Mount Royal Park can be seen from the air flying into Montreal, rising up on the west of the city. Laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted in the mid-1870s, it encompasses more than 500 acres of woods, paths, a lake, and a number of look-out points over Montreal.
The Belvedere Camilien-Houde abuts a road that winds through the park, and has a view over the city straight to the landmark Olympic Stadium.
“I think it comes with the high turnaround of the cars and people,” says the conservationist with Les Amis de la Montagne (Friends of the Mountain). “People come here to eat chicken and ice cream, which they wouldn’t bring along to other viewpoints that require a longer walk.”
Tour buses pull up to the lookout point every couple of minutes, discharging their passengers to take selfies in front of the view. Raccoons appear from the other direction.
“A bag of crisps ruffling—pop—they come out of the forest,” explained Desmarais.
By 2010, when Les Amis de la Montagne was charged by the city with addressing the number of people feeding the raccoons of Mount Royal, the activity was listed on destination guides for visitors. Online itineraries recommended bringing handfuls of cat food and ice cream vendors on the terrace at one point sold cat food on site.
“When tourists arrive with food that is often very high in calories and in fat,” said Jacques Dancosse, a veterinarian and researcher at the Biodôme of Montreal, “the food which is very sought after by these animals, they’re going to very quickly lose their fear of humans.”
In recent years, 40 or 50 raccoons at a time could appear on the terrace. Search on YouTube and you'll see videos of raccoon swarms surrounding visitors, even yanking objects out of people's hands.
This raccoon buffet led to a ballooning of the population. In 2012, park staff estimated 200 raccoons were living in park, many times more than this area would normally support.
The number of raccoons was thinned out substantially by a distemper outbreak last year. The spread of the disease can be exacerbated by overpopulation, as well as an attraction like the look-out bringing normally territorial animals into closer proximity.
Raccoons can also suffer from the same diet and obesity-related health problems as humans, including diabetes and cavities.
However, the work of Les Amis de la Montagne has also had a critical impact on reducing feeding of the park raccoons. They needed to reach an inherently transitory audience of tourists, constantly cycling through and with little investment in leaving the city in better shape than they found it.
Putting coyote urine and a coyote soundtrack around the lookout had minimal impact on keeping the animals away, so they focused on the human side of the equation.
Les Amis de la Montagne put a stop to the cat food sales at the lookout. Desmarais’ predecessor started contacting websites and tour companies to get feeding the Mount Royal raccoons removed from their lists of Montreal attractions. Signs went up in multiple languages warning people not to feed or touch the raccoons, warning of penalties by fines,. Most importantly, they had staff on site several days a week.
“We would run to a tour bus before the guide would come down and tell him, ‘Please tell your entire bus to keep their snacks inside,’” Desmarais said.
Though, she added, the blame doesn’t lie entirely with tourists.
“It’s also a very ingrained Montreal activity,” she noted, particularly for parents to bring their young children. So, on the terrace, and on conservation patrols through the park, staff speak with all visitors.
The most effective way to talk with visitors, Desmarais has found, is to talk about the risks to the animals, not to themselves.
“If you just tell [them], ‘Oh, they can bite,’ well people will say ‘Oh, I'll be careful.’ But if you tell them it creates an overpopulation, [that] we have a precarious population of salamander, [that] it's a high-density spot where one can transmit their parasites, their diseases,” then, she said, people respond more positively.
“We explain the impact that it has on the raccoon that they love,” Desmarais said. “We give them a bit of science and a bit of emotion.”