Highly intelligent and inquisitive, raccoons have been nicknamed ‘nocturnal bandits.’ These mammals belong to the same family as coatis and ring tails which are found throughout North and South America. Originally they were hunted for their meat and trapped for their fur; these practices still continue in some areas. Although they appear “cute and cuddly” their disposition can change dramatically making them a ferocious foe.
Adult raccoons can measure up to three feet in length and weigh in excess of thirty pounds. Raccoon fur is very long and dense, grey black in colour; their tails are long with black rings around the end. Black face masks are unmistakable standing out even in the dark. These animals are equipped with very sharp claws set in flat back feet which are strong, enabling them to climb whilst their front feet also adapt as hands. Their front feet are used to wash food yet still strong enough to open clams and oyster shells. Raccoons are opportunistic feeders consuming fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, birds and are very partial to pet food!
Originally found in forests, their diversified diet has allowed them to expand and adapt to urban living where they have thrived, finding great nesting sites in attics, basements and other warm cozy human areas. Male raccoons often have multiple mates but have no part in raising the babies. When born the cubs weigh only three ounces, their ears and eyes are still closed and remain so for several days. Females endeavour to find a secure nest site in which to leave their young allowing them to leave and hunt for food. In order to hunt successfully the mother may be gone several hours before returning to nurse the babies. Every year M.A.R.S. receives calls regarding ‘orphaned raccoons’ — usually they are not orphaned but ‘kidnapped’ as the mother will be waiting to make sure no predators are near when she returns to the nest.
Although raccoons may seem “warm and fuzzy,” they can become very aggressive if you attempt to hand feed them. Their sharp teeth and claws can inflict some nasty wounds especially if they feel trapped or their babies are threatened. It is important to remember that raccoons are especially susceptible to canine distemper and occasionally rabies (more common in Eastern Canada); a more common problem that can be transmitted to pets and humans are round worms. To prevent these animals becoming a nuisance, do not feed them and make sure that pet dishes are not left out in the yard. Garbage cans should have secure lids as these little bandits can push over cans and remove the lids before they fine dine!
M.A.R.S. has rescued several baby raccoons this season and we stress the importance of leaving the babies alone if there is no indication of the mother being killed. Before intervening in any wildlife rescue, especially babies, please check with M.A.R.S. at 250-337-2021. Once the nesting season is finished and the babies weaned the mother will take them away from the nest; this is the time to fix any damaged areas of attics, sheds, or any other building they may have chosen to reproduce in. Please check our events schedule on our website www.wingtips.org.
Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Thursday.