Critter of the Week: North American Raccoon

  • Common name: Raccoon
  • Scientific name: Procyon lotor
  • Type: Mammal
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Status: Least concern 
  • Geographic Range: North America 
  • Size: 4-30 lbs (captive), 4-23 lbs (wild), 23.75-37.5 in (wild)
  • Life expectancy: 10-15 (captive), 2-3 (wild)
Photo credit: Flickr Krystal Hamlin

Ski masked bandits of the night, or adorably intelligent fluff balls? It’s a complicated matter. These nocturnal omnivores are constantly caught raiding the garbage can or killing fish, chickens, and sometimes small pets. However, there are plenty of cute raccoon videos on the internet, in addition to whole Instagram accounts run by proud raccoon owners. It’s evident that raccoons can represent a nuisance for many people, but for me, they are one of my favorite animals. 

Native to North America (and seemingly its suburbs), the raccoon is a medium-sized mammal distinguished by mask-like black fur around its eyes and dark rings on its bushy tail. They typically live in hollow trees or burrows, but can often make their dens in man-made structures like sheds, barns, and abandoned vehicles. 

Baby raccoons, also known as “kits” (Photo credit: Mark Siekierski)

Fruit, fish, eggs, small mammals, and dumpsters are no match for raccoons’ dextrous five-fingered paws, climbing, and swimming skills. True to the Latin roots of their name “lotor,” raccoons appear to wash their food before eating, especially captive raccoons. Check out this video of a raccoon accidentally washing cotton candy! 

Raccoons have appeared in the folk tales of Native Americans. The natives utilized the raccoon for food and fur, but it was not until the white settlers that “coon hunting” became a profitable industry. You might recall the iconic images of Davy Crockett or Meriwether Lewis wearing coonskin caps from your history textbooks. With the help of “coon hounds,” hunters brought in peak numbers of raccoons between the 1940s and 1980s. Today, raccoons are still hunted for their fur and for pest or population control. 

Mrs. Coolidge and Rebecca the Raccoon, 1927 (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

U.S. President Calvin Coolidge even kept two raccoons as pets: Rebecca and Reuben! Ironically, it is now illegal to own raccoons as pets in Washington D.C. and 21 other states. Keeping raccoons as pets is difficult work, and often advised against. As wild animals, raccoons may display a variety of temperaments, require ample space for mental and physical stimulation, and can carry zoonotic diseases. 

Raccoons are known to carry rabies, a lethal disease to humans transmitted via saliva. According to a 2013 study, 32.4 percent of reported wildlife rabies cases were rabid raccoons — the most out of any other major animal group. In addition to rabies, raccoons carry distemper, leptospirosis, salmonella, and an intestinal roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis, in their feces.

Rocket the Raccoon (Photo credit: Marvel)

It may sound like raccoons are only bad news, but some have still captured our hearts, like Rocket the Raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy. They remain an iconic symbol of North America, are a common sight when camping in the great outdoors, and play important roles in their ecosystems by maintaining population control of their prey and distributing seeds. Maybe they can be a little annoying, but just remember that their disturbances are the product their clever and adaptable minds. 

Sources: National Geographic, Best on Tests, Petful, Health Pets Mercola, San Diego Zoo, National Center for Biotechnology Information, Newport Bay, History, Reference.com

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