GEORGE FOWLER hasn't seen any of the raccoons on his quiet West Oak Lane block, but the shadowy critters frighten him. His neighbor across the street calls him every time she sees a raccoon creeping across his roof. When she calls, Fowler draws his blinds.
Fowler, who's on home care, spends most of his time inside. But he misses sitting outside.
"I'd just like to be able to sit on my porch again without worrying about wild animals," he said.
For a while, it looked like Fowler wouldn't have to worry about the animals anymore: This spring, City Council passed a law requiring the city to create regulations to deal with raccoons, and strongly suggested the city trap the creatures. But Help Desk has learned the administration wants nothing to do with raccoons.
HELP NOT ON THE WAY: Until this spring, the city had a simple message for Philadelphians besieged by raccoons: "Sorry." It wouldn't capture the critters unless they were rabid, and the SPCA would only remove them if citizens trapped them on their own.
Then in May, Councilman Darrell Clarke introduced a bill that would require the city to create procedures for "abating" raccoons. He did so, he said, because he heard complaints about raccoons "on every third block" in his district.
The bill was passed in late June. But when we called Brian Abernathy, chief of staff for the managing director and the guy in charge of implementing the law, to find out what help was on the way for people like Fowler, he said the city's policy on raccoons hadn't changed. The city wasn't going to trap raccoons unless they were rabid or invaded a home.
But doesn't the city have to abide by, um, city law?
Abernathy said Council can't force the city to capture raccoons. "Council can enact policies," he said, "but can't necessarily tell us how to do our job or how to implement those policies."
Abernathy said the city has a number of reasons for not wanting to trap raccoons. First, he said, it's a violation of state law for the city to capture wild animals that don't meet certain nuisance criteria, such as being rabid. There's also a resource issue. Abernathy said the city can't afford to trap raccoons regularly.
Finally, unless raccoons are cornered, they're generally harmless, Abernathy said. "We need to learn to live with our surroundings," he said.
Abernathy made these points to Council in the hearing for the bill. And he testified that even if the bill passed, the city wouldn't change its policy.
COUNCIL RESPONDS: William Carter, Clarke's director of legislative affairs, said he doesn't think the administration should be able to choose which laws it enforces. But, he said, "They're doing it, aren't they?"
Carter said that if the city law violates state law, it's news to him. He had never heard of a law preventing the city from capturing raccoons.
Jerry Feaser at the State Game Commission said state regulations do forbid capturing just any raccoon on the street. So if the city took Council's suggestion to capture any reported raccoons, city law would conflict with state law.
If a bill that Council passes violates state law, it's unenforceable, said Anne Kelly King, Council's chief accounting officer, because state law supersedes local laws.
Clarke focused on the merits of the legislation in explaining why he thinks the city should enforce the law.
"We have a responsibility to our citizens," he said. "When I see a problem, I'm going to respond."
For now, Abernathy said the best option is for Fowler and his neighbors to call Licenses and Inspections to clean and seal the abandoned property they believe is housing the raccoons.
Meanwhile, Clarke's office fields constant calls about raccoons. Raccoons are the "new gang in town," Carter said. People say the creatures are bold, and don't scare. "It's almost as if they know they're protected," he said.