Friday, December 3, 2010

Mink Colonizing Toronto Island

In choosing the Toronto Islands as their home, mink have done what others have only dreamed: they have circumvented the 40-year waiting list. According to islanders, the mink crossed over a few years ago. While they likely came for the tasty muskrats, they stayed for the backyard goldfish buffet. “I won’t replenish my pond until there’s a solution,” said Barbara Roerick, who has lived on Ward’s Island for decades. “Why should I fatten up the mink with my fish?” For the most part, islanders have been viewing the mink with passive curiosity. But as fish ponds are depleted and rumours of attacks swirl, they’re taking a second look at the animal that can be described as both “cute” and “mean” in the same sentence. Small enough to be weighed in grams, veracious enough to hunt small mammals and fish, mink live in dens near the water and stay away from raptors, owls and hawks. “It’s not like they get into our houses and destroy them,” Island resident Barry Lipton said. “I sympathize with the people who are losing fish, but that’s their natural prey.” Aside from Roerick, no one has caught a mink in the act. While doubters might say other animals could be killing the fish, consider the fact that goldfish have never disappeared before. Add to those disappearances the rumours of squirrel takedowns, missing ducklings and a bloody attack on a farm goose.

At the city-run Far Enough Farm, staff were advised not to comment, adding more intrigue to the story. On Algonquin Island, a slightly faded sign of a small cat announces “Buster has gone missing!” That was in October, said Buster’s owner Dawn Brennan as she hurries to catch the ferry. Two weeks before he went missing, Buster was spotted with a mink down near the water, she said. “People say, ‘Oh no, a mink wouldn’t attack a cat,” she said. “Anything is possible. If it was a mink he probably would have finished him off.” Mink don’t hunt cats, so people shouldn’t worry, the experts say. But if a cat corners a mink, the cat could come away injured. The semi-aquatic mink is native to the Great Lakes region, but in Toronto, the weasel is more common as a controversial fashion statement or a downtown nightclub. Mink have always been hiding in the city’s watery corners, but in the last five years, the population has increased, said Ralph Toninger of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority “In my lifetime I’ve never seen their abundance this high in an urban environment,” he said. Since mink are sensitive to mercury, PCB and other contaminants, their presence is an indicator of good water quality, according to Jeff Bowman, a scientist with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources who has studied them for years. “They’re so fleeting on the landscape,” he said. “View it as a kind of a good fortune. It’s not something that’s going to be around there for a long time, they occur at low densities.”

The island is a park, and the people who call it home know they share the space with many animals. As such, there are no plans to trap the mink or drive them out. People are simply getting creative about protecting their fish. One islander is using a high frequency sound machine to keep them away from his pond. It appears to be working. And there is one other bonus islanders are quick to offer: the rat population has disappeared. “What I’ve learned is these things will pass,” said Islander Grahame Beakhust. “They just find the islands congenial.”

*The Toronto Star