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This Week’s Creature Feature: The Adaptable Raccoon

Avoid the masked bandit if you can


     A late noise startles you awake. When you turn on the lights, a masked animal gives a rolling growl as it sulks away. That raccoon is back. 

     Raccoons have learned to live among humans as well as in deep wilderness areas in Alaska and isolated desert areas. They inhabit every state in the U.S. except Hawaii. They are adaptable and clever animals. Raccoons in studies can solve a three-step problem and, when retested three years later, can still quickly remember the solution.

     The name raccoon is said to be derived from the animal’s Native American name, which means one who scrubs hands. Their hand-washing habits are related to their hands’ sensitivity, which is increased by wetting them. They also prefer trying to remove inedible parts of food items before trying to chew.

     Raccoons wear a black mask. While it makes them look like a thief, it does reduce reflections and improves eyesight. I have no explanation beyond being showy as to why there are rings on a raccoon’s tail. 

    The animals are social and form groups of bachelors and young bachelorettes, but older females tend to live alone. They start courtship behaviors in the late winter, and females will have their babies, kits, in early summer and stay with them for about nine months.

     There are at least seven subspecies of raccoons in North America. The smallest lives in the Florida Keys, and the largest in the Mississippi Valley. When I first moved to Maryland almost 30 years ago, I was told a folk legend about the Mississippi raccoon. The story goes that Maryland, specifically Anne Arundel County, raccoon hunters came back from Louisiana with several really large raccoons to let go and hunt. But evidently one or more had rabies. When the raccoons were released, wild rabies increased suddenly. I have not been able to verify the story except to note that there was an increase in wild rabies in the early 1980s. 

     Raccoons carry rabies, though not as often as skunks, but raccoons are more aggressive. Foxes have rabies much less often. Rabies causes a severe sore throat so bad the animal cannot swallow and foams at the mouth. When the virus goes to the brain and before they die of the disease, they become irritable and aggressive. That is when the animals are seen roaming and staggering in the middle of the day. Any fluid from the animal at this stage — saliva, blood, etc. — is infectious. Avoid all contact with an ill animal and call Animal Control. 

     To decrease contacts with raccoons, do not leave food outside and have good lids on garbage cans. If you feed birds, hang the feeders out of the reach of climbing raccoons and clean up fallen seed.