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  • June 13th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

If ever there was a wildlife media celebrity, it is the raccoon that scaled a 23 story office building in Minneapolis, exhibiting all the characteristics of Spiderman. How or why the little raccoon decided to go technical climbing is beyond explanation, but it did and became an instant media celebrity, thankfully supplanting the clown president and all the other political entities who daily make the news cycle toxic.

One Twitterite said this, “if that poor raccoon can climb all the way to the roof then I can make it through college.” News cameras, smart phones, and anybody with a camera followed the progress of the animal as it progressed floor to floor all the way to the roof of the UBS tower 23 stories above the street and then back down several floors to a window ledge for a well-deserved rest before animal control lured it into a cage with cat food. Apparently, inexplicably in the middle of Minneapolis’s cityscape, the raccoon was startled into flight and started its epic climb and didn’t quit until it reached the top of the building.

Wildlife often appears in an urban setting, far from its usual habitat–deer appear in downtowns, peregrine falcons nest on Manhattan window ledges–but perhaps never has any animal done what this little raccoon did. But then I would not put anything past a determined raccoon

Bears are bears, ducks are ducks and mooses are mooses…meese…whatever. The point is that animals are what they are. But if there ever was a critter that pushes the envelope between critter and human it’s the raccoon. It’s hard to describe a raccoon without resorting to human characteristics (sneaky, devious, selfish, stealthy, etc.)

I’ve had a love/aggravation relationship with coons for years, even as I recognize that what they do is just coon-ness, not deliberate bad behavior. Given Ft. Knox filled with crawdads instead of gold bars, an average raccoon could break in with the finesse of old time robber Willie Sutton who allegedly said he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is” and then managed to escape from jail most of the time. Then the coon would give us the same impudent grin that Mr. Sutton displayed in newspaper photographs of the time.

The raccoon is America’s most important furbearer, is the source of much entertainment for people who like to follow the sound of a baying hound while falling into ravines and crashing into unseen trees, and is a pain in the pocketbook for bird lovers who would prefer to feed purple finches rather than paunchy pilferers.

As an economic boon alone, trapping furbearers brings in an estimated $800 million annually to wildlife agencies in permit fees and much of that is contributed by the raccoon, the most frequently-taken furbearer.

Few states lack raccoons. In the Western mountain states the animal is absent from large chunks of territory but in the eastern part of such states as Wyoming the habitat is raccoon rich (the raccoon range is southern Canada to northern Argentina). Given the human trend to mountain development, raccoons surely will follow—coons love people (or the food benefits that people bring. Western Montana has seen an influx of raccoons in the past several decades, along with people.

There are six species of raccoon, but the common one is the most commonly seen and cussed at (no great surprise). The name comes from an Algonquin word and originally the Latin moniker was “Ursus lotor,” meaning “washer bear.” But the Latin now is “Procyon lotor,” or “washer dog.”

Raccoons historically were thought of as little cousins of the bear, but they aren’t related to either bears or dogs—their nearest relatives are ringtails, coatis and coatimundis. They are also related to the kinkajou, olingos and the lesser panda, none common in the wilds of North America.

Raccoons can weigh up to 50 pounds, but 20 is about average. They’re attracted to water because that’s where much of their food comes from. In the West they’ll come to livestock watering areas. They’re largely nocturnal and as omnivorous as people—they eat just about anything that doesn’t eat them first. They have an uncanny ability to judge the ripeness of sweet corn. Once I had a wonderful crop of succulent sweet corn and planned to pick it the next day. I found the raccoons had beaten me to it the night before and had stripped and eaten every ear.

Average litter size is 3-5 and females breed between their first and second year, then every year thereafter. Lifespan can reach 12 years, but usually is considerably less.
In keeping with the raccoon’s rascally reputation, males are in it for the fun and the female is left to raise the young. She takes care of them until they’re fully grown, often through the summer and succeeding winter.

And she teaches them the wily wares of raccoon. I have spotted a mother coon on our deck instructing her rowdy kids in breaking and entering our bird feeder. She is a tough mother, knowing that the skills she teaches them tonight will be vital in nights to come. She’ll nip their impudent back ends if they get involved in coonplay and redirect them to the business at hand.

Raccoons are among the best-known carriers of the dread rabies virus. For example, West Virginia had 96 diagnosed cases of rabies in 2001; Wyoming none. There’s little pattern in where rabies pops up. Some Western states have had rabid raccoons; others none. The same pattern applies to Eastern states.

Rabies can be latent in a raccoon for up to six months, long enough for the animal to breed a litter of rabid young. But calls for intensive trapping and other supposed rabies control programs are misguided—they’re expensive and don’t work. Also expensive, but more promising are air drops of bait containing an anti-rabies vaccine in a capsule that has been designed to be absorbable only by raccoons. The air drop program has been in use in Europe for more than two decades and has been used widely in Ontario and several Northeastern states where rabies is endemic.

An Iowa study found that about three-fourths of raccoon deaths are from trapping and hunting, with another 12 percent due to road kills. Distemper and parvo, two disease threats they share with dogs, accounted for less than two percent; however, a distemper outbreak can wreak havoc on a local population of coons.

Raccoons are classified as predator animals in Wyoming but in most states they are listed as furbearers. Those classed as predators can be taken year-round, with no limit; however other regulations (such as no shooting from roads) usually apply. Coon hunting behind hounds at night is permitted if the hunter follows the rules. You must have written landowner permission on private land, use a hand light, and have a coonhound along.

While hound hunting for coons isn’t a big thing in some states, it is hugely popular in Midwest and Southern states where to a dedicated coon hunter a good coonhound is more valuable than most of his kids. Hounds can bring thousands of dollars and to a hound man Placido Domingo never sang sweeter than a good bawling hound on the trail.

Coon hunting is different than fox hunting. Where the fox hunters build a warm fire, sit on logs and lie to each other about their hounds, as the distant dogs run the fox, coon hunters stumble through the bleak night after their dogs, keeping warm only by excessive exertion.

I coon hunted…once. It was a sharply cold December night, with a light snow falling. My coon hunting companion apparently was in training for a marathon and we tripped and sprawled (well, I did—he didn’t) across miles of back country in the pit of night, following the distant bawl of his hounds. Finally they bayed treed and we eagerly closed in for the kill…only to find that the coon had treed in a farmer’s barn.

The house was dark (responsible people having gone to bed long before) and we doubted that the landowner would take kindly to us shooting up his barn, no matter how unfriendly he felt toward raccoons or how much permission we had to be on the land, so we called off the hounds and the hunt.

Hound hunters account for about 60 percent of raccoon pelts and trappers take the rest (not counting the irate homeowner who plinks one off his bird feeder). Fur prices vary wildly from year to year as trends in furs change from long haired animals to short and back again. Raccoons, being long-haired, are at the mercy of fashion. The 1920s saw a great boom in raccoon fur. Full length coats for both men and women were the in-garment for the F. Scott Fitzgerald crowd (it takes 30-40 coon hides to make a coat).

Fur resurged after a lull during the 1990s when animal rights activists and fashion trends combined to bring trapping to its knees. The Russians and Chinese, now our trading buddies, are particularly fond of long-haired pelts. An otter pelt might bring $100, while a raccoon pelt might go for anywhere from two dollars to $50 depending on the year (in the 1970s coon pelts averaged $25 or more, but were down to $6 or less in the early 1990s, then more than $20 at the end of the decade). Generally raccoon prices are in the ball park with mink and beaver.

Save for trappers and hunters, raccoons and people usually meet under disagreeable circumstances—the human’s trash can or bird feeder. I briefly stored trash and bird food in plastic cans which the coons chewed through quicker than a Sutton jailbreak. Then I went to galvanized cans, but the coons flipped the lids off and dove in. Now the lids are wired down, an inconvenient barrier for me and raccoons alike. They haven’t yet figured out how to untwist the wire….but I’m not putting it past them.

Controlling pest raccoons is almost impossible short of what spies call “wet work” (i.e. assassination). You can live trap-and-transplant and hope that the coons don’t find their way back (or that more coons don’t fill the gap). Or you can try scaring them off which is temporary—coons don’t scare easily. A friend once wired his garbage can to his house current and when he heard the telltale rattle of a marauding coon, he’d flip the switch. That worked fine until he forgot to turn off the juice and his wife took out some garbage. They’re still married…barely.

One wildlife damage control bulletin says, with wry understatement, “shooting can be very effective.” Beyond the income from trapping permits and fur sales, trapping and hunting raccoons is necessary as a population control. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates the nationwide cost of rabies education and control of raccoons, foxes and coyotes at more than $450 million annually…and that the cost would jump to $1.4 billion annually without hunting or trapping. The figures are for all three species, not just raccoons, but it’s a telling statistic.

Fur is the primary reason for hunting or trapping a raccoon, but barbecued raccoon is considered a delicacy by some. I once tried it but because we’d had several young raccoons as house guests, snacking on one was somewhat like eating one of my bird dogs and I didn’t finish my helping. For those with a yen for culinary adventure a Google search of “raccoon recipes” finds countless ways to fix the meat. Chances are you won’t want to tell most of your dinner guests what they’re eating.

Years ago I was host to a young raccoon for several weeks. He had been confiscated by conservation officials from someone who had taken him from the wild. He was too young to release, so I volunteered to keep him until he was grown enough to make it on his own.

Bimbo had been a favorite of the wildlife people. They fed him popcorn and other treats until he was as chunky as an NFL linebacker. He was a thoroughly delightful animal, playful and intelligent. He tussled with the family kitten but rapidly outgrew the cat whereupon the cat lost interest in being treated like a beach ball. You could wool him around like a puppy and he’d chew on your fingers, but not hard enough to break the skin.

Bimbo got into everything. No cabinet was safe from his investigations. Once he crawled into a backpack and carefully tucked the flap around his neck while he took a nap. He was sweet-natured and charming…but he was a wild animal and we knew that as he matured he would become less agreeable and possibly dangerous (an aroused mature raccoon is nothing to fool around with).

So, while Bimbo still was a big, lovable clown, we took him to the very middle of a National Wildlife Refuge where there was an ample food supply and no predatory threats, and I led him down to a borrow ditch that had a whole bunch of water to explore. Bimbo began to feel in the muddy water, using those delicate and dexterous paws as extensions of his curiosity.

I ran up the hill to the car, jumped in and floored it. A hundred yards down the road I glanced in the rear view mirror. Bimbo was in the middle of the road, standing upright, looking after the car.

I didn’t go back.

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