• Rockin’ raccoons

    by Cameron Douglas

    They leave their calling card in almost any neighborhood: overturned garbage cans, ripped-open trash bags, and shredded food on the ground. These are sure signs that raccoons have paid a visit, and it’s rarely a surprise. Raccoons are as common as ants in this country. These furry, masked bandits are as American as apple pie, inhabiting all 48 states in the continental U.S.

    In many languages, the word raccoon comes from a reference to the creatures’ characteristic dousing behavior. Captain John Smith recorded the Powhatan word aroughcun, said to have come from a Proto-Algonquin root ahrah-koon-em, “[the] one who rubs, scrubs and scratches with its hands.” Eventually, the name became raccoon.

    Touch is a raccoon’s most important sense. Their hypersensitive front paws are protected by a thin horny layer, which becomes pliable when wet. This is the reason raccoons may seem to “wash” their food in water, when in fact they’re just trying to get a better feel for it. They can identify objects before touching them by using vibrissae (whiskers) located above their sharp, non-retractable claws.

    Raccoons have a broad auditory range that can even detect soft sounds such as earthworms moving underground. They also have an acrobatic talent for climbing down trees head first, which is unusual for a mammal this size. Raccoons accomplish this by turning the rear paws to face backward. Raccoons have a dual body cooling system, able to dissipate heat by both sweating and panting. They are generally not able to run fast or jump high. Their top speed is between ten and fifteen miles per hour — which can still close the gap plenty quick if the animal is cornered in a tight space.

    Raccoons are omnivores; a polite way of saying they’ll eat anything and everything, including bugs, plants, worms, fruit, trash, smaller animals, and road kill. Though generally nocturnal, raccoons will sometimes forage in daylight when food availability is good. They are also noted for their intelligence, with the ability to remember the solutions to tasks for periods up to three years.

    Raccoons are not known for attacking pets, though occasional cases are reported. The larger problem is raccoons nesting in the attics of houses, costing the property owner thousands of dollars to remedy. Homeowners need to be vigilant about this.

    Raccoons are found all over North America from Canada down to Panama. Their original habitats were limited to deciduous and mixed forests; but through adaptability they have branched out to mountainous areas, coastal marshes and urban areas. The raccoon is now distributed in parts of Europe, and in Japan, as a result of numerous deliberate introductions and escapes. Germany’s raccoon population is now the second largest outside North America. Japan generally regards raccoons as an invasive species. Raccoons have been exterminated in Cuba and Jamaica, where the last sightings were reported in 1687.

    In captivity, raccoons can live up to 20 years. Their life expectancy is much shorter in the wild, about 1.8 to 3.1 years. Several factors contribute to this. First are motor vehicle traffic volume, hunting regulations, and severity of weather. Often only half of newborn raccoons survive their first year. Those that make it go on to face problems with distemper, which can reach epidemic proportions and kill most of a local raccoon population. In areas with heavy traffic and extensive hunting, those factors can cause up to 90 percent of adult raccoon deaths.

    Besides distemper, raccoons are also susceptible to leptospirosis, listeriosis, tetanus, and tularemia. Then there’s rabies. Of the 6,940 documented U.S. rabies cases in 2006, 37.7 percent involved raccoons. In most cases – and there are always exceptions – a rabid raccoon behaves very differently than a rabid dog. The sick raccoon typically retreats to its lair. A sickly appearance, impaired mobility and abnormal vocalization are signs of a rabid raccoon.

    There are plenty of raccoons today. Raccoon populations exploded in the 1940’s, and by the 1980’s their numbers were 15 to 20 times higher than in the 1930’s, when raccoons were still relatively rare.

    Other than the usual foraging and trash-trashing, the raccoon scene is currently quiet in Pacific Grove. As far as rabies cases or other raccoon disease problems, Pacific Grove Animal Control Officer Liz Conti-Yeo reports “nothing that I know of” is going on. Yeo adds that it’s always possible for rabid animals to be somewhere out in the wild, but the city receives notification from the Monterey County Health Department when any cases are discovered. People are encouraged to stay away from raccoons and other animals that exhibit unusual behavior, and to notify an animal control officer or area health department.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on August 1, 2013

    Topics: Features, Cameron Douglas


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