Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Raccoons in Suburbia

Something about the face makes raccoons
preternaturally cute. It does not mean 
that they make good pets. 
Raccoons are native to North America, successfully introduced to Germany and other European countries, Japan, and parts of what has been the Soviet Union. The foreign releases were a mix of freed pets and deliberate introductions in attempts to create a source for the animal fur industry.

Adults typically weigh 15-25 pounds, but males can top 40 pounds. Each spring, two to five young, known as "kits", are born. Male have no role in raising kits. The kits stay within the den until about two months old. They spend the rest of summer and fall, learning from their mother how to find foods and shelter. Female kits may overwinter with their mother, but male kits will scatter and den alone. There is high first-year mortality (common in many wildlife species). Those that survive their first year can live three to six years. Once past the first year there is not much to fear in the way of predators. Locally, maybe coyotes. Massachusetts has a four-month hunting season (October through January), but that is not a major factor. Nor is trapping, as the wholesale value of even the best pelts brings no more than $10. Ebay offers tanned pelts at $20-40.

The historical habitats for raccoons were southeastern forests, but the species adapted to mountainous areas, plains, marshlands, and in our present era are comfortable in suburban and densely urban areas. Population densities can exceed 300 animals per square mile. In New York city, raccoons live in the parks and use building fire escapes in search of pigeon nests. Their diet is omnivorous. With access to ponds and streams, that includes crayfish, frogs, mussels, turtles and their eggs. Raccoons raid bird nests, consuming eggs and nestlings. They also feed on fruit, berries, nuts, and seeds. In suburban and urban settings, raccoon will forage in garbage cans and inadequately secured compost piles, also eat food and drink water left outside for cats or dogs. They will raid chicken coops for eggs, chicks and adult chickens.

The most important sense for raccoons is touch, followed by smell. Their front paws are exceptionally sensitive, which allows for successful foraging at night, by touch, at waters’ edge, for crayfish, frogs and turtles. Raccoons are smart enough to open many types of simple latches, even turn doorknobs, and persistent enough to dig under or chew through inadequately built chicken coops.    

Raccoons are active year-round and do not hibernate, although during very cold weather, may doze in a den for several days at a time, a condition referred to as ‘winter rest.” Unlike woodchucks and chipmunks, this is not true hibernation, as body temperature is not lowered.

Raccoons (and skunks) are primarily nocturnal, but being out and about during daylight hours and/or an apparent lack of fear of humans does not mean that the animal is necessarily diseased. Instead, living urban means they have gotten used to the smell and sight of us. However, given that both of these species are prone to contracting rabies, recommendations are to not approach any animal, day or night, appearing sick or healthy. The biggest problem with suburban and urban raccoons is not the occasional tipped over garbage can, but their predilection to invading attic spaces for winter or kit-rearing dens. Expensive, professional animal removal services will be needed. Small openings made by birds and squirrels can be enlarged by raccoons for their own use.  

Rascal the Raccoon from Japanese animation. 
Raccoons do have five toes on each foot, but
there is no human-like opposable 'thumb'.
The aforementioned introduction into Japan has a circuitous history. In 1963, Sterling North published “Rascal”, a children’s book about his true experiences in taking a young raccoon as a pet, and then in time having to release it to the wild. Disney made the story into a movie in 1969. Eight years later, a Japanese animated cartoon series “Rascal the Raccoon” followed the same story line – a boy attempted to domesticate a young raccoon, but in time recognized that his efforts were futile and decided to release Rascal back into the wild. Popularity of the series led to thousands of young raccoons imported into Japan as pets. And then released. Today, raccoons are ubiquitous, cause millions of dollars of crop damage every year, eat koi from fish ponds, and affect native species.

Present era, 40+ years after the TV show, it is possible to buy stuffed animal versions of Rascal. 

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