That Rascally Raccoon

Raccoons are adorable, smart, precocious and they use these attributes to get into trouble. Not that raccoons think “I am going to get in this trash can just to be bad.” But that is what happens.

This article will tell you everything you need to know about raccoons including how smart they are and how to humanely keep them out of your attic and chicken house.

Introduction

Raccoons go by many nicknames including trash pandas, coons and ring tail.

They have a very distinctive look. The mask on their face makes them look like little bandits. One theory is that the mask helps to deflect light and allow them to see better in the dark. Just like when football players put black under their eyes in a game.

They also have very dexterous paws that they use in all the same ways you use your hands. The raccoon also has a fluffy tail with black rings on it.

Neonate raccoon in our rehabilitation program at Fox Run EEC

Neonate raccoon in our rehabilitation program at Fox Run EEC

Kentucky Impact

Raccoons are considered nuisance wildlife in Kentucky and many other states by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. However, raccoons play an important part in the ecosystem of our state.

Raccoons distribute seeds from the fruit and nuts they eat. They also eat smaller animals that are pests such as mice and even cockroaches.

Species Variation and World Domination

Raccoons are native to the United States and found in a variety of ecosystems. They are part of the Procyonidae family. Other animals in this family are coatis, kinkajous, and ringtails. These animals all live farther south in Central and South America.

Initially, raccoons were thought to be related to bears or possibly dogs and cats. Raccoon remains date back 6 million years to the Miocene Era where they do share a common ancestor with the bear.

Interestingly raccoons get both dog and cat diseases. For example, they can get both cat and dog strains of distemper or parvo.

Tim is anything but common! But scientists would say he is a Common Raccoon  Procyon lotor .

Tim is anything but common! But scientists would say he is a Common Raccoon Procyon lotor.

There are 22 sub species of raccoons. Many like the Bahamian Raccoon were isolated on islands and developed unique characteristics. The smaller size, which is believed to be insular dwarfism, a more delicate skull and smaller dentition make these animals unique.

Raccoons have spread throughout Europe and Asia through the pet trade where they have escaped or have been released when they made an unsuitable member of the household. This map from National Geographic Society shows how the raccoons are adapting and populations are spreading throughout the world.

Lighter colors show native habitat and the darker colors show expansion of territory. The pink is where they have been invasive due to the pet trade or introduction.  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/07/raccoons-expanding-range-climate-change/

Lighter colors show native habitat and the darker colors show expansion of territory. The pink is where they have been invasive due to the pet trade or introduction. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/07/raccoons-expanding-range-climate-change/

Size and Habitat

Raccoons grow up to two feet long, not including the tail and weigh and average of anywhere between ten and sixty pounds.

The size of the raccoon varies by where they live. They are the most diverse mammal in terms of size.

Have you heard of Bergmanns Rule? Carl Bergmann was a German biologist who said that within a large population the smallest animals will live in southern regions and the largest where it is cold.

This applies to the raccoon. In sunny Florida the average raccoon size is twelve pounds, about the size of a cat. In Michigan the average is twenty three pounds, about the size of a small dog. In Michigan the raccoon needs to be bigger so that it can withstand the harsher weather and survive during a longer winter with less food.

Coons are not very fast runners. They have a stocky body with comparably short legs. They can run at about 15 mph but only for short stretches. They are good swimmers and can swim long distances but only at about three miles per hour.

Rehabilitating baby raccoons at Fox Run Environmental Education Center

Rehabilitating baby raccoons at Fox Run Environmental Education Center

Senses

You have probably observed how tactile raccoons are. They love to touch things and explore with their hands. In fact, their hands are very important in their perceiving information. The section of the raccoon’s brain called the cerebral cortex is very specialized in order to interpret tactile (touch) information.

Raccoons see well but are mostly color blind. Studies show that they see green light but not other colors in the spectrum.  They do not see well far away.

Coons have a good sense of smell. They are known to mark territory using urine and feces. They also have anal glands which secret odors.

In the wild, raccoons often have community bathrooms. This is where the “get to know one another” in person and by scent.

Hearing is a well-developed sense and raccoons can hear the movement of earthworms underground.

Intelligence

Raccoons are REALLY smart and have a long memory. In scientific tests, they have demonstrated problem-solving skills. Raccoons can open a variety of locks. Furthermore, they remember how they did so and can complete the task faster the next time.

They have a high density of neurons in the cerebral cortex which is similar to primates.

French neuroscientist, Stanislas Dehaene, found that raccoons can sort numbers up to four and distinguish closed boxes with between 1 – 4 grapes inside.

Raccoons have a very high IQ and test just below monkeys in intelligence.

One fun experiment was done to compare city raccoons to country coons. The psychologist and biologist, Suzanne MacDonald, used radio collars on raccoons and charted their behavior in different circumstances. She found that the raccoons in Toronto better-navigated streets and intersection and were more skilled at opening trash cans than their rural counterparts.

Raccoons in rehabilitation need lots of toys to stimulate their brains and keep them emotionally healthy.

Raccoons in rehabilitation need lots of toys to stimulate their brains and keep them emotionally healthy.

Living Habitat

Raccoons traditionally have lived in forested areas throughout the country. They are very adaptable and now live in a range of areas including both urban and rural. Raccoons like to be in areas where there are trees to climb.

Raccoons will often gravitate to areas they perceive as safe and sheltered such as barns and attics of houses.

Raccoons territory is dependent on where they live. In a city, the territory may cover three or four acres. In a rural area, the territory may cover seven or eight acres. This equates to less than half a mile to a ten-mile range.

The size of the territory will vary based on the amount of food and competition with other animals.

What Do Raccoons Eat?

Raccoons are omnivores and eat both plants and animals.

Raccoons love fruit and will eat a variety of fruits available in their habitat including wild raspberries and blackberries, cherries, apples, persimmons, plums, and wild grapes. They eat nuts including acorns, beech, and walnuts.

Raccoons especially like to eat water animals such as minnows, frogs, and crawdads and can frequently be seen “fishing” in creeks and small ponds. They will also eat insects, worms and bird eggs as well as reptile eggs.

In addition, today’s coons have acquired quite the taste for garden vegetables such as watermelons and corn where they can be a nuisance to farmers.

Raccoons do not normally hunt mammals such as squirrels and rabbits except when food supplies are low.

More on keeping coons out of your garden and chicken coop below.

Raccoons love corn! Fox Run EEC

Raccoons love corn! Fox Run EEC

Wash Your Hands Before Dinner Sonny!

We all know that raccoons appear to be washing their hands – or their food before they eat it. In fact, their Latin name, Procyon lotor, means washer. Many theories have come from this behavior including thinking the raccoon needs water in which to swallow because they don’t produce enough salvia.

The real reason gets back to the sense of touch we just talked about. Coons learn information by touching things. They also use their paws to break apart their food so they can eat it.

Captive raccoons douse their food more often because they have greater access to the water dish. A raccoon in the wild, who has filched an egg from a nest, does not go find water in which to feel or play with the egg. They simply find a safe place and eat the egg.

Raccoons do love water and enjoy playing in a creek, pond or water dish. They do this for fun not necessarily because they want to clean themselves or their food.

Teaching our raccoons to fish in the pond at Fox Run EEC

Teaching our raccoons to fish in the pond at Fox Run EEC

Top Dog In Their Niche

Humans have exterminated or reduced many of the top carnivores in their ecosystems. Animals such as cougars and wolves have been reduced and foxes, bobcats, and coyotes are much less common. In some areas, the Great Horned owl preys on babies.  

This has allowed the raccoon to dominate in their niche as being the largest predator and have an increase in population.

Whenever humans reduce a predator population through hunting or habitat loss the ecosystem becomes unbalanced. Predators and prey are both important in the habitat and both preform an important part.

Socialization

Raccoons are very social animals. Some live in family groups. It is common for related females to live in the same area and meet up at feeding or nesting locations.

Often young males will stay together. Sometimes a few males will band together to keep unwanted males out of their breeding territory.

In winter raccoons will often share dens to cuddle and keep warm.

Reproduction and Lifespan

Raccoon mothers are some of the most attentive mothers in the animal kingdom. They spend a lot of time teaching their youngster’s survival skills. In addition, studies have shown that a mother raccoon will teach her baby skills that pertain to their area.

For example, in urban areas, she may show her children how to safely cross the street or climb on slippery gutters.

Raccoons mate in the winter months of January, February and March and have a gestation period of 65 days. The babies are called kits and are born in the spring. Liters are typically two to four kits. Larger litter will occur in areas where the weather is harsher or hunting has taken a toll on the population.

Babies are born deaf and blind and totally dependent on mom. They are about four inches long and only weigh a couple of ounces. They are light brown and have the tell tale mask already. At about three weeks the ears and eyes open.

By six or seven weeks the kits weigh two or three pounds. At this age, they begin to explore outside the den.

Kits stay with their mother the first six months of their lives. In some instances, they do not leave the mother until the following spring and young females may stay in the family unit.  

In the wild raccoons only live about three years. They two biggest causes of death are hunting and hit by a car.

In captivity, they may live up to twenty years.

Rescue and Rehabilitation

Many people love to hate raccoons. Many people cant resist those adorable faces. I get more phone calls about raccoons than any other wildlife.

We take in between 20 – 25 raccoon kits each season. These babies are typically orphaned. Some are injured.

This poor baby was hit on the road. We took him to our vet, Dr. Glaza, who determined he had a broken foot. His foot was splinted and he had to wear the “cone of shame” to make sure he did not take the splint off. Happy ending. Splinter, as we called him, made a full recovery and was released on Fox Run.


Many raccoon kits are orphaned due to humans trapping the mom and killing her before they realize that she has kits. Often this is because she has decided the attic or shed looked like a nice dry place to give birth.

Check out the section below on keeping your property raccoon free.

Sometimes mom is hit on the road and killed and you may see kits running around the body or over the road.

Sometimes you go to the trouble to call a rehabber only to be told they are full. Please remember that rehabbers are volunteers and are on a budget. We spend about $250 PER Raccoon and yes those expenses add up fast. That just covers food and vaccines. When babies have medical problems the costs escalate with paying the veterinarian and the cost of medicine.  

Please consider a donation. Your contribution is tax-deductible.

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Raccoons are one of our longer rehabs. In Kentucky, we have six months from time of possession to release to properly rehabilitate an animal. Raccoons easily take five or six months of work. This is because in the wild the mother raccoon takes so much time teaching them survival skills.

We cant replace mom but we still make an effort to teach skills so that our raccoons are ready to survive and be healthy. Climbing trees and looking for minnows are activities that we do with our kits.

 

Diseases/Zoonoses

Raccoons do carry a lot of diseases. Some of which can be transmitted to humans.

The most formidable disease is rabies. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) “There were 13,142 raccoons tested for rabies in 2017, of which 1,275 (9.7%) were confirmed positive. This represented a 9.1% decrease, compared with the 1,403 rabid raccoons reported in 2016”.

Wild animals accounted for 91 percent of reported cases of rabies in the United States in 2017. The US health department states that bats were the most frequently reported rabid wildlife species with 32% of all animal cases during 2017. Raccoons 28% , skunks 21% and foxes 7%.

Does this mean we should run under the covers or kill all rabies vector species? NO!

Most of the reported animals have not bitten a human.

Just like we prevent rabies from happening in our dogs and cats we can prevent it in wild animals. Read my article “Why We Vaccinate Wildlife” to learn more.

Raccoon Roundworm

Most mammals get roundworms. You have probably treated your family pets for them. Raccoon roundworm which is the species (Baylisascaris) is particularly bad. This variety of roundworm can affect your dog and you.

Human infections are not common but they can be life-threatening as the parasite can invade the eyes and the brain of humans.

Make sure you wear gloves if you are cleaning out a raccoon infested area and disinfect thoroughly. If the area if fireproof the only sure way to kill the worms is with a torch.

Vet Tech Ame!  The advantages of working for a vet.

Vet Tech Ame! The advantages of working for a vet.

Hunting and Trapping

Raccoons have long been hunted for their skin. Think Davy Crockets famous coon skinned cap. Raccoon coats were a status symbol among young adults in the 1920s.

Most states allow raccoons to be hunted for their fur or due to nuisance animal rules.

In Kentucky, raccoons are allowed to be hunted from October through February and trapped November through February.

While we do not hunt, we do appreciate our hunter friends who bring us meat for the animals. Natural foods are good for them and satisfies emotional needs as well.

While we do not hunt, we do appreciate our hunter friends who bring us meat for the animals. Natural foods are good for them and satisfies emotional needs as well.

Threats to Livestock or Property

Raccoons have a bad reputation for getting into garbage cans, attics, and barn lofts. They also can do damage in the garden. In addition, they will kill poultry.

Keep in mind that raccoons were here first and they don’t recognize that your bird feeder or trash can was not set out for their personal mealtime. The best response you can have is tolerance. The next best response is protection.

Homeowners need to be proactive so that raccoons do not destroy their property. It is not the raccoon’s fault that it uses its brain to basically steal from you. The raccoon was on the planet before you and is just trying to adjust to the human population and habitat loss.

It is illegal and inhumane to relocate wild animals. Many states have fines if you are caught.

Taking them off to the woods is not solving the problem. First off, if you don’t repair what where they were getting in then other raccoons will just come fill that niche. Frankly, there are more raccoons where they came from and you can not keep up.

Secondly, raccoons are territorial and will not accept a new raccoon into their midst. In addition, the relocated raccoon does not know where food sources are in the new area and may become a nuisance to other people.

There are many things you can do to prevent conflicts with raccoons.

Garbage Cans

Garbage cans need to be securely fastened. Raccoons can undo most snap lids, bungee cords and otherwise destroy the cheap plastic cans. You can build a secure box around your garbage cans.

Stainless steel cans are much more secure than plastic cans and easier to clean. If needed you can buy a secure lid brace.

This is what I recommend for people having issues with wildlife getting in garbage cans. Works for dogs and coons but not bears

You can also purchase a wildlife proof garbage can. These are becoming mandatory in many areas.

Place food compost in sealed compost containers.

Attics and Crawlspaces

As our homes age and weather, they invariably develop structural cracks or separations. Every fall you should check your home for ways that wildlife may enter. Check under and around gutters, eves, soffits and fascia where separations often occur.

Before you block off holes you should verify that no animals are living there. Take some wadded up newspaper and place it in holes or separations. If the newspaper gets knocked out you know that you have an animal that needs to be humanely evicted first.

There are many exclusion devices to help keep wildlife out of your home.

Chimney Caps

Chimneys are a popular place for both mammals and birds to take up residence. Installing a chimney cap will keep wildlife out.

If you do discover wildlife in your chimney do not try to smoke them out. This will just kill any babies who can not escape the smoke.

Before installing a chimney cap please verify that no animals are in the chimney. Favorite spots are on the damper and smoke shelf or in the venting.

Before exclusion use a flashlight from the bottom and top to check for animals. If this is not an easy DIY project call a chimney sweep to help you check, clean and install a chimney cap.

Getting Rid of a Mom and Babies During Spring 

So its spring and you have discovered you have a family living in your attic. Please be considerate of those young lives. If you wait a few weeks the kits will mature and mom will start taking them out to find food.

At that time you can go seal up her entrance. You may want to use a low-cost game camera to verify when they are coming and going. If you seal off the entrance from mom and leave the kits inside she will go ballistic and tear up your house trying to get to her babies.

Use noise such as a radio tuned to a talk show or rags soaked in ammonia. Then give the mom several days to relocate the babies. After the family is gone you can seal up the chimney.

Nuisance wildlife control organizations make a lot of money off people who do not take basic precautions. Take the time to secure your property and avoid unwanted conflicts.

Infant raccoons are very dependent on mom. Please do not create orphans.

Infant raccoons are very dependent on mom. Please do not create orphans.

Raiding Gardens

Raccoons do love fresh vegetables and fruits especially corn and watermelons.

I used to recommend a radio on a talk show but with raccoons becoming more urbanized this does not work so well.

Wire fencing works well if it has a top. I have successfully used six-foot tall wire fence with 2x2 openings, around my garden areas since I also want to keep out my goats and white-tailed deer. In garden areas with melons, I run heavy-duty deer netting across the top to keep out birds and climbing animals.

Obviously that works in smaller garden areas. What if you are trying to keep raccoons out of a larger cornfield?

Electric fencing will deter raccoons. Use two strands around the perimeter. One strand needs to be six inches from the ground and one strand needs to be twelve inches from the ground. Remember to weed eat along the ground since weeds will short out the lower strand.

To learn more about organic gardening and self-sufficiency check out some of the articles in our gardening blog:

10 REASONS TO EAT ORGANIC - THE SHORT AND THE LONG VERSIONS

 Work That Plan! Planning for a productive sustainable garden

Improve Habitat For Wildlife

There are many things you can do to develop natural habitat for wildlife. By offering them the things they need – water, food, and shelter – you can encourage them to live naturally in your yard or farm.

I worked with David at National Wildlife Federation. This is a great book on making your yard willdife friendly.

Pets

Raccoons do not make good pets. They are smart and mischievous. In addition, when they become sexually mature they often become like the stereotypical teenager and are very cranky. Raccoons do bite and lash out when they feel cornered or threatened.

A raccoon is not a domesticated animal. They are always going to want to be free and live the way their instincts are telling them. In addition, in many states including Kentucky, it is against the law to keep raccoons as pets.

There are some famous pet raccoons. President Calvin Coolidge had a pet raccoon named Rebecca. She was actually sent to the White House in 1926 to be dinner for the president. Gracie Coolidge rescued her from that fate and she lived in the White House. Apparently she loved the annual Easter Egg Roll. That sounds like a raccoon, doesn’t it!

First Lady Grace Coolidge and Rebecca

First Lady Grace Coolidge and Rebecca

As First Lady Grace wrote:

"We had a house made for her in one of the large trees, with a wire fence built around it for protection. We kept her chained when out of doors, but in the house she had her liberty. She was a mischievous, inquisitive party and we had to keep watch of her when she was in the house. She enjoyed nothing better than being placed in a bathtub with a little water in it and given a cake of soap with which to play. In this fashion she would amuse herself for an hour or more. 

Literature/Folklore

The word raccoon came from the Powhatan Native American term aroughcun and was recorded by John Smith of the Virginia Colony. Symbols of the raccoon are found in the Mississippian culture of the Mound Builders

The raccoon is a representative of secrecy and disguise. The mask is believed to allow him to transform.

There are many Native American stories about the raccoon who is often justifiably seen as a trickster. Azeban is a benign trickster Raccoon from Abenaki mythology who is always looking for food.

Contemporary pagans consider the raccoon to be a positive spirit animal that symbolizes curiosity, intelligence, courage, resourcefulness, assertiveness, and questioning.

The National Wildlife Federation has Ranger Rick, a raccoon that teaches children about wildlife. They have a great kids magazine called Ranger Rick for children ages 7 – 12.

I LOVED this magazine as a kid and still loved it when I subscribed for my children

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Author, Ame Vanorio is a freelance writer and director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center. She teaches classes locally and online about organic gardening, green building and wildlife conservation. Ame is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She lives off-grid on her Kentucky farm with a myriad of domestic and wild animals.