Raccoons aren’t as cute as they appear

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Wildlife – March 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

SOMETHING’S BEEN EATING the birdseed. And it isn’t the mountain chickadees or the tree sparrows, the intended recipients of our largesse. My husband Steve and I are pretty quick on the uptake, so when we found our outdoor storage containers — a collection of metal cookie tins fitted with what we thought were tamper-proof lids — scattered open and empty around the backyard, we immediately surmised that the birds weren’t the culprits.

We hadn’t heard any unusual noises the preceding night. Nor had our seriously high-strung dog, who normally barks wildly at even the slightest vibration, indicated that anything was amiss.

Being creatures of habit, we shrugged off this little mystery, refilled the cookie tins from the master supply in our storage room, and put them outside again.

Next night, same scenario. But on the third night, the looter’s luck ran out. As our dog drowsed in blissful oblivion, Steve slowly and carefully parted the curtains while I, at his signal, flipped on the back porch light. And there he was — literally caught with his hand, er, make that paw, in the cookie tin. The black mask surrounding his gleaming eyes clearly marked him as our thief — and as Procyon lotor, the raccoon.

According to United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — Wildlife Services, raccoons are common throughout much of the United States, but “are not found at the higher elevations of mountainous regions.”

Well, I’ve got news for this verbosely-named agency. We live at an elevation of 9,400 feet in what is definitely a “mountainous region.” A decade ago we’d never seen a raccoon here. Now, it’s not uncommon to find their distinctive tracks while out walking or snowshoeing. Like their human counterparts, raccoons have discovered Central Colorado and the scenic Upper Arkansas Valley. And they’re undoubtedly here to stay.

Raccoons are thickly-built mammals that can grow over three feet long and weigh as much as 35 pounds. They have salt-and-pepper colored fur, distinctive black eye masks and long, bushy tails striped with up to seven black rings.

The word “raccoon” comes from the Algonquin Indian word ärähkun, meaning “scratches with his hand.” That’s not all raccoons do with their “hands,” however. Thanks to front paws with long, well-separated digits, they actually rate almost as high on the “Mammalian Manual Dexterity Scale” (which I just made up) as monkeys.

RACCOONS ARE STRONG, curious, and persistent critters who can tip over and pry open the most securely fastened trash cans. They can scratch and claw their way into attics, pull down fences, and push open the doors of poultry coops, where they wreak considerable havoc. They can climb a porch railing, delicately clasp a hummingbird feeder, and slowly drain the contents while ignoring the pathetic scare tactics of two nearby people clanging pots, waving brooms, and yelling at the dog to do something.

And raccoons accomplish all this with an attitude reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s menacing character in the movie Taxi Driver. “You talkin’ to me?” the raccoon demands, fixing us with its defiant stare. Because if you are, it adds, you need to know that I’m not listening — or moving.

An enduring myth among Homo sapiens depicts raccoons as fastidious types who must wash their food before eating. Their species name, lotor, even means “washer” in Latin.

All I can say to these anthropomorphists is, Get real. These animals eat garbage, remember? Raccoons are omnivores, which means they consume both plants and animals. Their diet ranges from fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, grains, and garden crops, to insects, fish, frogs, snails, turtles and their eggs, mice, baby rabbits and muskrats, even the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds.

It’s more likely, according to biologists, that the raccoon’s habit of dipping its food in water stems from its preference for moist, rather than clean, victuals.

That probably explains why raccoons are generally found around water. It could also explain their apparent migration into Lake County, probably along the Arkansas River, which flows just east of our place.

Although raccoons favor wooded areas, they obviously have nothing against the broad, treeless pastures that surround us here. Raccoons den in brush piles, rock crevices, hollow trees, haystacks, even thick clumps of cattails. Highly adaptive, they also live very successfully in houses, barns, and abandoned buildings in both rural and densely populated urban areas.

Once breeding takes place, usually in February or March, the young, called kits, are born after a gestation period of about 63 days. One litter of up to five kits is raised annually. Mama raccoon, called a sow, and her offspring usually remain together until the following spring, even denning together during the first winter. (Although raccoons do not hibernate, they do become inactive during severe winter weather, which may explain why our birdseed containers have gone untouched during storms.)

Raccoons are one of the most strictly nocturnal of all North American mammals. Adult males, called boars, may occupy territories of from three to 20 square miles, which they explore during their nightly wanderings.

Raccoons are considered “good eating” in some parts of the United States, and are also trapped for their fur.

Undeniably cute and cuddly-looking and certainly fun to watch, raccoons can nevertheless be extremely vicious. In addition, they are vectors for diseases like encephalitis, tuberculosis, canine distemper, and rabies. There’s no such thing as raccoon repellent, and it’s clear that raccoons don’t scare easily.

So what’s the best way to avoid close encounters of the raccoon kind? The Colorado Division of Wildlife and the USDA’s Wildlife Services recommend:

Reducing or eliminating access to all outdoor sources of water, shelter, and food, including uneaten pet food;

Screening chimneys and foundation vents, repairing attic holes, and blocking off pet doors at night;

Storing trash in containers with tight-fitting lids and keeping the containers in a garage or shed until collection day. If that’s not possible, tie, clasp, or otherwise fasten the containers to a rack to keep raccoons from tipping them over.

To this list, let me add: Store the birdseed inside. And consider getting a dog that gives a damn.

Lynda La Rocca lives and writes from a rural home near Leadville, when she isn’t fending off raccoons and tourists with obnoxious questions.