by Whit Gibbons

May 20, 2002

By being the "most economically important furbearer" in U.S. history, making "enchanting pets," and ranging transcontinentally from ocean to ocean and Canada to Panama, raccoons have captured the interest and fascination of more people than any other species of North American mammal. To find out about the life and habits of these masked bandits, which have a domain ranging from woods and prairies to cities and suburbs, take a look at a new book: "Raccoons: A Natural History." Written by Samuel I. Zeveloff, and published in 2002 by the Smithsonian Institution Press ($17.95), the high-quality paperback gives a science-based overview of what is known or conjectured about these captivating creatures.

Most people are aware that raccoons will scavenge out of garbage cans anywhere they can get the lid off, but the array of foods raccoons eat is amazing. Because of the breadth of their diet, they are viewed as major nuisances to people in many professions. Conservationists despair each summer about the tens of thousands of sea turtle eggs coons destroy in nighttime raids along beaches. Hunters resent the equally high numbers of waterfowl eggs and young eaten each year. Farmers do not appreciate the fact that most raccoons eat more plants than animals and that corn is their "most important crop food." Crayfish seem to be the most common animal food, and raccoons apparently take whatever human garbage is available. The most amusing of more than a dozen black-and-white photographs in the book is of 19 raccoons enjoying a snack inside a pizza parlor dumpster.

A commonly observed trait of raccoons is that they wash their food before eating it. But the explanation given in the book refutes the widespread notion that they do so because they do not have salivary glands and must therefore moisten their food. According to the author, raccoons have well-developed salivary glands. The dexterity of raccoons is notable, and they "probably handle food in water to provide greater tactile sensation" by increasing the sensitivity of well-developed nerves in their hands.

Raccoon numbers, which are now high throughout much of the country, reached the lowest recorded levels in the late 1930s. Since 1943 raccoon populations in the East have increased in size, and their range has expanded across the continent for reasons not clearly understood but possibly due to their adaptability to urbanization. The highest population density reported in the book was of a residential area in Ohio that had 640 raccoons per square mile! Clearly not a neighborhood in which to have a loose garbage can lid or to walk outside eating a pizza.

Not surprisingly, humans are among the major causes of mortality among raccoons. Coon hunting as a recreational activity has persisted in many eastern states for more than a century, and although they can outsmart a possum several times over, even coons succumb to vehicle deaths on the nation's highways. Raccoons are also susceptible to a host of parasites and diseases, including rabies and canine distemper. In the late 1970s one of the largest known rabies epidemics associated with raccoons began in Virginia and North Carolina. The outbreak was facilitated by the stocking of thousands of Florida raccoons, some rabid, into the mid-Atlantic region as a game species for hunting. So, ironically, the problem resulting from a natural disease was actually created by humans. Oddly, Louisiana has had no incidence of rabies in raccoons, although in the early 1990s more than 4,000 rabid raccoons a year were documented in the United States.

Having once had a baby raccoon for a pet, I can attest to the fact that they can be as charming, amusing, and agile as any dog or cat. But if you think having a raccoon for a pet is a good idea, I can also affirm the author's statement that "although young raccoons may make enchanting pets, when they grow up their seemingly insatiable curiosity, general lack of responsiveness to training, and thus untrustworthiness usually will try the patience of even the most devoted owner."

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