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Raccoon

Picture a Raccoon

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The Common Raccoon

The raccoon (Procyon lotor), (sometimes spelled as racoon),[1] also known as the common raccoon,[2] North American raccoon,[3] northern raccoon[4] and colloquially as coon,[5] is a medium-sized mammal native to North America. As a result of escapes and deliberate introductions in the mid-20th century, raccoons are now also distributed across the European mainland, the Caucasus region and Japan. Their original habitats are deciduous and mixed forests, but due to their adaptability they have extended their range to mountainous areas, coastal marshes, and even urban areas, where some home owners consider them to be pests.

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With a body length between 41 and 71 cm (16.1–28.0 in) and a weight between 3.9 and 9.0 kg (8.6–19.8 lb), the raccoon is the largest procyonid. Two of its most distinctive characteristics besides its good memory are its facial mask and extremely sensitive front paws. Both of these features are topics of the mythology of several Native American tribes. The diet of the omnivorous and usually nocturnal raccoon consists of about 40% invertebrates, 33% plant foods and 27% vertebrates. Captive raccoons sometimes douse their food before eating it, which is most likely a vacuum activity imitating foraging at shores.

Thought to be loners in the past, there is now evidence that raccoons engage in gender-specific social behaviors. Related females often share a common area, while unrelated males live together in small groups up to four animals in order to maintain their positions against potential invaders, especially foreign males during the mating season. Home range sizes vary anywhere from 0.03 km² for females in cities to 49.5 km² for males in prairies. After a gestation period of about 65 days, two to five young are born in spring, which are subsequently raised by their mother until dispersion in late fall. Although raccoons can get as old as 16 years, their average life expectancy in the wild is only 1.8 to 3.1 years. Hunting and traffic accidents are the two most common causes of death in many areas.

Taxonomy

Nomenclature

The word raccoon is derived from the Algonquin word ahrah-koon-em—other transcripts exist—which was the pronunciation used by Chief Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas for the animal, meaning “[the] one who rubs, scrubs and scratches with its hands”.[6] Similarly, Spanish colonists adopted the Spanish word mapache from the Nahuatl word mapachitli of the Aztecs, meaning “[the] one who takes everything in its hands”.[7] In many languages, the raccoon is named for its characteristic dousing behaviour in conjunction with that language's term for bear, for example Waschbär in German, orsetto lavatore in Italian and araiguma (洗熊) in Japanese. The colloquial abbreviation coon is used in words like coonskin for fur clothing and in phrases like old coon as a self-designation of trappers.[8]

In the first decades after its discovery by the members of the expedition of Christopher Columbus, who was also the first person ever to leave a written record about the species, the raccoon was thought to be related to many different species by early taxonomists, including dogs, cats, badgers and especially bears.[9] One of them was Carolus Linnaeus who placed the raccoon in the genus Ursus, first as Ursus cauda abrupta (“long-tailed bear”) in the second edition of his Systema Naturae, then as Ursus Lotor (“washer bear”) in the tenth edition.[10] In 1780, Gottlieb Conrad Christian Storr placed the raccoon in its own genus Procyon, which can be translated to mean either “before the dog” or “doglike”.[11] It is also possible that Storr had its nocturnal lifestyle in mind and chose the star Procyon as eponym for the species.[12]

A young Raccoon called a Kit

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A young Raccoon called a Kit

Evolution

Based on evidence from fossils found in France and Germany, the first known members of the family Procyonidae lived in Europe in the late Oligocene about 25 mya.[13] Similar tooth and skull structures suggest that procyonids and mustelids share a common ancestor, but molecular analysis speaks for a closer relationship between the raccoons and bears.[14] After crossing the Bering Strait at least six million years later, the centre of the then existing species' distribution was probably located in Central America.[15] Coatis (Nasua and Nasuella) and raccoons (Procyon) may have both descended from a species in the genus Paranasua between 5.2 and 6.0 mya,[16] though this assumption, which is based on morphological comparisons of fossils, conflicts with a genetic analysis done in 2006 which suggests that raccoons are in fact more closely related to the ringtails.[17] Unlike other procyonids, including the crab-eating raccoon (Procyon cancrivorus), the ancestors of the common raccoon left tropical and subtropical areas and migrated farther north about 2.5 mya, which has been confirmed by fossils found in the Great Plains and dating back to the middle of the Pliocene.[18]

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Subspecies

After their discovery, the following five species of raccoon found only on small Central American and Caribbean islands were often regarded as distinct species: the small-toothed and light Cozumel raccoon, the square-skulled and larger Tres Marias raccoon, the very similar Bahamas and Guadeloupe raccoon and the extinct Barbados raccoon. However, after studies of their morphological and genetic traits in 1999, 2003 and 2005, all but the Cozumel raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) were listed as subspecies of the common raccoon in the third edition of Mammal Species of the World published in 2005.[19][20][21][22] Apart from these island raccoons, most of the other 19 subspecies differ only slightly in coat colour, size and other physical characteristics.[23] However, several very small subspecies found along the southern coast of Florida and on the adjacent islands, such as the Ten Thousand Island raccoon (Procyon lotor marinus), are an exception to this rule.[24]

Raccoon in the urban environmnet

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Raccoon on the roof of a house in Germany

Description

Physical characteristics

Head to hindquarters, raccoons measure between 41 and 71 cm (16.1–28.0 in), not including their bushy tail which can measure between 19.2 and 40.5 cm (7.6–15.9 in), but is usually not much longer than 25 cm (9.8 in).[25] The shoulder height is between 22.8 and 30.4 cm (9.0–12.0 in).[26] The body weight of an adult raccoon varies considerably with habitat and can range from 1.8 to 13.6 kg (4.0–30.0 lb), but is usually between 3.9 and 9.0 kg (8.6–19.8 lb).[27] The smallest specimen are found in Southern Florida, while those near the northern limits of the raccoon's range tend to be the largest.[28] Usually, males are 15 to 20% heavier than females.[29] At the beginning of winter, a raccoon can weigh twice as much as in spring due to its fat storage.[30] The heaviest recorded wild raccoon weighed 28.4 kg (62.6 lb), by far the largest size recorded for a procyonid.[31]

The most characteristic physical feature of the raccoon is the area of black fur around the eyes which contrasts sharply with the surrounding white face colouring. This is reminiscent of a “bandit's mask” and has thus enhanced the animal's reputation for mischief.[32] The slightly rounded ears are also bordered by white fur. It is assumed that raccoons recognize the facial expression and posture of other members of their species more quickly due to the conspicuous facial coloration and the alternating light and dark rings on the tail. The dark mask may also reduce glare and thus enhance night vision.[33] On other parts of the body the long and stiff guard hairs, which shed moisture, are usually greyish.[34] Raccoons with a very dark coat are more common in the German population because individuals with such a colouring were among the ones being initially released to the wild.[35] The dense under fur, which accounts for almost 90% of the coat, insulates against cold weather and is composed of 2.0 to 3.0 cm (0.8–1.2 in) long hairs.[34]

Group of Raccoons feeding

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Raccoons feeding together as a group

The raccoon, whose method of locomotion is usually considered to be plantigrade, can sit on its hind legs to examine objects with its front paws.[36] As it has short legs compared to its compact torso, a raccoon is not able to run fast or to jump far.[37] Raccoons can swim with an average speed of about 4.8 km/h (3.0 m/h) and are able to stay in the water for several hours.[38] The dentition—40 teeth with the dental formula 3142/3142—is adapted to their omnivorous lifestyle: the carnassials are not as sharp and pointed as those of a carnivore, but the molars are also not as wide as those of a herbivore.[39] The penis bone of males is about 10 cm (3.9 in) long and strongly bent at the front end.[40] Seven of the 13 identified vocal calls are used in communication between the mother and her kits, one of these being the birdlike twittering of newborn kits.[41]

Senses

The most important sense for the raccoon is its sense of touch.[42] The “hyper sensitive”[43] front paws with five freestanding fingers are surrounded by a thin layer of callus for protection. Almost two thirds of the area responsible for sensory perception in the cerebral cortex is specialised for the interpretation of tactile impulses, more than in any other studied animal.[44] With their vibrissae above their sharp, not retractable claws, they are able to identify objects before touching them.[45] It is not known why it has no negative effects to its tactile perception when a raccoon stands in cold water below 10°C for hours.[46] However, the paws lack an opposable thumb and thus the agility of the hands of primates.[47]

The eyes of raccoons, which are thought to be color-blind or at least colour-weak, are especially well-adapted for sensing green light.[48] Although they see well in twilight due to the tapetum lucidum behind the retina and their accommodation of 11 dioptre is comparable to that of humans, visual perception is of subordinate importance to raccoons because of their poor long-distance vision.[49] In addition to being useful for orientation in the dark, their sense of smell is important for intraspecific communication.[50] Urine, faeces, and glandular secretions, usually distributed with their anal glands, are used for marking.[51] With their broad sense of hearing, they can perceive high tones up to 50–85 kHz as well as very quiet noises like those produced by earthworms underground.[52]

Intelligence

Only a few studies have been undertaken to determine the mental abilities of raccoons, most of them based on their sense of touch. In a study by the ethologist H. B. Davis in 1908, raccoons were able to open 11 of 13 complex locks in less than 10 tries and had no problems subsequently when the locks were rearranged or turned upside down. Davis concluded that they understood the abstract principles of the locking mechanisms and that their learning speed was equivalent to that of rhesus macaques.[53] Studies in 1963, 1973, 1975 and 1992 concentrated on their memory and have shown that raccoons can remember the solution to once learned tasks up to three years later. Gerti Drücker and B. Rensch showed in 1963, that raccoons are able to distinguish two 2.5 cm (0.98 in) and 2.64 cm (1.04 in) big orbs, placed inside a dark box, one year after the first test. In a study by B. Pohl in 1992, they instantly remembered the concept of equal and different symbols three years after the short initial learning phase.[54] Stanislas Dehaene reports in his book The number sense, that raccoons can distinguish boxes containing two or four grapes from those containing three.[55]

Behaviour

Social behavior

Studies done in the 1990s by the ethologists Stanley D. Gehrt and Ulf Hohmann have indicated that raccoons show a gender-specific social behaviour and are not typically loners as previously thought.[56][57] Related females often live in a so-called fusion-fission-society, that is, they share a common area and occasionally meet at feeding grounds or sleeping places.[58] Unrelated males often form loose male social groups to maintain their position against invaders, especially foreign males during the mating season.[59] Such a group does not usually consist of more than four individuals.[60] Since some males show aggressive behavior towards unrelated kits, mothers will isolate themselves from other raccoons until their kits are big enough to defend themselves.[61] In respect of these sharp differences between the social structures of raccoons, Hohmann called their society a three class society.[62] Zoologist Samuel I. Zeveloff is more cautious in his interpretation and concludes that at least the females are solitary most of the time and, according to Erik K. Fritzell's study in North Dakota in 1978, males in areas with low population densities are as well.[63] Concerning the behavior patterns of raccoons, however, Gehrt points out that “typically you'll find 10 to 15 percent that will do the opposite”.[64] of what is expected.

Shape and sizes of home ranges vary depending on gender and habitat, with adults claiming areas more than twice as large as juveniles.[65] While the size of home ranges in the ill-suited habitat of North Dakota's prairies lay between 6.7 and 49.5 km² for males and between 2.3 and 16.3 km² for females, the average size was 0.49 km² in a marsh at Lake Erie.[66] Irrespective of whether the home ranges of adjacent groups overlap or not, they are most likely not actively defended outside the mating season and if food supplies are sufficient. It is assumed that odour marks on prominent spots serve the purpose of establishing home ranges and identifying individuals.[67] However, urine and feces left on shared latrines may provide additional information about feeding grounds, since it has been observed that raccoons meet there later for collective eating, sleeping and playing.[68].

Diet

Though usually nocturnal, raccoons are sometimes active at daylight to take advantage of available food sources.[69] Their diet consists of about 40% invertebrates, 33% plant foods and 27% vertebrates.[70] Since its diet consists of such a variety of different foods, Zeveloff argues that the raccoon “may well be one of the world's most omnivorous animals”.[71] While their diet in spring and early summer consists mostly of insects, worms and other animals already available early in the year, raccoons prefer fruits and nuts that emerge in late summer and autumn for their rich calorie content in order to build up fat storages for winter.[72] Contrary to popular belief, raccoons eat birds and small mammals only occasionally, since the demanding hunt to catch them usually does not pay off.[73] Instead, fish and amphibians are their main vertebrate prey animals.[74] When food is plentiful, raccoons can develop strong individual preferences for specific foods.[75] In the northern parts of their range, raccoons go into a winter rest, reducing their activity drastically as long as a permanent snow cover makes searching for food impossible.[76]

Dousing

Raccoons sample food and other objects with their front paws in order to visualize them and to remove unwanted parts. In addition, it increases the tactile sensibility of their paws if this is done underwater, since the water softens the thin callus.[77] However, the behavior of captive raccoons to carry their food to a watering hole to “wash”, or douse, it before eating, has not been observed in the wild.[78] Naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788) believed that raccoons do not have adequate salivary glands to moisten food, necessitating dousing, which is certainly incorrect.[79] Captive raccoons douse their food more frequently when a watering hole with a layout similar to a stream bottom is not farther than 3.0 m (10 ft) away.[80] The widely accepted theory is that dousing is a vacuum activity imitating foraging at shores for aquatic foods. This is supported by the observation that such foods are doused more frequently in the wild.[81] Cleaning dirty food does not seem to be an act of “washing”.[82] Observations that even wild raccoons may dunk very dry food are doubted by other experts.[83]

Reproduction

Raccoons usually mate between late January and mid-March in a period triggered by increasing daylight.[84] However, there are large regional differences not completely explainable by solar conditions. For example, while raccoons in southern states typically mate later, the mating season in Manitoba also peaks relatively late, in this case in March, and may even occur as late as June.[85] During the mating period, the males restlessly roam their home ranges in search of females in an attempt to court them while they are in their three to four day long conception periods. These encounters will often occur at central meeting places.[86] Copulation, including foreplay, can last over an hour and is repeated over several nights.[87] It is assumed that weaker members of a male social group also get the opportunity to mate since stronger ones cannot mate with all available females.[88] In a study in southern Texas during the mating seasons from 1990 to 1992, about one third of all females mated with more than one male.[89] If a female does not become pregnant or if she loses her kits early, she will sometimes become fertile again 80 to 140 days later.[90]

After roughly 63 to 65 days of gestation (though anywhere from 54 to 70 days is possible), a litter of typically two to five young is born.[91] The average litter size varies strongly with habitat, ranging from 2.5 in Alabama to 4.8 in North Dakota, for example.[92] Larger litter sizes are more common in areas with a high mortality rate, for example due to hunting or long, cold winters.[93] While male yearlings usually reach their sexual maturity after the main mating season, female yearlings can compensate for high mortality rates as well and may be responsible for about 50% of all young born in some years.[94] Males have no part in raising young.[95] The kits are blind and deaf at birth, though their mask already stands out on their light fur.[96] The birth weight of the 9.5 cm (3.7 in) long kits is between 60 and 75 g (2.1–2.6 oz).[96] They open their eyes for the first time after around 21 days.[96] Once the kits weigh about 1 kg (2.2 lb), they begin to explore outside of the den, consuming solid food for the first time after 6 to 9 weeks.[97] After this point, mothers lactate them with decreasing intensity, usually not longer than 16 weeks in total.[98] In fall, after their mother has shown them dens and feeding grounds, the juveniles split up.[99] While many females will stay close to the home ranges of their mothers, males sometimes move more than 20 km (12.4 mi) away.[100] This is considered to be an instinctive behavior to prevent inbreeding.[101] However, mother and offspring may share one den during the first winter in cold areas.[102]

Life expectancy

Both captive and wild raccoons have been known to live up to 16 years. However, the species' life expectancy in the wild is only 1.8 to 3.1 years, depending on the local conditions in terms of traffic volume, hunting, and weather severity.[103] It is not unusual for only half of the young born in one year to survive until their first birthday.[104] After this point, however, the yearly mortality rate drops to between 10 and 30%.[105] One of the main causes of death for young raccoons besides losing their mother is starvation during the winter, especially if it is a cold and long one.[106] The most frequent natural cause of death in North America is the disease called distemper, which can reach epidemic proportions and kill most raccoons living in a given area (see section on diseases below).[107] In areas with heavy traffic and extensive hunting, these factors can account for up to 90% of all deaths of adult raccoons.[108] Predation by bobcats, coyotes and other predators is not a significant cause of death, especially because larger predators have been exterminated in many areas inhabited by raccoons.[109]

Range

Habitat

Although they have thrived in sparsely wooded areas in the last decades, raccoons depend on vertical structures to climb up when feeling threatened.[110] Therefore, they avoid open terrain and areas with high concentrations of beech trees, as their bark is too smooth to climb.[111] Tree hollows of old oaks or other trees and rock crevices are preferred by raccoons as sleeping, winter and litter dens. If such dens are unavailable or inconvenient to access, raccoons utilize burrows dug by other mammals, dense undergrowth, or tree crotches.[112] In a study in the German low mountain range Solling, more than 60% of all sleeping places were used only once, but those used at least 10 times accounted for about 70% of all uses.[113] Since amphibians, crustaceans and other animals found at the shore of lakes and rivers are an important part of their diet, bottomland deciduous or mixed forests and marshes sustain the highest population densities. While population densities range from 0.5 to 3.2 animals per square kilometer in prairies and do not usually exceed six animals per square kilometre in upland hardwood forests, more than 20 raccoons can live per square kilometer in bottomland forests and marshes.[114]

Distribution in North America

Raccoons are common throughout North America from Canada south to Panama, where the subspecies Procyon lotor pumilus coexists with the crab-eating raccoon (Procyon cancrivorus).[115] The population on Hispaniola was exterminated by Spanish colonists, who hunted them for their meat, as early as 1513.[116] Raccoons were also exterminated in Cuba and Jamaica, where the last individuals were seen in 1687.[117] The three island raccoon subspecies that have not been driven to extinction were classified as endangered by the IUCN in 1996 (see section on subspecies).[118][119][120]

There is evidence that raccoons were only numerous along rivers and in the woodlands of the Southeastern United States in pre-Columbian times.[121] Their initial spread may have begun a few decades before the 20th century because raccoons were not mentioned in earlier reports of pioneers exploring the central and north-central parts of the United States.[122] Since the 1950s, raccoons have expanded their range from Vancouver Island as their northernmost locale, as well as far into the north of the four south-central Canadian provinces.[123] Entirely new habitats that have recently become occupied by raccoons aside from urban areas include mountain ranges like the Western Rocky Mountains, prairies, and coastal marshes.[124] After a population explosion starting in the 1940s, the estimated number of raccoons in North America in the late 1980s was 15 to 20 times higher than in the 1930s when raccoons were comparatively rare.[125] Urbanisation, the expansion of agriculture, deliberate introductions and the extermination of predators like wolves have probably caused this increase in abundance and distribution.[126]

Distribution outside North America

As a result of escapes and deliberate introductions in the mid-20th century, the raccoon is now distributed in several European and Asian countries. Sightings have occurred in all bordering countries of Germany, which hosts the largest population outside of North America.[127] Another stable population exists in the north of France where several pet raccoons were released by members of the U.S. Air Force near the Laon-Couvron Air Base in 1966.[128] 1243 animals were released in nine regions of the former Soviet Union between 1936 and 1958 with the intent of later hunting them for their fur. Two of these series of introduction were successful: the one in the south of Belarus between 1954 and 1958 and especially the one in Azerbaijan between 1941 and 1957. With an annual harvest of between 1,000 and 1,500 animals, it was estimated in 1974 that the size of the population distributed in the Caucasus region was around 20,000 animals and the density was four animals per km².[129] In Japan, up to 1,500 raccoons were imported as pets each year after the success of the anime series Rascal the Raccoon (1977). In 2004, the descendants of discarded or escaped animals lived in 42 of 47 prefectures.[130][131][132]

Distribution in Germany

On April 12, 1934, two pairs of raccoons were released into the German nature at the Edersee in the north of Hesse by forest superintendent Wilhelm Freiherr Sittich von Berlepsch upon request of their owner, the poultry farmer Rolf Haag.[133] He released them two weeks before receiving permission from the Prussian hunting office to “enrich the fauna”, as Haag's request stated.[134] Several prior attempts to introduce raccoons in Germany were not successful.[135] A second population originated in East Germany in 1945 when 25 raccoons escaped from a fur farm at Wolfshagen to the east of Berlin after an air strike. The two populations are parasitologically distinguishable: 70% of the raccoons of the Hessian population are infected with the roundworm Baylisascaris procyonis, but none of the Brandenburgian population.[136] The estimated number of raccoons was 285 animals in 1956 and over 20,000 animals in 1970 in the Hessian region and between 200,000 and 400,000 animals in 2008 in the whole of Germany.[137][107]

The raccoon was a protected species before being declared a game animal in 14 states since 1954.[138] Hunters and environmentalists argue that the raccoon spreads uncontrollably, threatening protected bird species and superseding domestic carnivorans.[35] This view is opposed by the zoologist Frank-Uwe Michler who outlines that there is no evidence that a high population density of raccoons has negative effects to the general biodiversity of an area.[35] Hohmann holds that extensive hunting can not be justified by the absence of natural predators, because predation is also not a significant cause of death in North America.[139]

Urban raccoons

Due to its adaptability, the raccoon has been able to use urban areas as a habitat. The first sightings occurred in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1920s. Since the 1950s, raccoons have been present in metropolises like Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Toronto.[140] Since the 1960s, Kassel has hosted Europe's first and densest population in a large urban area with about 50 to 150 animals per square kilometer (129–388 animals per square mile), a figure comparable to those of urban habitats in North America.[141][140] Home range sizes of urban raccoons are only 0.03 to 0.38 km² (0.01–0.15 mi²) for females and 0.08 to 0.79 km² (0.03–0.31 mi²) for males.[142] In small towns and suburbs, many raccoons sleep in a nearby forest after foraging in the settlement area.[143][140] Fruit and insects in gardens and leftovers in the garbage are easily available food sources.[144] A large number of additional sleeping places also exist in these areas, such as hollows in old garden trees, cottages, garages, abandoned houses, and attics. The percentage of urban raccoons sleeping in houses varies from 15% in Washington, D.C. (1991) to 43% in Kassel (2003).[145]

Diseases

Raccoons can carry raccoon rabies, a lethal disease caused by the neurotropic rabies virus carried in the saliva and transmitted by bites.[146] Its spread began in Florida and Georgia in the 1950s and was facilitated by the introduction of infected individuals to Virginia and North Dakota in the late 1970s.[147] Of the 6,940 documented rabies cases reported in the United States in 2006, 2,615 (37.7%) were in raccoons.[148] The U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as local authorities in several U.S. states and Canadian provinces, have developed oral vaccination programs to fight the spread of the disease in endangered populations.[149][150][151] Although raccoon rabies is as dangerous to humans as any other strain, only one fatal case has been reported.[152] Among the main symptoms for rabies in raccoons are a generally sick appearance, impaired mobility, abnormal vocalization and aggressiveness.[153] However, there may be no visible signs at all, and most individuals do not show the aggressive behavior known from infected canids; rabid raccoons will often retire to their dens instead.[153][35][154] Approaching animals that act or appear unusual is not recommended. Instead, organizations like the USDA Forest Service encourage individuals to notify the proper authorities such as an animal control officer from the local health department.[155][156] Seeing a raccoon in daylight is thought to be an indicator of rabies, but healthy animals, especially nursing mothers, will occasionally forage in the daytime.

Unlike rabies and at least a dozen other pathogens carried by raccoons, distemper, an epizootic virus, does not affect humans.[157] This disease is the most frequent natural cause of death in North American raccoon populations and affects individuals of all age groups. For example, 94 of 145 raccoons died during one outbreak in Clifton, Ohio in 1968.[107][158] It may occur conjoined with a following inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), causing together the same symptoms like rabies.[159] In Germany, the first eight cases of distemper were reported in 2007.[107] Some of the most important bacterial diseases that affect raccoons are leptospirosis, listeriosis, tetanus and tularemia. Although internal parasites weaken their immune system, well-fed individuals can carry a great many roundworms in their digestive tract without showing symptoms.[160] When cleaning latrines, a breathing protection should be worn to not ingest larvae of the Baylisascaris procyonis roundworm contained in the feces, since this parasite seldom causes a severe illness in humans.[161]

Raccoons and people

Conflicts

The increasing number of raccoons in urban areas has resulted in diverse reactions in humans, ranging from outrage at their presence to intensive feeding.[162] Some wildlife experts and most public authorities caution against feeding wild animals because they might become increasingly obtrusive and dependant on humans as a food source.[163] Other experts challenge such arguments and give advice on feeding raccoons and other wildlife in their books.[164][165] Raccoons without a fear of humans are a concern to many urban humans who often attribute this trait to rabies, but scientists believe it is probably a behavioral adjustment after living in urban habitats for many generations.[166] Raccoons usually do not prey on domestic cats and dogs, but individual cases of killings have been reported.[167]

While overthrown trash cans and raided fruit trees are merely regarded as a nuisance by home owners, it can cost thousands of dollars to repair damages caused by the use of attics as dens.[168] Relocating or killing raccoons without a permit is forbidden in many urban areas on grounds of animal welfare. Regardless, these methods usually only solve problems with particularly wild or aggressive individuals since adequate dens are either known to several raccoons or will be rediscovered soon.[156][169] Loud noise or unpleasant odours, like those from coyote urine, may drive away single animals, but precautionary measures to restrict access to garbage and denning sites are more effective and cheaper.[170][156] When a mother uses a chimney or attic as a nesting place it is easiest to wait until she and her kits leave when they are about eight weeks old.[156] Because raccoons are able to increase their rate of reproduction up to a certain limit, extensive hunting often does not solve problems with raccoon populations (see section on reproduction). Older males also claim larger home ranges than younger ones, resulting in a lower population density.[35] The costs of large-scale measures to eradicate raccoons from a given area are usually many times higher than the costs of the damages done by the raccoons.[35]

In mythology and culture

In the mythology of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the raccoon was often the subject of folk tales.[171] Stories like How raccoons catch so many crayfish from the Tuscarora centred on its skills at foraging.[172] In other tales, the raccoon played the role of the trickster who outsmarts other animals like coyotes and wolves.[173] Among others, the Dakota Sioux believed that the raccoon had spirit powers due to its mask which resembled the facial paintings used during rituals.[174] The Aztecs linked supernatural abilities especially to females.[175]

In Western culture, several autobiographical novels about living with a raccoon exist, mostly written for children. The most well known is Sterling North's Rascal, in which he tells how he raised a kit during the First World War. In recent years, anthropomorphic raccoons played a main role in the animated television series The Raccoons, the computer-animated film Over the Hedge and the video game series Sly Cooper.

Hunting and fur trade

The fur of raccoons is used for fur clothing, especially for coats and the characteristic coonskin cap. Native American tribes not only used the fur for winter clothing, but also used the tails as accessories.[176] In the 19th century, when coonskins occasionally even served as means of payment, several thousand raccoons were killed each year in the United States.[177] This number rose quickly when automobile coats became popular after the turn of the century. In the 1920s, wearing a raccoon coat was regarded as status symbol among college students.[178] Attempts to breed raccoons in fur farms in the 1920s and 1930s in North America and Europe turned out not to be profitable and were given up after prices for long-haired pelts dropped in the 1940s.[179][180] Although raccoons had become rare in the 1930s, at least 388,000 were killed during the hunting season of 1934/35.[181]

After persistent population increases began in the 1940s, the seasonal hunt reached about one million animals in 1946/47 and two million in 1962/63.[182] The broadcast of three television episodes about the frontiersman Davy Crockett and the film Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier in 1954 and 1955 led to a high demand for coonskin caps in the United States.[183] Ironically, most likely neither Crockett nor the actor who played him actually wore a cap made from raccoon fur.[184] The seasonal hunt reached an all-time high with 5.2 million animals in 1976/77 and ranged between 3.2 and 4.7 million for most of the 1980s, before falling to 0.9 to 1.9 million in the first half of the 1990s due to low pelt prices.[185]

As food

While being primarily hunted for their fur, raccoons were also a source of food for many Native Americans, as well as for early American pioneers.[186] Today, several thousand raccoons are eaten each year in the United States.[187] Its culinary use is mainly identified with certain regions of the American South like Arkansas where the Gillett Coon Supper is an important political event.[188] The first edition of The Joy of Cooking, released in 1931, had a recipe for preparing raccoon. Recipes usually suggest removing the scent glands and fat before roasting in order to tone down the strong game flavour.[189]

As pets

Raccoons are sometimes kept as pets, though this is discouraged by many experts because the raccoon is not a domesticated species and may act unpredictably and aggressively.[190][191] Where keeping raccoons as pets is not forbidden, such as in Wisconsin and other U.S. states, an exotic pet permit may be required.[192][193] It is also possible for a pet raccoon to be taken by local authorities for a rabies test should it bite another person. However, raccoons acquired from a reputable breeder can make suitable pets if kept according to their needs by a responsible owner.[194]

Sexually mature raccoons often show aggressive natural behaviors such as biting during mating season.[195] Neutering them at around five or six months of age decreases the chance of this happening.[196] Raccoons can develop obesity and other disorders due to unnatural diet and lack of exercise.[197] When fed with cat food over a long time period, as is often done, raccoons can develop gout.[198] Veterinarian Bernhard Böer argues that they should not be kept alone because they may grow lonely without contact with other raccoons.[199] Since they will most likely wreak havoc in the household due to their natural curiosity, raccoons are usually kept in a pen, which is required by law in some countries such as Germany.[200] It is usually impossible to teach raccoons to obey commands.[201]

When orphaned, kits can be cared for and reintroduced by a wildlife rehabber, though it is often uncertain whether or not they adapt well to life in the wild.[202] Feeding kits, which still require a liquid food source, with cow milk instead of kitten replacement milk or similar products can be dangerous to their health.[203]

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