They may be adorable, but let’s keep our distance | ISLAND WILDLIFE

Correction: The 1931 edition of "Joy of Cooking" does not contain a recipe for raccoon. The 1963 and 1975 editions have instructions for preparing many small game animals, including squirrel, opossum, muskrat, woodchuck, beaver, wild boar and raccoon.

The kids are having fun in the nursery again, rolling around on the ground and wrestling with each other.

It’s a packed house, with some babies climbing up the walls, some swinging on tire swings, some playing in the pool. Purrs and frustrated chattering fill the air.

Did I mention that I’m describing a nursery full of orphaned raccoon babies?

Yes, we care for orphaned raccoons here at West Sound Wildlife Shelter. Raccoons are one of the wild animal species that cause the most emotion in us humans – it seems that most people here either love them or hate them.

Baby raccoons are born deaf and blind, weighing only a couple of ounces, after a roughly two-month gestation period. After spending another couple months in the den, they head out to explore the world under mom’s tutelage until the fall when they are old enough to go their own way. Raccoons in captivity have lived up to 20 years; but the average wild raccoon only lives two to three years. Life in the wild is not easy.

They are surprisingly smart animals, having been compared to rhesus monkeys in their intelligence. In one study, raccoons were able to open 11 of 13 complex locks in less than 10 tries and could repeat the action when the locks were rearranged or turned upside down. One study showed that raccoons were able to instantly differentiate between identical and different symbols three years after a short initial learning phase.

Raccoons have excelled at adapting to human society. In fact, on Bainbridge Island, the raccoon population is right now in the process of learning how to live with us, gradually changing from a rural lifestyle to a suburban lifestyle.

This adaptation process requires patience and firmness from us humans. It’s quite similar to the process of raising a child.  We spend years teaching our kids boundaries, what they can and can’t do. This is the same approach we need to take with raccoons.

For instance, please do not feed raccoons. If you do, before you know it, you’ll have a pack of 20 raccoons at your door each night.

And, more importantly, you’ll have taught these raccoons that they should not fear humans, that in fact humans are a source of food. Those raccoons will then become nuisances to your neighbors and/or get killed by dogs or traps. I’m not joking when I say that we know of people who feed 40 raccoons each day.

Relatedly, please keep any outdoor trash containers secured from raccoons. We received a call recently from a person who had found trash pulled out of his garbage can. When he inspected the can, which was still standing upright, he found three cute juvenile raccoon faces staring up at him.

He called to ask us what to do; we asked him to overcome his fear, go back to the can, and lay it down so that they babies could get out. And then secure it so they can’t get back in.

Also, please keep your basements, attics and outbuildings in good repair so that raccoon mothers are not able to enter those spaces and use them as dens. Once they find that human structures make good dens, they will keep going back to human structures when looking for dens and will teach their kids to do the same.

Having said that, though, if you do find that a raccoon is using your building as a den during spring or early summer, please call us before evicting it. Most likely it is a mother raccoon who has babies in the den. If you kill or trap the mother, the babies will die in that den in your home.

Basically, I’m asking all of us humans to respect the wild by keeping it wild. As raccoons are learning to live with us, it will go better for us and for them if we do not encourage them to cross the line between the wild and human society. Also, raccoons are good for the environment and our yards. They eat an omnivorous diet that includes the rodents and insects that are often seen as pests around our houses.

Our society’s relationship with raccoons used to be much different. As late as the 1980s, millions of raccoons were killed each year for their fur. Calvin Coolidge had a pet raccoon named Rebecca. The first edition of “The Joy of Cooking,” released in 1931, included a recipe for preparing raccoon. Long before that, barbecued raccoon was a traditional food on American farms. Times have changed, and thankfully so!

We work very hard here at West Sound Wildlife to keep the orphaned raccoons in our care wild. It’s hard to be cold and emotionless with them when you see them romping and playing with such obvious joy. It’s difficult, but we do it.

And if all of us humans work to establish boundaries for raccoons, our local raccoons will have a chance to live wild lives and we won’t have any adorable faces staring up at us from our garbage cans.


Kol Medina is the outgoing executive director of the West Sound Wildlife Shelter.

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