Patient showing off raccoon
Rumsey Centre patient James Okore with Rebel the Rehab Raccoon, who sports cool tattoos that reflect disabilities which may not be visible but are equally important, such as brain injury, mental health and low vision. (Photo: UHN)

They're the furry creatures many Torontonians love to hate – but whatever side of the line you toe, you can't deny the omnipresence of raccoons. 

And now, as the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) takes us one step closer to making them our city's official pets with the launch of the Raccoon Art Project, patients at Toronto Rehab's outpatient spinal cord program at Lyndhurst Centre, and LIFEspan program at Rumsey Centre, are joining the movement. 

The groups recently came together to participate in the Raccoon Art Project – a challenge organized by the CNE, inviting teams with various abilities to transform a fiberglass raccoon into a unique piece of art that celebrates the raccoon. 

"We know that these furry friends will look impressive and hopefully start conversations that start to shift the narrative around people living with disabilities," the CNE says in a statement about the exhibit. 

Toronto Rehab's two raccoons will appear, along with 10 others, around the Princess Margaret Fountain at the CNE, Canada's largest annual fair, which this year runs from Aug. 16 to Sept. 2.  

"This was a great opportunity for our patients to showcase what is possible, regardless of your level of ability or mobility," says Carrie Mizzoni, occupational therapist at Lyndhurst.  

"Together, using teamwork and creative problem-solving, our artists accomplished these amazing projects." 

Collage of finished raccoon and guy painting
The group of Lyndhurst patients, including Aaron Rubin, (L), met once a week for nine weeks to design and paint the blue raccoon, in the process living their project theme of “Adapt and Thrive” by modifying tools to techniques to apply the paint. (Photo: UHN)

Adapt to their injury, thrive in their community

Participants met once a week for up to nine weeks to design and paint the raccoon.

At Lyndhurst, they started with acrylic paint on canvas, transformed it into a stencil, and then spray-painted it onto the raccoon. 

They chose a theme of "Adapt and Thrive," because much like raccoons, who are masters at this task, spinal cord injury (SCI) patients are also learning to adapt to their injury, and thrive in their communities.  

The theme took on a more literal interpretation as well, as the group adapted tools and techniques, in order to paint the raccoon, says Carrie. 

"We had to find new ways to dispense spray paint, hold a brush, and reach higher areas of the raccoon," she says. 

While the base of the raccoon relies on darker shades of blue, representing obstacles that SCI patients face, the shades become lighter as your eye looks up, representing success and thriving. The grey areas, which represent challenges, are evident throughout the design. 

The Rumsey artists named their raccoon Rebel the Rehab Champion.  

"He fell out of a tree while trying to break into the city of Toronto's garbage cans and sustained a serious brain injury," explains Amy Spear, Occupational therapist at Rumsey Centre.  

She goes on to tell Rebel's story of recovery. 

"When he woke up from the initial coma, he couldn't climb, forage for food, or find his way around the city ravines. With the help of his loved ones and staff at Toronto Rehab, he's now back in his community and, with the help of a few assistive devices, including an ankle-foot orthoses, is living his best life in your backyard." 

Following their stint at the CNE, the raccoons will be auctioned off to support charities focused on improving the lives of individuals with disabilities. 

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