Raccoons may be cute and smart, but they aren’t pets.
Normally, these masked critters avoid human contact and are most active at night, rather than in daylight.
Still, it’s not uncommon for city dwellers to encounter raccoons in daytime, most likely because they’ve learned to associate people with easily accessible sources of food. If you see raccoons appearing to beg from passersby in a park or along a roadside, curb the urge to give them a handout.
Instead, help keep the furry animals wild. Raccoons are intelligent and adaptable, said Mary Krauszer, Point Defiance Park ranger, so if people stop making food readily available the animals will find it elsewhere.
Tacoma is laced with gullies, ravines, creeks and wetlands that are perfect raccoon habitat: places where raccoons readily sustain themselves. They naturally gravitate to sources of water. Left to their own devices, they consume all kinds of plants and animals: bugs, slugs, birds, eggs, clams, crayfish, frogs, fish, snails, nuts, seeds, fruits, even squirrels, rats and mice.
Krauszer said raccoons’ sensitive paws allow them to feel prey at low tide or in standing water. Because their back feet can rotate 180 degrees, they can climb down tree trunks head first, unlike cats. Plus, they make an impressive array of noises, from chittering and clicks, to squeaks and grunts. But perhaps their most significant characteristic is the ability to problem solve and learn from experience. In short: they don’t need help from humans.
Feeding wildlife in Tacoma parks is also against the law. It encourages unnatural animal behavior and leads to overpopulation. In the case of raccoons, it also poses health risks. Raccoons carry diseases easily picked up by both people and pets.
Raccoons frequently bite people who feed them. The bites can cause very serious injuries and lead to medical evaluation for rabies. Children can pick up roundworms through contact with raccoon feces. Another potential problem is exposure to leptospirosis bacteria, which can cause a variety of human health problems, including death. Leptospirosis in raccoon urine contaminates water and soil where kids may play.
Even if people don’t deliberately feed raccoons, the critters may raid unsecured garbage cans, pet food left outdoors, open compost piles, and greasy barbecues.
“Raccoons are not going to magically disappear from cities,” Krauszer said. “However, homeowners can protect their property by raccoon proofing it as much as possible and limiting access to food sources.”
The state Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Living With Wildlife website offers a wealth of information about ways to avoid conflicts with raccoons and keep them wild. The site includes tips about how to protect poultry, gardens and orchards, and keep raccoons out of potential den sites in and around homes. The site also touches on trapping and lethal controls.
In the city, a neighborhood-wide effort may be required to avert a nuisance in the making. Because even if you get rid of all the stuff that might otherwise lure a raccoon into your backyard, the effort may be futile unless neighbors do the same.
Moving problem raccoons is not an option: it’s against state law. Besides that, Krauszer said it could introduce disease into unaffected raccoon populations and result in territorial conflicts between animals.
Unfortunately, it’s no secret that despite the prohibition, people do relocate raccoons. Krauszer has witnessed the effects in Point Defiance Park. “I saw two very small baby raccoons literally left on the side of the road,” she said. They probably did not survive, but if they had they would have added to the park’s artificially inflated raccoon population, also likely a consequence of human handouts.
So if city dwellers quit offering inducements to deviant raccoon eating habits, we can keep the raccoons wild, even in the city.
“When it comes to urban wildlife, we are responsible for learning to live with the animals who make their home in the community,” Krauszer said. “We are all responsible for getting to know the plants and animals that live here and how we can live with them rather than fight against them.”