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The resourceful raccoon

Rosie the Raccoon, shown here, sitting in the ornamental pear tree, spent most of Christmas Day methodically devouring the buds of the tree and entertaining her audience with her delightful antics. Photo by Marshall Shinaberry

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

Whether you consider a raccoon to be a nuisance or a charmer, you have to agree that they are one of nature’s most interesting creatures.  

Last June, the whole country watched as a raccoon was filmed climbing all the way to the 23rd floor of the USB Plaza, St. Paul, Minnesota’s 15th tallest building. The harrowing high rise adventure took most of a day and part of another.

Luckily for the little climber, Wildlife Management Services of Twin Cities baited traps with cat food and successfully trapped the two year old female on the roof of the skyscraper.

After consulting with the Wildlife Rehab center of Minnesota, the little celebrity was relocated to a large, private residential property in the suburbs where we assume, she’s living happily ever after.

Although it’s rare, there have been other high climbing raccoon stories.

In September 2018, a raccoon in Ocean City, New Jersey climbed nine stories to the amazement of a crowd gathered on the boardwalk of the seaside community.

Someone was filming when the raccoon suddenly fell – the crowd gasped and groaned when it hit the sand.

Who knows what injuries it sustained in the fall, but the tough little thing jumped up and raced away. Hopefully it survived.

Whether your home is in the city among high rise buildings and bustling traffic or in the country nestled beside cow pastures and woods, raccoons are almost certainly part of your environment.

I know it’s not as dramatic as watching a raccoon climb a skyscraper, but this winter I’ve been watching a bold little visitor at my home, whom I’ve named Rosie.

I don’t really know her gender, but I’ve decided to give her a feminine name.

Rosie is small – clearly born last summer and possibly without a mom to show her the ropes.

It was a cold snowy day, sometime after Thanksgiving when I first noticed Rosie sniffing around one of the crabapple trees in my back yard.

I love wildlife and love to welcome it onto my little patch, so when I saw the little interloper, I was thrilled. I know there are raccoons out in the woods, and I’ve caught a glimpse of one or two over the years, but I’d never seen one so close to the house before.

This one was obviously hungry. It carefully climbed up the crabapple tree and one by one, reached for each little crabapple. The branch she was perched on was spindly and shaky. It swayed and bounced every time she reached up to pluck another piece of fruit off the branch above.

It took several tries for her to grab a fruit and several times, I was sure she’d fall. But she persisted and finally had what looked to be a pretty meager meal of those tiny, bitter crabapples.

I thought she deserved a better meal, so I tossed a cut up apple near the base of the tree.

When Rosie finally climbed down, she studiously avoided my gift.

But after she’d walked a little distance away, she must have changed her mind, or her hunger got the better of her, because she turned around and came back to the apple and started to nibble on a piece.

Of course, I was still watching from the window and was elated.

After about an hour, Rosie trotted off into the woods.

I looked for her the next day and the next – but no Rosie.

Maybe she was coming at night to eat the bird seed on the ground below the bird feeders.

Finally, on Christmas Day, Rosie came back looking for Christmas dinner.

She went straight up into an ornamental pear tree and went to work nibbling the buds.

We couldn’t have had a nicer Christmas entertainment than watching Rosie dining al fresco.

About four hours later, Rosie had polished off every bud she could reach.

She came back early one snowy morning a couple of weeks ago, this time to forage under a bird feeder right next to my breakfast nook.

And I was ready for her. I scooped up a tupperware full of deer corn and tossed it nearby.

My friend, Sarah, and I watched as she nibbled, one by one, I don’t know how many kernels of corn. Rosie stayed there eating for hours, and when she’d had her fill, she waddled away, back to the woods.

I haven’t seen her since and I was a little worried about her. For one thing, I thought she might have eaten too much corn.
I decided I needed to learn a little bit about raccoons, and the first thing I learned is that they are “semi-hibernators.”

That means that they don’t really hibernate, but they do den up frequently for a length of time – off and on – during the winter when food is scarce.

Raccoons usually prefer to live in wooded areas where there are trees, water and a variety of vegetation. They make their dens in the hollow parts of trees or abandoned burrows made by other raccoons or other animals.

When necessary, they will travel up to 18 miles to forage for food.

Raccoons are adaptable. Besides living in the wild, they can thrive in suburban and urban areas.

They will make a home in lots of different man-made structures like sheds, barns, sewers or even in an attic or an unoccupied or occupied house.

In urban settings, raccoons will stay closer to their dens – ranging only about a mile away – when looking for food or a mate.

Raccoons are equal opportunity eaters. They’ll eat almost anything they can get their paws on.

And those paws! They are amazingly useful, not to mention so darn cute!

Raccoons have some of the most dexterous hands in nature. They use them quite cleverly- and can sometimes even open a cooler or a garbage can that one would swear is secure.

The word “raccoon” comes from the Powhatan word “aroughcun,“ which means “animal that scratches with its hands.”

Most animals use either sight, sound, or smell to hunt, but raccoons rely more on their sense of touch to locate food.

Their front paws contain roughly four times more sensory receptors than their back paws – which is about the same sensitivity ratio as human hands to human feet.

This allows them to differentiate between objects without seeing them, which is crucial when feeding at night.
Raccoons can increase their sense of touch through something called dousing.

To us this looks like they are washing their food, but what they’re really doing is wetting their paws to stimulate the nerve endings.

In a city environment, where wildlife and fresh vegetation are limited, raccoons will eat human food and are infamous for invading trashcans.

But in their natural environment, they prefer frogs, fruit, insects, birds, snakes, eggs, fish, shellfish, nuts, seeds and – even snakes.

There are six species of raccoons native to North and South America.

The most recognizable is Procyon lotor,  the common raccoon, which lives in the United States.

Their black mask not only gives them the look of an adorable outlaw, it also helps them see better. Their mask works like the black stickers football players wear under their eyes to reduce glare.

At night, when raccoons are most active, this helps them see better in the dark.

President Calvin Coolidge had a pet raccoon named Rebecca. Back then, raccoon meat was often served on dinner tables in America.

Rebecca was originally intended to be part of the president’s Thanksgiving meal.

But after he met her, the president decided to make her a member of the family.

She wore an engraved collar, took part in the annual Easter Egg roll, and was often seen accompanying the president on walks around the White House grounds.

President Coolidge wasn’t the first person to have a pet raccoon and certainly wasn’t the last.

They are curious, intelligent and gentle and by all accounts, make wonderful pets.

Of course, opinions differ. Some people hunt raccoons and many people will tell you that they are, at best, pests and at worse, vermin.

But they are one of the most adaptable and successful animals in existence.

Raccoons originated in the Americas, but now are found around the world.

They were first exported to Europe in the 1920s to stock fur farms, from which many escaped and founded a wild population.

They made their way to Japan in the 1970s, when Japanese children became enamored of the cuddly star of a cartoon called Rascal the Raccoon.

The market for pet raccoons exploded and Japan was importing roughly 1,500 a month for a while.

Many of these pet raccoons ended up back in the wild when they grew too difficult to handle as pets.

Japan has since prohibited importing and owning raccoons, but the descendants of the pet craze have spread across the country.

Scientists who have studied them report that raccoons are, indeed, very intelligent.

They are great puzzle solvers. In the early 1900s, ethologist H.B. Davis gave 12 raccoons a group of 13 different locks to crack. 

To access treats locked inside boxes, the raccoons had to navigate hooks, bolts, buttons, latches and levers. Some boxes even had more than one lock.

In the end, the raccoons were able to get past 11 of the 13 mechanisms.

As charming as they can be, probably the best policy with raccoons is to enjoy watching them from a distance. Raccoons can carry several diseases – leptospirosis, salmonella, roundworms and rabies, so we need to take care not to let our children or dogs and cats tangle with them.

If you don’t want them coming around your house or outbuildings, don’t leave any food or water outside.

Use metal or durable plastic trash containers and secure lids with elastic cord.

Stack logs in a frame that keeps them two feet off the ground and trim tree branches that extend over your roof.

Check exhaust fan openings and kitchen and bathroom vents and keep door doors closed at night.

If they do discover your bird feeders, get in on your porch, or worse, in your house, they can cause quite a bit of damage.

Remember that raccoons can get in openings as small as four inches wide or even smaller.

Of course, if you’ve already fallen under their diabolical spell, you may find yourself putting out deer corn and apples, spending hours watching their adorable antics, calling them by name and writing stories about them.

Laura Dean Bennett may be contacted at ldb@pocahontastimes.com

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