BREMERTON — As he pulled into his driveway off Olympus Drive one night, Jason Demerick’s headlights caught the green, glowing eyes of more than a dozen raccoons in his yard.
The number of nocturnal gazes surprised even Demerick, who has for seven years attempted to coexist with the critters that make his backyard feel like a zoo.
Raccoon teeth and claws have shredded all his patio furniture — he’s replaced his hot tub cover three times — and he no longer keeps it outside. But worse than any property damage, the rather tidy creatures actually set up “latrines” where they poop in one location, filling his backyard with a smell that ultimately must be shoveled out. Demerick said past roommates have even gotten physically ill from the stench.
He’s even reluctantly set traps to catch them, in an effort to control the ballooning population. But he feels helpless in a battle he believes would be won if a neighbor would stop providing bowls full of food for the raccoons. No local, state or federal government agency has been able to help.
“I feel like I’ve had my hands tied for seven years,” he said.
Demerick’s case is but one example of the quagmire faced by some residents in Bremerton and the surrounding county: can you get someone to stop feeding wildlife?
The Bremerton City council is hopeful it is possible. The Council is voting Wednesday on whether to stiffen fines for those caught providing food to critters, and contract with the federal agriculture department to respond to problem areas and euthanize aggressive raccoons.
Eric Younger, the city councilman who proposed the changes, knows the problem well. A former neighbor of his in West Bremerton fed outdoor cats. But that effort drew raccoons. He didn’t know where to turn. The police couldn’t help and the Kitsap Humane Society only deals with domesticated animals.
“Eventually, I sold my house, and the problem went to the next owner,” he said.
This past year, Younger learned of a similar problem on Madrona Point. The raccoon population surged to the point neighbors held a meeting with the councilman to figure out what to do.
Richard Nerf, a neighbor on Madrona Point, said raccoon trails sprang up across his property. Latrines appeared.
“I was shoveling literally galloons of feces each week,” he said.
So Nerf went to battle to protect his property, putting in gates and chicken wire to deter the animals, and being especially vigilant to make sure wildlife had no food source. They’ve even hired a trapper to contain the worst raccoons.
“The last thing we wanted to do was to kill wild animals,” Nerf’s wife, Judy Friedberg-Nerf, said.
The stench was bad enough to make you gag, she said. But that wasn’t the worst part. The feces can carry a parasite potentially fatal to humans, and they worried especially about their grandchild playing in the backyard. Unlike raccoons on the east coast, ones in the Pacific Northwest aren’t known for carrying rabies.
The Kitsap Public Health District is unaware of any cases of human illness caused by raccoon feces in the county, but it is possible that it could become a public health hazard.
“It could happen,” said Keith Grellner, the Kitsap Public Health District’s environmental health director. “Have we ever seen this happen? No.”
The health district does not handle raccoon complaints, but it will intervene if wildlife is being drawn to garbage dump sites, if raccoon feces piles up and surface water could be contaminated, or there are people — especially children — nearby.
One organization that will intervene is the West Sound Wildlife Shelter on Bainbridge Island, which rehabilitates sick, orphaned and injured wildlife.
The shelter takes in its share of raccoons, according to Lynne Weber, its rehabilitation manager. But staff is careful to do nothing to bond with the animals, appearing predatory with them by banging on cage doors. When they do release raccoons, it’s in remote areas removed from human contact, she said.
By feeding and being friendly to raccoons, residents are just encouraging overpopulation, she said. And that will ultimately lead to those same animals — not to mention your neighbors — suffering.
“By feeding them, you’re creating another problem,” she said. “You want to have a domesticated animal? Get a cat or a dog.”
Sometimes raccoons become too comfortable around humans and, while rare, can even attack them. Wanda Selg-Gonzales, who has lived on Cogean Avenue near downtown Bremerton since 1998, had one of those unusual confrontations.
As dusk fell on an October night two years ago, her two dogs, both Pomeranians, began barking at the fence that separates her front and backyards.
Selg-Gonzales came out to find them nose to nose with two raccoons. She yelled and even threw garden tools to get the raccoons to flee, yet they remained. One jumped the fence and lunged at her. She threw her arm up in defense and, luckily, her coat prevented the animal from breaking flesh. The two critters then finally ran away.
“It was scary as heck,” she said.
These days, she won’t even let her dogs outside alone. And, thanks to raccoons knocking over her humming bird feeders, she even brings those inside at nighttime, she said.
“I feel like I’m living on a game trail,” she said.
As do the Nerfs on Madrona Point, and Jason Demerick in East Bremerton. All seek a day when their properties aren’t overrun with raccoons. However cute their so-called bandit’s mask and ringed, bushy tails, their proliferation in pockets of Bremerton has been a nightmare for some.
“I’m an animal person,” said Demerick. “But if this was a rat problem instead, do you think (those that feed them) would be doing the same thing?”