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Wilderness visitors getting cozy in cities

November 14, 2012 - Don Williams
A few evenings ago, we heard visitors on our side porch. I rushed to the window, and, surprisingly, I looked into the masked faces of a couple that I had not seen before — at least not as far as I know. It was a mom and dad raccoon who came to visit, making their rounds searching for easy food. Luckily, it was the day after garbage pickup, so there was no food to be scattered all over the porch from the empty garbage pail. Over the years, we have had raccoons taking up residence in our attic on two occasions and had a family of raccoons living in the wall of our woodshed. We encouraged them to move on with loud music, lights and the live animal traps. Possibly, these new visitors were descendents of our original intruders and had come back to visit the old homestead. I rapped on the window to get their attention and they ignored me — not very polite. I then got the high-powered flashlight and shone it on them, so they ducked into the cellar stairway. I then went out and told them that we were not welcoming visitors that time of night, so they wandered off in no particular hurry. Urbanized raccoons are getting too friendly with people. But that was not the end of the visit; shortly thereafter, I checked the porch to see if our visitors returned and, to my surprise, what should I see, but there was Junior Raccoon wandering around the porch. When I opened the door to say “hello,” he scurried under the porch to spend the night. Raccoons have become a subject of widespread research and news. They have invaded our largest cities, and Toronto has become the raccoon center of the world. With their sensitive front feet, strong teeth and intelligent adaptability, they are a challenge to deal with. Humankind has changed them from creatures of the wild into urban citizens. Some say we have created a new animal. Germany and Japan are overrun with them, and it has become nearly a worldwide problem. Studies are showing they are high on the intelligence scale. Researchers have found the versatile animals can collapse their backbones and squeeze through the smallest opening. That is how they got into my attic and into the woodshed wall. They can climb down a tree or wall, headfirst. And they have found raccoons can find food quicker and easier in an urban setting than by toughing it out in the wild. Using radio collars, researchers have found that the animals set up urban territories of just a few blocks and make the rounds each night; I hope that I am not on their route. Who knows how much more the raccoons will coexist with humans? They are considered the most adaptable animals on the planet. I shared the story of the raccoons who learned to unzip the tents in my son’s state campsite. Once one coon did it, the others quickly learned the trick. Can we open clamshells with our teeth? Raccoons can. And you know the story of how they wash their food? It is somewhat a myth. The latest studies indicate they use water to keep their sensitive hands and feet working properly, not to wash what they are eating. They have a strong sense of touch and can feel underwater creatures to eat. When it comes to passing along all the “raccoon tricks,” mother raccoon is a master teacher. She spends more than a year teaching her young the skills of food-searching, climbing and surviving in the urban world. The raccoons have made a choice. They prefer living with us rather than in the wilds of the Adirondack woodlands and other wilderness areas. In New York City, they avoid Central Park, instead “shopping” in the surrounding garbage cans and staying out of the woodlands. In some countries, thousands of raccoons are being killed each year to control the fast-growing population. Maybe, just maybe, we can come up with a better answer to live with the wily raccoons.


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