Soon after he became a raccoon trapper, Musa Ramada began having nightmares, waking with the sensation that one of the animals was on his chest. Again and again this happened, upsetting him more and more; eventually he told his boss, an old tough guy named Steve. Steve knew these dreams well and offered advice for escaping them: when you trap a raccoon and its babies, release them together, he said. Ramada started doing so religiously, even when it cost him time and money. His sleep has been undisturbed by raccoons ever since.
No longer consigned to the urban edge, raccoons have infiltrated New York City, occupying homes and generating steady business for people who catch them. The past five years has seen a rise in raccoon trouble—subway lines shut down, brownstones vandalized—that has become even more noticeable during the pandemic, with New Yorkers holed up indoors. Raccoons have been spotted in the West Village, on the Upper East Side, in groups of more than twenty (the collective noun is a “gaze”) among the trees of Prospect Park. In 2016, the New York Times ran a feature headlined “Raccoons Invade Brooklyn,” with tales of backyard chickens being mauled and baby raccoons, known as kits, tumbling from apartment roofs. When a tourist inquired on Reddit about where one might encounter raccoons in the city, someone responded: “Come to Queens! They’re everywhere! Just had to throw one out of my bathtub.”
But while demand for trappers is rising, the industry retains an informal, even secretive, edge. Ultimately, trapping raccoons is about death. By law, trappers in New York are supposed to kill any raccoons they catch: according to one trapper I spoke to, who didn’t want to be identified, the five permitted methods are drowning, shooting, lethal injection, gassing, and bludgeoning over the head. The alternative is releasing the animals on private land, but there are many times more raccoons than willing recipients. When I asked another trapper, who drowns his raccoons in a tank, how many animals he’d disposed of, he laughed and said, “Dude! I couldn’t count that high.”
But there are other trappers, Musa Ramada among them, who quietly disobey these rules, whether at the request of their clients—who usually want the animals removed from their homes, but not annihilated—or moved by a sense of personal morality. People identify with raccoons in a way that makes killing them difficult. “I couldn’t do it,” Ramada said. “I would quit the job instead.”
A Syrian immigrant in his 40s, Ramada moved to New York in the 1990s to study computer science but dropped out when he couldn’t afford tuition. Since then, he’s passed through a series of marginal jobs, from construction and fixing cars to being a cook in an Italian restaurant. About four years ago he became a trapper entirely by accident, after responding to an online advertisement that he believed was related to house painting. At the interview, Steve, the boss, asked Ramada if he knew how to climb a ladder. “I said sure,” Ramada told me. “He said, high ladder—like 40 feet.” When Ramada found out he’d be catching raccoons, he was taken aback; that Americans would pay you to remove wild animals from their houses was something he’d never imagined. Back home, he said, this would be the duty of young men—a son or a cousin looking to demonstrate his bravery. But home was here now, in this city of money and exclusion that creates its own forms of opportunity. “Sure,” he told Steve, rolling the r, and just like that he was hired.
Ramada is in his forties, with grey stubble, scruffy hair, and tobacco-stained teeth. He rolls stubby joints of cheap pot purchased from a contact in the Bronx and cruises around, lightly stoned, with his traps and the junk that fills his panel van: tools for keeping the engine going; scraps of paper with the scribbled addresses of his customers (which he otherwise forgets); husks of sunflower seeds (he says he’s addicted); and books by Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel laureate who published 34 novels and more than 350 short stories, nearly all of which Ramada says he has read.
I first met him in November 2019, soon after he stopped working for Steve and started his own trapping company. I had been calling raccoon trappers for days, but most of them declined to speak to me; even Steve had fobbed me off, claiming that his bosses were “at their holiday house upstate.” (It was only later, when I met Ramada, that I began piecing the story together: Steve is one of the biggest trappers in New York, and emphatically has no boss.) Another trapper spoke to me on background for 45 minutes and made me promise not to refer to a word of our conversation. Others put the phone down when they heard the word “journalist.” But Ramada, when I reached him, acted as if he’d been waiting for me to call. His accent was very different from those of the gruff New Yorkers I’d been dealing with. First, with conviction, he told me he could communicate with raccoons. Then he asked me if I could help him design a website.
He’d spent hours trying to find customers, printing business cards and creating listings on Google Maps, but his rivals were far ahead of him, often operating multiple businesses, each with their own phone numbers. (I had discovered this on my earlier calls when the deep background man listened to me for a minute and then said, “I already explained this to you, pal.”) So Ramada tried another strategy: undercutting the competition. Initially he charged $600 to remove up to five raccoons—“that’s like a family,” he said—no matter the number of return visits; this was about a third of the going rate. Slowly, business picked up until he was averaging a raccoon a week. He abandoned the idea of a website.
“Best job I ever had,” he told me, splitting open one sunflower seed and then another. Ramada traverses the five boroughs in his van, laying traps in attics and basements; sometimes a raccoon falls through a ceiling and he must chase after it with a sack and noose. He is always on call but seldom busy, and in between jobs he cooks, walks his dog, watches Syrian news on YouTube, or— when he has the money—plays golf; sometimes a customer calls mid-round and he has to leave to deal with a raccoon. He lives in Queens with his wife, who is Italian American, and her young son, who, according to Ramada, is fond of raccoons. This is not surprising, given Ramada’s own rich and unusual affection for them.
On the internet, there is an outpouring of love for raccoons, with Instagram accounts like @cutest.raccoons and @raccoonfeeds amassing hundreds of thousands of followers. Clips of pet raccoons (#trashpandas) rolling on giant hamster wheels, falling off furniture, and skirmishing with cats rack up hundreds of thousands of likes and shares. Influencer raccoon accounts come replete with merchandise and sponsored content; one of the most successful, an unusually pale raccoon named Uni, who lives in Taiwan, has been featured on BuzzFeed and People.com.
This online adoration is at stark odds with reality, where, for the most part, we treat raccoons as pests. And not without reason: They are destructive visitors, ripping through drywall, gnawing pipes, robbing food, making noises (“whissing,” as Ramada puts it), and leaving droppings that carry a parasite which causes nausea and sometimes blindness. To deter raccoons, you can buy ultrasonic noise machines, wall spikes, and heat-activated sprinklers. You can buy urine (“100 percent pure”) from coyotes held in cages. An animal welfare activist I spoke to abhors such tactics and recommended, instead, blasting “hard rock music” in the attic. When I asked if this ever became irritating, she said: “It doesn’t bother me as much as having a raccoon gassed would bother me.”
Part of the trouble is that raccoons, with their neat ears and furry paws and handsome, tapering snouts, so closely resemble animals that evolution has pulled in the opposite direction, towards domestication and a life of companionship with humans. Yet raccoons are not like dogs or cats or even guinea pigs; they haven’t become, over generations, more amenable to our habits, but merely better at navigating around and subverting them. Until recently, I lived next door, in Brooklyn, to an elderly woman who had no children and dutifully left out food for stray cats. One night I heard a strange yipping noise and rushed downstairs, where two raccoons were facing off beneath a motion-sensing spotlight. When they saw me they slunk away, one of them limping—artful hijackers of our propensity for biophilia, a term by the biologist EO Wilson for “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.”
Ecologically speaking, raccoons are “mesopredators”—mid-sized hunters, adaptable and opportunistic, that would ordinarily be the prey of larger species like wolves and bears. As these larger species have been killed off or confined to reserves, mesopredators around the world have been able to proliferate. At the Jamaica Bay Refuge, one of New York’s most important wildlife sanctuaries, raccoons released by trappers devour baby birds and terrapins; many terrapin nests are destroyed within 24 hours of being laid. “They eat the birds, they eat squirrels, they eat anything,” the trapper who drowns raccoons told me, his voice a mix of admiration and disgust. “They savages.”
Such prodigious and flexible appetites have allowed raccoons to not only survive in the city but prosper, like burglars taking up residence in a gated estate. The proportion of animals able to do this is tiny, yet feels surprising in each case, as if they are violating the laws of urban existence. In New York, red-tailed hawks roost on Manhattan buildings, deer multiply on Staten Island—where residents with guns want permission to hunt them—and coyotes lope, for the most part unseen, through Central Park.
On New Year’s Day, someone in Brooklyn posted on Nextdoor that they’d seen a “coyote-like animal eating garbage.”
“Had to be a big raccoon,” someone else replied.
“It had zero rackoon character,” the original poster responded.
A native of North America, the raccoon has spread to cities around the world, in large part because people are so taken by its presumed cuteness. In Japan, raccoons became popular pets in the 1970s following an anime adaptation of Rascal, Sterling North’s famous Midwestern memoir about raising an orphaned kit. Japanese imports of raccoons surged, followed soon after by releases, as families discovered that the animals make for difficult companions; this mirrored, incidentally, the narrative arc of North’s book. Today, raccoons plague farmers across the island, damage ancient Buddhist temples—chewing wood, the usual routine—and unleash disorder in some of the world’s most orderly cities. “The raccoons,” a group of local biologists wrote, a bit glumly, in a review of the invasion, “have spread out all over.”
I next spoke to Ramada in March of last year, the day Tom Hanks tested positive for COVID-19 and Donald Trump banned flights from Europe. Over the next week New York shuttered its schools and restaurants, withdrawing into a kind of terrified hibernation. But raccoons do not obey orders to quarantine; with the weather warming, they were emerging from their shelters to mate and fight and rifle through trash. Kits are usually born in the spring; they live with their parents for a year and then move off to find their own territories—also, in this case, while the city was shutting down.
The lockdown also meant that more people were stuck at home and more likely, as a result, to encounter their raccoon cohabitants. I spoke to a proofreader from Harlem whose neighbor informed her that a raccoon “as big as a German Shepherd” had been visiting their apartment. Early one morning not long afterwards, her cat began “yowling and running all over,” she told me. A raccoon was on the windowsill, trying to climb in.
“Better,” Ramada said, when I asked him how business was. “People are more scared of diseases now.” Just a few days earlier, he’d trapped the last of a family of six raccoons in Brooklyn, putting an end to a job that had stretched for many weeks. The raccoons had been living in the ceiling of an empty room after serially occupying a row of houses along the street. To catch them, Ramada knocked together a wooden ladder and left a trap baited with marshmallows, an old trick of the business. “If you put anything else,” he explained, “you might catch cats or dogs.”
He returned the next day and found a raccoon in the trap, but when he moved to pick it up a bigger raccoon swooped in to defend her. Male raccoons are known as boars and females as sows, but Ramada, recounting the story, went with something more vicious. “He’s like a small tiger,” Ramada said. “He’s willing to attack.” Confronted with such aggression, Ramada retreated, baiting a second trap; he had soon caught the bigger raccoon, followed in quick succession by the rest of the family. Afterward, he learned that six raccoons had been living a few doors away, in the home of a 94 year-old Latino man. About a year ago the man was walking in the dark when he trod on a raccoon and it bit him on the leg. He was taken to hospital and spent four months recovering. “This is the only person I’ve met who was bitten by a raccoon,” Ramada told me, a little defensively.
It is Ramada’s job to clean up after raccoons and thwart their attempts at havoc—the leaks and ruined ceilings and foul, crusted dens. Unlike some of his rivals, though, he refuses to blame the animals. “They been here in America before us,” he said. “That’s why they’re invading our home, just like we invade theirs.”
He has come to believe, too, that he is able to communicate with them, just as one might communicate with a dog. “They live in the house, so they understand our language,” he said. “So many times the raccoon can see us and we cannot see it. It’s in the trees and houses, just listening.”
And so a raccoon might hear a man speaking tenderly to his wife or children, Ramada said.
“So when I say to them I love you, they understand that.”
By the end of March, the pandemic had killed more than 1,000 people in New York. Schools and playgrounds were locked. There was a rush to secure ventilators. Ramada was still on call; a few days earlier he’d set two traps at a house in Queens. When the ban on non-essential businesses was announced, I texted to ask if he thought that included raccoon trapping. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Only when they say you can’t drive, I’ll stop.”
Many of his cousins and nephews in Syria were stuck in refugee camps with little to no running water. Other, more fortunate relatives were scattered across Europe, including a younger brother who owned a provisions store in Bulgaria. One day he called Ramada and told him to buy all the masks he could find, planning to sell them at hugely inflated prices. Ramada refused, not wanting to profit off a disaster. “It’s gonna destroy a lot of lives,” he told me.
But over the weeks, as we spoke by phone, he seemed repeatedly to change his mind. One evening he told me about a 103-year-old Chinese woman who’d survived the virus: “How bad can it be?” Then his sister-in-law, aged fifty-three, tested positive. She was taken to the hospital and died ten days later.
Both families lived a few blocks from each other in Astoria, on the edge of what was then the worst-hit cluster in the United States. “It’s bad here,” Musa texted me. “Only ambulances moving.”
A few days earlier, Ramada had gone to check some traps nearby in Queens, where he came upon a mother raccoon without her kits. Ramada drove her to a farm in New Jersey with a week’s supply of cat food, aiming to reunite the family before setting them free. But in four attempts, he couldn’t catch the babies. “I don’t want them to die,” he recalled thinking. He asked the owners if he could bring the mother back to try and lure them, but the owners, perhaps not surprisingly, refused. So Ramada went back to the farm and took the raccoon down to a wooded area, where he opened the cage and released her. “She just ran,” he told me, at peace with what he’d done. “Ran like a beautiful animal.”