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How to live safely and harmoniously with the raccoons in the backyard

Posted by Emily Files  October 2, 2012 03:33 PM

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My first encounter with raccoons was in the middle of the night. I was ten and looking out the screened window of a 1950’s canvas tent. There on our campsite picnic table were three grunting, growling raccoons busily attacking all the food for our trip. Slices of bread were being tossed like Frisbees, marshmallows (my favorite) were being stuffed into one raccoon’s mouth, and the third was rooting through the lunch meats, bananas, apples and milk.

My father was not happy about this. He armed himself with the marshmallow stick I had whittled earlier in the evening. He swung the weapon like a sword at the three raccoons. You cannot trust ten year olds to come up with the sturdiest of sticks, and so the first time he came close to whacking a coon, the stick broke in two. The raccoons were unhappy with his assault and feinted a charge in his direction. My father, in his boxers, retreated barefoot back through the tent screen door swearing about the quality of marshmallow sticks and the uppity-ness of wildlife.

Raccoons are one of North America’s best wild animals. As pesky as they may at times seem, raccoons are native to our fields, woodlands, streams and lakes. They represent a history that spans a million years or so. They have enjoyed glaciers, historic episodes of global warming, near arctic, temperate, sub-tropical, and tropical climates. Like most successful species, they do well in a variety of climates, a variety of habitats, and with a variety of food sources. When these three characteristics are coupled with native intelligence, you end up with a species that can outwit most of us.

There-in lies the conflict with humankind. Not so many people like being out-witted by what are perceived as evolutionary inferiors. Putting out garbage for pick-up, creating bird-feeding stations, closely mowing lawns, creating sand boxes, building sheds and gazebos, and maintaining swimming pools are useful for raccoons rearing offspring. I think some people should think more like raccoons when planning their houses and yards.

I include myself in this group, because I have a family of raccoons that right now are living in my attic. When raccoons move in it is not so much wildlife gone wild as it is a carpentry problem. I saw the hole in my eve last fall, I knew it needed repair, but I thought, “I’ll do it next spring. What animal is going to see this hole and move in this winter? I am so much smarter than animals and I can barely figure out how to get to this spot on my roof.”

From the rumpus I hear inside my bedroom I know that there are more than raccoons in my attic. I hear the rumble of loud heavy feet, the scurry of little tiny feet, the shrieks of annoyed raccoons, and the chatter of angry squirrels. This all happens just before daybreak. The squirrels are getting ready for breakfast and the raccoons are coming home from a night out in the neighborhood. And I lay there wondering if they will break through the ceiling and land in my bed.

I can see how this might catch some people off guard. My god, what will these animals do next? And for crying out loud, what diseases must they be carrying and giving to my children?

These are good questions. It is only rarely that you hear about raccoons breaking through walls and landing on people’s beds. Still, knowing about their diseases is a beneficial thing any way you slice it. The more knowledge you have the better you can navigate all the seedy little viruses, bacteria and parasites that are after your body. There are three diseases that raccoons get that are of concern to people and their pets.

The first, distemper, people do not get, but dogs can. Distemper causes raccoons to be disoriented and have seizures and respiratory infections. So raccoons with snotty noses and eyes that are out wandering around disoriented are probably infected with the distemper virus. Dogs should be vaccinated yearly to prevent them from getting it.

Rabies is a disease that people can get. The best protection that any of us have from this deadly virus is vaccination of pets and other domestic animals in our homes or vicinity. Virtually any mammal can get it and it is almost uniformly fatal. Raccoons with rabies are disoriented, lethargic and have seizures. It looks a lot like distemper and is virtually indistinguishable without laboratory testing. You can’t tell if a raccoon (or other animal) has rabies by just looking at it. This is why you should not approach wild mammals.

Then there is raccoon roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis, which is a parasite that raccoons get that does not cause disease in raccoons, but is a devastating and even fatal disease in humans. It is generally accepted that about half of the raccoons in North America are carrying raccoon roundworm in their stool. Yikes! That means that just about every other raccoon in America can give us a disease that might kill us. However, the contamination route is so unlikely that it is rarely seen in humans. To get it, you have to eat raccoon poop that is at least 30 days old.

There are some occasions when this has happened. The most common occurrences are usually associated with firewood that has been contaminated with raccoon feces being stored in a house with a young child or person who puts everything into their mouth. It has also happened with individuals who have close association with raccoons like wildlife rehabilitators who raise them and care for them. There have been less than thirty cases reported over the past twenty years when the disease was first described. Nevertheless, keep your firewood clean and don’t raise raccoons in your house! If you have raccoon feces that you need to clean up in an attic or shed, do it by wetting it down and carefully bagging it while wearing a facemask and disposable gloves.

Do not fear raccoons, instead, enjoy them. It is their diseases that are sometimes a problem, not the raccoons. At the New England Wildlife Center we are trying to compile an anthology of stories, drawings, cartoons, songs, poems and photographs of raccoons. If you would like to contribute to this with your own creation or would like to recommend a piece of work please contact us at the Center at 781-682-4878.

Raccoons are one of North America’s treasures. They do not deserve to be hung up as coats, or killed because they are at times simple nuisances. Henry Beston, author of the Outermost House, wrote in 1949: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.” Perhaps we need a wiser view of raccoons. They have the same birthright to this planet that we do.

Dr. Greg Mertz is a veterinarian and CEO of the New England Wildlife Center. He is also the author of two new e-novels: “A Field Guide to Wildflowers” and “®evolution.” They are available at most e-outlets like Kindle, Nook, Apple, Brio, and Smashwords. This blog post is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe. The author is solely responsible for the content.

View pictures here of some of the wild animals, including the raccoon above, that the center has rescued

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