Love ‘em or hate ‘em, raccoons are wily, adaptable critters—but they don’t make good pets.
Her hind legs broken, the adult raccoon at the side of the highway had no inclination to be placed in a cardboard box for a trip to the vet, but after some difficulty, I did it. When we got to the parking lot, she suddenly erupted through the top of the box, onto the pavement, and dragged herself into the wheel well of my car before I could intercede. A bloody battle ensued—my blood. Raccoons have sharp teeth. Finally extracted, she was taken inside the clinic and anesthetized for surgery. She awoke to discover a cast hardened onto her lower body and legs, with provision for bodily functions.
She spent time healing in an outdoor cage beside my home, where I had a permit to rehabilitate injured wildlife. Each day after work, I entered the pen to check her condition. Like other wild mammals and birds, the raccoon soon understood that I was attempting to help rather than hurt her, although she was reluctant to be handled until I let her take my hand in her mouth. She wanted the option of being able to bite me if something went wrong.
In time, I could pick her up and carry her around. When she was inside the house and sitting in my lap, her facial expression gradually transformed into a delighted, impish smile while she sampled crackers and played with any objects she was offered.
Easily identified by a black facial mask, pointed nose and multi-ringed tail, raccoons (Procyon lotor) can be charming and intelligent. Like crows and robins, they have adapted and prospered in the “sprawl” that humans render out of wilderness. They are built like pint-sized bears, weighing from 10 to 35 pounds, and are less than three feet long.
Adult raccoons are vulnerable to predators that include bobcats, red foxes, coyotes, fishers, great horned owls and dogs. However a raccoon’s most serious obstacle to living out its 10- to 12-year lifespan is probably a busy highway.
Preferring nightlife and using a combination of smarts and adaptability, the raccoon is able to eat almost anything. When confronted, it shows street-fighter toughness. Given a challenging situation where a stronger, more fierce, or faster animal might hesitate, an audacious raccoon will waddle straight in.
Raccoons range across temperate North America. In Atlantic Canada, they were introduced to Prince Edward Island and are absent from Newfoundland. With climate change, they are expanding northward but have difficulty tolerating cold, boreal winters.
After mating season in February or March, females usually bear two to four young in April or May. Besides defending her young from predators, female raccoons must teach offspring many skills in their first year.
They often make their dens in hollow trees. Failing that, barns, sheds, garages, attics and abandoned homes suffice nicely. Outside town, rock crevices and abandoned animal burrows occasionally serve the purpose.
A young raccoon took over an active barred owl nest box in my woodland, and managed to hold the owls at bay over their entire breeding season. Eventually it outgrew the entrance hole and left.
Rural raccoons have home ranges that are usually more than 2.6 square kilometres. Multiple den sites are maintained within a home range.
Raccoons prefer wooded areas near waterways. They can climb through treetops, flatfoot it like a bear over the forest floor, or swim and forage along shorelines for fish, frogs, turtles or clams with a mink’s thoroughness.
With front feet that are more sensitive and effective when moist, raccoons are adept at scratching and feeling for food. Their manual dexterity is notorious. With paws like hands, they can open clams, manipulate door handles, remove lids from jam jars and get into almost any closed bin or bird feeder.
Maritime raccoon populations do not carry rabies like some others in North America, but they can carry diseases that pose problems for humans and pets. Canine distemper erupts periodically, and raccoon feces may contain eggs of the raccoon roundworm. If accidentally consumed, the eggs of this parasite can infect humans and be fatal. Eggs can remain alive for 10 years, so a child chewing on an old piece of wood in a woodshed could become infected.
In the 1970s a Japanese cartoon TV show featuring an endearing masked bandit prompted people to import young raccoons from North America as pets. Many of these animals were released in the wilds of Japan and have since ravaged ancient religious buildings to make den sites. Raccoons are spreading across Europe in a similar fashion.
Cute, young raccoons taken as pets miss the normal parental tutoring they need for survival. I remember “Rocket,” an overfed pet so fat he took five minutes to bounce and toddle across a small back yard. Like many pet raccoons, Rocket became aggressive, and began biting his human when he grew up, so she released him. He likely did not fare well.
Bold, destructive aspects of raccoon behaviour manifest themselves in many ways. When folks complain about holes in the lawn, I suggest they think of raccoons as pest control officers, digging out grubs that kill grass roots. Many complaints involve scattered trash. My trash can stays inside until garbage/recycling day.
I know of one enchanted homeowner who placed food outside after a raccoon showed up on his deck. Two years later, he called in a panic: 17 raccoons were now converging on his deck when darkness fell. Churring, fighting, screen ripping and door-banging ensued until food was delivered.
Raccoons will go so far as to strip the siding off a building and chew through newly exposed interior plywood to gain entrance. Another pair of raccoons climbed down the chimney of a house owned by a wheelchair-bound, elderly occupant. Before the dust settled, there was $15,000 worth of damage.
Live traps work well on first-time offenders, but released animals usually become trap-wise. Farmers rarely appreciate problem raccoons released near crops like corn.
Last year, my neighbour Ron had an exceptional grape crop that had just ripened. Harvest help was scheduled for the next morning. Overnight the crop disappeared. Years ago my strawberry patch suffered a similar fate. Afterward, I found a place where the raccoons had been sunbathing on the other side of the hedge on a south-facing slope, no doubt with overstuffed bellies.
Raccoons put on a lot of fat in the fall and may burn 50 per cent of it over the winter. They don’t hibernate, but hole up in dens during freezing weather, sometimes communally. During mild weather in the winter, I bring our bird feeders inside at night to prevent damage from these raiders.
The raccoon I rescued with the two broken legs recovered and resumed a normal raccoon life in the woodland here, far from busy highways. I will never forget her mischievous grin.