crawl all over my legs and play with my hair," Cajandig says. "Even if I didn't have food she'd just come over and hang out, try to dig into my bag and make off with my keys.
"It got me through a lot of really bad moments," she says. "They really meant a lot. Because I would just go there and just be, and not think about anybody. And they would always make me laugh."
Cajandig didn't bring much food into the cemetery, just some Froot Loops, which her own raccoons had loved. The animals were getting more than enough food from people who had been making deliveries for years.
Mary Lou and John, a retired couple who don't want to give their last names, discovered the Rosehill raccoons over three years ago when they began walking their cat in the cemetery. "We saw our first ricky walking around the forest edge," says Mary Lou. "One sunny afternoon, there in the middle section, there was a ricky standing looking at an empty can of Spam. I said, 'Oooohh, wildlife!'" The couple spotted more and more raccoons, and a possum, and a coyote, and they began carrying small bags of food for them and for the squirrels and birds that flourished in the cemetery. A year later they were loading nearly a hundred pounds of food into the trunk of their car every day and dropping it off at 15 specific points in the woods and among the gravestones. The smorgasbord included dog food, peanuts, hot dogs, bread smeared with margarine, hard-boiled eggs, grapes, and peanut butter sandwiches.
And they weren't the only ones. Some days they'd see enormous piles of bread and cake left for the coons by an old man named Harold who had connections at a bakery. "I know there was a young woman with long blond hair and I'd see her in the middle section and she'd bring big bags of carrots," says Mary Lou. "Real good food for the raccoons. But they never ate the carrots. They would eat carrots if you cooked them and put margarine on them. I really spoiled them."
Mary Lou and John were also alarmed when the Rosehill raccoons showed up on the news. They heard that pest control companies had called the cemetery offering to trap the animals, but they say they were assured by a cemetery official that the raccoons had been there long before the cemetery and nothing was going to happen to them.
Mary Lou and John insist that they always picked up their garbage and that the cemetery's management was well aware of what they were doing. They'd become friendly with the security guards and with a number of people on the sales staff, and they'd even bought two plots near the forest's edge. The cemetery closed at five, but they often stayed hours later, leaving by the Ravenswood gate, which was left unlocked. Sometimes they'd arrive after five and open the gate themselves. When they went on vacations they enlisted friends to assume the feeding duties, and one became a regular feeder himself. Sometimes, they say, the staff even helped out. Last summer they met Cajandig, and Mary Lou was happy to find another person to pick up the slack whenever they went away.
"They were healthy," says Mary Lou. "I read an article once in the Tribune about wildlife. And wildlife does not fare very well in the wintertime. But these guys were being fed every day. You see, if you start feeding wildlife you're supposed to feed them all along. You don't stop. I'm close by. I have nothing to do. I just feel sorry for these guys because there's nothing over there."
Over the years, the couple noticed more and more raccoons coming out of the woods to feed. John got so friendly with some that he could hand-feed them hot dogs. The feedings, expensive and time consuming, got to be a burden, but it was a burden they loved.
In late September Mary Lou and John gave Cajandig the keys to their apartment and asked her to help feed the raccoons while they went on a trip. When they returned a guard told them that Animal Control had been setting traps in the cemetery.
It was after 5 PM on October 2 when Cajandig met with Mary Lou and John in the cemetery to return their keys. As Mary Lou unloaded food, a large black sedan drove up and a man named Doug told them the feeding would have to stop. "The first thing he says is, 'The raccoons are just getting too damn friendly,'" says Mary Lou. "And he says, 'You can't feed them. It's no good for them.' And I said, 'Is starvation good?' And he said, 'I could have you thrown in jail for trespassing.'" The three of them left the cemetery, but Mary Lou and John returned during the following days to hide food for the raccoons.
Later that week, after driving through the Ravenswood gate and waving to some workers, they discovered six cage traps in the woods, anchored by chains. Just as they sprang the traps, they say, three red pickups converged on the woods, and they were confronted by Rosehill's general manager, Ron Graeff, and a posse of groundskeepers. The ensuing argument ended, the couple says, with Graeff telling them they'd never feed in the cemetery again and to be out by five o'clock.
"I wish I had been better prepared for such a thing," says Mary Lou. "Why didn't anybody call us and talk to us? They have our number on file. We bought property. They see us coming in every day. Why didn't they say they were having a problem with the raccoons?"
Graeff says he hadn't been aware that people were coming into the cemetery after hours, or that Rosehill employees were helping the feeders.
Fortieth Ward alderman Patrick O'Connor says the number of raccoon-related complaints fielded by his office this year from residents of the area surrounding Rosehill--especially those on the west side of Western Avenue--has been "unbelievable." He says, "Clearly we had more in people's yards and in the alley this summer than we did the summer before. So the problem has been increasing. Now I candidly haven't tracked to see whether or not there is more or less than there was last year. But the fact of the matter is that there still, I think, is a considerable population of raccoons there and we still get an occasional call saying, 'What are you gonna do about this?'"
A spokesman for Streets and Sanitation adds that raccoons were getting hit by cars on the streets around the cemetery and that some were licking backyard barbecue grills and clambering onto back porches.
In early September, just as Mary Lou and John were preparing for their vacation, O'Connor had held a town meeting and heard more complaints. "A couple of them had young children, and they're telling us that they are afraid to let their kids in the backyard because of these things," he says. His office contacted a consultant. "Basically this guy said that the danger is not just rabies, but there is a parasite that is transferred from raccoons that is very dangerous. I don't know what it is, but he says it lodges in your intestines and it blocks your intestines ultimately and you can be quite ill and it can become quite a problem."
To stop the feedings on Western Avenue, the city has posted signs advising the public of the threat of rabies and other diseases and threatening food tossers with fines as high as $500. No Trespassing signs and health warnings have gone up along the tree line inside the cemetery.
The raccoons themselves are another matter. Ron Graeff says he contacted the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to see what his options were. "I was looking for relocation, maybe to the forest preserves or to the other nature areas, but they do not allow that." So Graeff secured a state nuisance animal removal permit giving the cemetery up to 90 days to trap and dispose of its raccoons. "Our goal obviously is to reduce the population so that they can survive in the cemetery and don't actually have to go outside the cemetery to search for food sources," he says. "If the families that have been feeding the raccoons continue, well, then the population continues to grow. So an end point that I see is when the population reaches a level where they can cohabitate with us and not cause damage to the neighborhood."
The state does in fact allow for the relocation of trapped wild animals, but in this case Bob Bluett, the state wildlife biologist who issued Rosehill's permit, recommended euthanasia. "If you have raccoons in your trash the solution is not to get rid of the raccoons," says Bluett, who is based in Springfield. "The solution is to get rid of the trash. But when you're managing a property of this size and you've already done what you can to eliminate your sources of trash, you're still stuck with all the raccoons that have been living on the cemetery and reached such a high population that they're apparently able to gobble up hundreds of pounds of food. You aren't gonna see much relief from the other activities until you take the top off that population."
Bluett says that the statewide raccoon population is now close to a historic high and some of the highest densities are in the Chicago metro area, where the numbers approach 90 to 100 raccoons per square mile. This is primarily because of an abundance of food sources and places for the animals to den but also because of a dearth of fur trapping.
Raccoons are solitary animals, says Bluett, and it's unnatural for them to congregate. When that happens their numbers are usually leveled by outbreaks of distemper or parvovirus. He mentions a study showing that urban raccoons with access to human food sources suffer more from tooth decay than raccoons in rural areas.
Are the raccoons really a danger to humans? Despite the signs on Rosehill's fence and inside the cemetery, rabies is currently rare in midwestern raccoons. Raccoon roundworm is a parasite found in the animals' feces that humans might inhale or ingest. But pets face more of a threat than humans, says Bluett.
Renee Cajandig and Mary Lou and John believe that the problems posed by the Rosehill raccoons have been overstated, and they challenge the contention that they've been crossing Western Avenue. They say that the coons are much too skittish for that, even the ones that have been spotted on the sidewalk. Why, wonders Mary Lou, would they leave the cemetery if they were being fed? Cajandig suspects those aren't the Rosehill raccoons.
She doesn't doubt that the raccoons have crossed quieter streets like Bowmanville and Ravenswood, especially since the feedings stopped. One woman who fed at the cemetery discovered a raccoon with a broken leg on Ravenswood. She found a vet who reset the limb, and she is keeping the animal in her apartment until it heals.
Cajandig knows that one shouldn't feed human food to wildlife. But given the number of years that people were feeding the Rosehill raccoons, she believes that the damage has been done. When she heard rumors about trapping she began calling the cemetery for an explanation, but she only got a response when she threatened to contact the media. When she finally spoke to Graeff she suggested setting up some kind of rescue operation. He seemed open to the idea, she said, but her calls to wildlife organizations turned up no one to help her mount one.
Rosehill is using a gas chamber to euthanize the raccoons. The box, recommended by Bluett as the most humane tool for euthanization, is large enough to hold a trapped raccoon inside its cage. A valve on the outside releases carbon monoxide or some other toxic gas into the chamber and the animal dies within three minutes. According to state law, Rosehill is required to transfer the carcasses to a licensed rendering plant or an EPA-approved incinerator, or to bury them where they cannot contaminate water supplies.
Mary Lou and John heard a rumor at the end of October that Rosehill had trapped 48 raccoons. When Graeff's permit expires this month he's required to report the total raccoon kill to the state, but he says he doesn't know how many have been bagged so far. He does say he's stopped receiving complaints. A better measure of the operation's impact will have to wait for spring. Raccoons don't hibernate but they're generally less active in the winter. Even though there are no more open buffets along Western Avenue, scraps of garbage and peanut shells can still be seen at the base of the fence.
Mary Lou, who believes that there is nothing in the cemetery for the raccoons to eat, is unrepentant about feeding them and furious at the city, the cemetery, and the Humane Society, which did not act on her calls for help. Above all, she is brokenhearted. "I don't sleep," she says. John "would be going out to the store all the time and if he got crabby I'd say to him, 'Mister, can I have a hot dog? Mister, can I have an egg?' Now I would say, 'Mister, they killed my brother. Mister, they killed my sister.'"
Cajandig is more reflective about the fate of the raccoons. "A lot of people were affected by them in a very personal way, but people just don't know what they're doing when it comes to wildlife," she says. "If you think you're doing them a favor by throwing food out to them every day, you're really not. They need to know to just leave them alone. And they don't need people threatening them with rabies and stuff like that. It's just sad that because people don't know what they're doing these guys had to bite the dust."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.