VERSATILE RACCOONS ARE HERE TO STAY

by Whit Gibbons

April 25, 2010


Q: We sometimes see raccoons in our neighborhood, usually at night. Recently, our dog chased a large one across the yard during the daytime. The raccoon got away, and the dog was nosing at a very small baby raccoon the mother had dropped. I got the dog inside the house. Later that day, the baby was gone. Would the mother have come back for it? Are raccoons becoming more common than they were a few years ago? Do they make good pets?

A: The mother probably came back for the baby, which she would then have carried to safety. Raccoons will not ordinarily protect their babies out in the open, the way bears would, but they will move very young babies from one place to another if they feel threatened.

Raccoons, which now range transcontinentally from ocean to ocean and Canada to Panama, have a domain ranging from woods, swamps, and prairies to farms, cities, and suburbs. They are equally at home in any of these habitats. Their numbers, which are now high throughout much of the country, reached the lowest recorded levels in the late 1930s. Raccoon populations in the East have increased since 1943, and their range has expanded across the continent for reasons not clearly understood but possibly due to their adaptability to urbanization. The highest documented population density for raccoons was in 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.

Raccoons are considered to be the "most economically important furbearer" in U.S. history. And more people are intrigued by them than by any other species of North American mammal. Nonetheless, not everyone wants them around. Raccoons will scavenge out of garbage cans anywhere they can get the lid off, scattering the garbage they do not consume. The array of foods they 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 number of waterfowl eggs and young eaten each year. Farmers do not appreciate the fact that most raccoons eat more plants than they do animals and that corn is said to be their "most important crop food." Crayfish seem to be the most common animal food.

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 raccoons 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. Since one justification often given for hunting coons is that there are too many of them around, the game management strategy to import raccoons was a bit puzzling.

Raccoons have been said to make "enchanting pets." Having once raised one, my family and 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, keep in mind that they eventually grow up to be as big as a medium-size dog, are about as trainable as a cat, and may take to biting or scratching if they don't get their way. With the success raccoons are having in joining us where we live across the country, I expect all of us will soon have enough exposure to raccoons without keeping them as pets.


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