Native to North America, raccoons are one of New England’s most recognizable wild animals. Learn more about these clever creatures from the New England Wildlife Center.
By Dr. Greg Mertz
Jan 05 2016
Clever, cute, and native to North America, raccoons are one of New England’s most recognizable wild animals. We were curious to learn more about our furry bandit neighbors, so we reached out to veterinarian Dr. Greg Mertz, chief executive officer of the New England Wildlife Center in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. At the Center, Dr. Mertz is responsible for educational and medical programs that benefit many different kinds of wildlife, but he holds a special, lifelong interest in raccoons, calling them “one of North America’s best wild animals.”
Here’s how he says it all began:
My first encounter with raccoons was in the middle of the night. I was ten and looking out the screened window of a 1950’s canvas tent. There, on our campsite picnic table, were three grunting, growling raccoons who were busily attacking all the food for our trip. Slices of bread were being tossed like Frisbees, marshmallows (my favorite) were being stuffed into one raccoon’s mouth, and the third was rooting through the lunch-meats, bananas, apples and milk.
My father was not happy about what was happening. He had armed himself with the marshmallow stick I had whittled earlier in the evening, and was swinging his weapon, sword-like, at the three raccoons. You cannot trust 10-year-olds to come up with the sturdiest of sticks, and so the first time he came close to whacking a coon, the stick broke in two. The raccoons were unhappy with his assault and feinted a charge in his direction. My father, in his underwear boxers, retreated barefoot back through the tent screen door swearing about the quality of marshmallow sticks and the uppity-ness of wildlife.
With that tale, it isn’t hard to imagine how raccoons became so memorable! Here, Dr. Mertz shares some of their more interesting characteristics, illustrated with photos he’s taken through his work at the Center. We dare you not to fall in love!
FEELING IN COLOR
The nerve net to a raccoon’s hand, which determines how much stimuli the raccoon is able to feel, is much tighter than the nerve net to their eyes. In Dr. Mertz’s interpretation, this means that a raccoon is able to “feel” in color. It also means they are very good with their hands. Their fur “masks” cover their beady eyes, and contribute to their very well designed camouflage.
Originally native to North America, the raccoon’s popularity as a pet and game animal also made them appealing to other nations. The Nazis deliberately imported raccoons as a hunting animal into Germany, France and the Baltic states. On a cheerier note, however, the Japanese anime cartoon Rascal the Raccoon (1977) elevated the animal to idol status, inspiring fans to import their own raccoons into the country. Their descendants and escapees have since created a stable raccoon population on the island. Today, there are 22 subspecies of raccoon that populate diverse climates around the world.
A raccoon’s territory is elongated in the shape of a thin, long rectangle. The males normally claim territory that runs perpendicular to that of the females, so that they may cross paths. After babies are born, they will spend up to 10 months with mom as she teaches them how to act as raccoons.
Raccoons are very intelligent omnivores. They are clever feeders who eat berries, crayfish, insects, fruits, and garbage. In the words of wildlife enthusiasts everywhere, “if you keep it open, they will come.” You can help keep raccoons out of your garbage by keeping trash tightly covered. Raccoons are strong and cunning, so to keep them from prying the lids off your trash cans you should tie the lids down with bungee cord or something similar.
More from the Yankee Magazine archives: Raccoon Deterrent | 4 Ways to Keep Raccoons out of Garbage Cans
Human interaction with raccoons range from pets in some states (laws vary, so check first) to garbage can run-ins and the occasional in-home visit. Nearly all animal control issues with raccoons are due to carpentry problems, such as holes in the roof, which allow raccoons free access to your home or business. You can keep raccoons out by frequently checking for holes and securely sealing any that you find. You can learn more here from Dr. Mertz here: Raccoons | Common Raccoon Diseases.
Note: If you find a wild animal you believe may be orphaned, here are guidelines from the Center on how to know if a baby animal is truly orphaned. If you find a wild animal you believe may be injured, do not approach it, but contact your local wildlife center.
Special thanks to Dr. Greg Mertz, DMV and science educator Jack Banagis of The New England Wildlife Center for their help with this post!
The New England Wildlife Center is an informal, hands-on science education organization that uses the activities of veterinary medical care and rehabilitation of wildlife—like raccoons, reptiles, and birds of prey—and the veterinary care of exotic pets—like snakes, lizards, and turtles—as a vehicle for learning by elementary, middle school, high school and undergraduate students. The Center, located in the green, sustainable Thomas E. Curtis Wildlife Hospital and Education Facility, is a community-integrated non-profit that serves as the meeting place for science educators, reptile enthusiasts, animal control officers, wildlife caretakers, folk musicians, and habitat-based artists.
The New England Wildlife Center. 500 Columbian Street, South Weymouth, MA. 781-682-4878; wildlife-education-center.com