Toronto’s urban wildlife

How many people live in this city? Oh, millions. You know that; you've been crammed on a streetcar with some of them, you've been stuck behind the doddering crowds of them at malls, and you've seen them congregate in vast clumps at parades and protests and concerts. It's a city, it's where people live, it has high-rise buildings to hold them all.

But even though it's people whose names are on the lease agreements, this city has other tenants as well. Look to your left or right, right now, and you might see the evidence of their tenancy: a fat grey tail dashing into a tree-hole, a set of paw-prints chasing another set of paw-prints into a shed, a public poop. You might see a little nest in a tree; it might have bits of yarn from your hat in it.

There are 250,000 dogs and 250,000 cats in the GTA, which means there are one of these animals for every ten humans. The raccoons, pigeons, sparrows, and rats are taking up their share of public space too. The Canada Geese are plodding tracks through their own waste all along the waterfront. The squirrels are making themselves into unofficial backyard pets.

We share the city with these creatures, and if you took a census you'd find they actually outnumber us greatly. We talk about population density and we know Toronto's crowded, but we aren't even looking at the whole picture: there are twice as many lives in this city than we give credit for, and we're forced to live together, all of us. Multiculturalism is something we're proud of; multispeciesism is something we don't always realize we're accomplishing.

We live within a real mosaic of species. Sometimes, they're obnoxious — the raccoons molest our garbage, the squirrels leave unsightly corpses under our cars; the crows wake us up too early; the rats shut down our favourite restaurants. And sometimes, they're indispensable — the cats warm our laps while the snow falls on the streetcars outside; the dogs frolic on beaches with ludicrous glee even on the gloomiest days; the bats eat the mosquitoes; the robins herald the spring.

Occasionally, an urban animal will draw attention to itself, and remind us that we're not alone here: an albino squirrel will peer at us with its pink eyes; a deer will calmly sit down in a garden at University and Dundas; a coyote will spook the Beaches; or a hairless god-knows-what will emerge in Parkdale to bewilder us, scare us, and get its picture forwarded all over Facebook and Twitter. There are zoos — the big one in Scarborough and the smaller one in High Park; and there are farms — one on Centre Island and one in the middle of Cabbagetown, in Riverdale Park. These are the animals — the weird ones and the ones we line up to see or touch — that thrill us and get our attention.

But Toronto is teeming with less-spectacular creatures who are mostly unseen because they're so ubiquitous. They blend in and quietly make up the character of the city. They're part of its backdrop, part of its subtle soundtrack. Sparrows chatter like tiny old grannies in every bush, and don't expect us to listen. Cormorants fly in endless, tranquil, existential queues from the Spit to the Bluffs, keeping close to the lake's horizon, and don't expect us to watch. Our dogs cuddle us, our cats keep watch, and they don't expect us to notice, because we're all just creatures, doing what we do in our big, common, crowded concrete habitat.

Anna Bowness is an associate editor at Spacing