[Article by contributing writer Melissa Grant, North Bend resident, wildlife enthusiast and owner of Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs]
My very first introduction to raccoons was at a surprisingly late point in life considering how plentiful they are in our area. I was living in Bellevue at the time, out in the back yard late one night with the dog and heard scary MONSTER noises! I rushed the dog back into the house and crept out, flashlight in hand, to see what horrible creatures was making the growling noises. Lo and behold my flashlight found two of these scary beasts high up in a tree either fighting or…..well, I’ll leave that to your imagination.
Also known colloquially as the Trash Panda, Raccoon comes from the Algonquin word “Arakun”, meaning one who scratches with hands, and they are one of our most interesting and adaptable neighbors. Carnivorous omnivores, they belong to the New World family Procyonidae which includes kinkajous, olingos and ringtails. Originally native to tropical areas, the raccoon migrated as far north as Canada and were artificially introduced in parts of Europe, Russia and Japan for zoos, hunting and their thick fur. Originally thought to be related to cats, dogs or badgers, they are most closely related to bears.
Oh yeah and they are TOTALLY adorable!
Once a candidate for laboratory testing, they were discarded for being too smart, adaptive and strong willed. They probably would have been running the lab with those tiny widdle hands! Ahem, sorry let me collect myself…. These creatures rate just below monkeys for intelligence and with that high IQ are able to learn from past experiences and problem solve. This extreme adaptability means they can make themselves at home in almost any environment. Raccoons prefer forested areas near a water source, but can also be found in many other environments throughout the state. In fact, due to hunting restrictions, lack of predators and an abundance of human food, their populations can get quite large in urban and suburban areas.
Up to three feet long, including their ringed bushy tail, these animals can range from 15 to 40 pounds depending on sex and food availability (more on THAT later.) Their characteristic black face coloring is the reason for their portrayal as a masked bandit in popular culture. Their thick fur and ringed tail are the reason behind their popularity with trappers and the fur trade. Raccoons walk on all fours with a hunched appearance because their back legs are longer than their front legs but they can – and do – stand on their hind legs.
Their front paws look a lot like human hands, but are much more sensitive. They have hairs on their paws that send messages to their brain so they can identify an object by just touching it. It is thought the dabbling in water behavior seen in raccoons is not really washing their food, but that water makes their paws even more sensitive making it possible to examine their food closely. Their back paws are specialized, too, and can rotate 180 degrees making climbing up and down trees easy. Raccoons can make over 50 sounds including hisses, growls, purrs, squeals, chirps, whistles, screams, snorts and snarls – and boy, I heard all of them that night in the tree.
Speaking of what may have been going on in that tree that night, mating season for raccoons is roughly from January to June, with peak season in March and April. Moms, called sows, have two to three kits who stay in the den with mom for about 7 weeks before they start to roam outside. They start to forage at 10 weeks and stray farther at 12 weeks, sometimes for several nights, before leaving to seek their own territories. Raccoons are generally solitary animals, but come together to mate or occasionally in very cold weather. A group of raccoons is known as a nursery or a gaze. Their ranges depend on food availability and in urban areas may span one mile. They can live to 15 or older, but generally die by 2 or 3 in the wild because of car accidents, predator attacks and disease. They prefer to eat aquatic creatures-frogs, crayfish and snails, but will eat every available food. Contrary to popular belief, they rarely prey on large mammals or pets.
There are quite a few myths and misconceptions about these little masked fur balls. The most prevalent being if you see one in the daylight, it must be sick because they are generally nocturnal. While it is true, they are most often out doing their thing at night, they can be seen during the day looking for food or resting in a tree.
The rules for living near raccoons are basically the same as the rules for living near bears: keep you trash secure, pick up fallen fruit, don’t feed pets outside, clean your outdoor grills after use, protect small livestock and gardens with a secure fence and be cautious when feeding birds. I recently caught three raccoons on my trail camera one night and had to reign in my winter bird feeding for a while.
Raccoons carry diseases that can be dangerous to you and your pets- distemper, roundworm and rabies- and should not be encouraged to hang around. They are not dangerous, unless cornered, but should be kept away from human homes. So with a little effort you can enjoy an occasional visit but not be bothered by our local masked bandits!