When introduced in Europe they were called “wash-bear”, “waschbar” in German, “orsetto lavatore” in Italian, “araiguma” in Japanese. The French called it a “wash-rat” or “raton laveur”. In New France it became “wild cat“ or “chat sauvage”, a term still recognized in Quebec today. In recent times, “ring-tailed bandit” or “trash bandit” have been added to to the list of nicknames, all describing a highly interesting neighbour living in our midst here at Hotel Lake.
The most commonly used name, “raccoon” is from the Algonquian language of the Powhatan confederacy of Indigenous tribes that lived in the Virginia area. The Algonquian words aroughcun and aroughcoune mean “one that rubs, scrubs, and scratches with its hands.”
Raccoons were eaten by aboriginal peoples and European explorers including Christopher Columbus and his crew. In the southern United States, raccoon was a food source and hunting raccoons at night with hounds was common. Raccoon fat was a valuable leather softener and their fur was traded in Europe. During the 50’s and 60’s Davey Crocket coonskin hats were popular.
Several First Nations on the West Coast traditionally trapped and hunted raccoons for their pelts or as a supplementary source of food. Pelts were fashioned into clothing or traded with other peoples.
Today: “Two subspecies of Raccoon are recognized in BC, although genetic studies have not yet verified their validity. Procyon lotor pacificus (southern BC) and Procyon lotor vancouverensis (Vancouver Island and adjacent islands)” (Hatler et al. 2008).
Raccoons are found in Central America, the USA and in southern Canada. The recent introduction of raccoons in other regions means that today, they are also found in Germany, the Netherlands and France as well as the Caucasus region, the Soviet Union and Japan.
Raccoons are amongst the most common mammals found in southern British Columbia. They prefer our southern forested areas near water and and along waterways. They are not found at high elevations or more northerly latitudes and they are generally not found in conifer forests except where small patches of suitable deciduous vegetation exists. They also adapt successfully in farmland and residential areas. Raccoon populations have expanded in British Columbia and today, they can be found on Vancouver Island, the south coast and islands, the Fraser Valley, Okanagan, Thompson River and Shuswap areas.
The size of an individual raccoon’s range is primarily determined by the availability of food. Small ranges of about 100 square meters will suffice if food is plentiful. If food is scarce, much larger ranges of up to 50 square kilometres are possible with males traversing the largest ranges.
Most raccoons are 40 to 70 cm in length and 3.5 to 9 kg in weight, with males being up to 15% heavier.
Colouration is generally black. However black and white guard hairs (hairs that protect the underlying fur and skin and shed rain or snow) blend-in to create a grizzled appearance. There are variations; some raccoons have an overall brownish colouration and in some BC coastal islands raccoons with blonde colouration have been reported.
Racoons are famously distinctive for the black mask around their eyes. They have whitish patches across the forehead and ‘eyebrows'. They also sport a black nose-pad, pointed snout, and rounded black ears bordered with a white fur fringe. Their long and bushy tail with four to seven dark rings can’t be missed. Their forepaws are very hand-like but clawed and provide impressive dexterity. To humans, they can seem both cute and cuddly looking but they can also be fierce and threatening if provoked or cornered.
Raccoons live an average of 5 years in the wild. Females reach sexual maturity after one year while males usually begin mating after two years.
Mating can occur over an extended period that starts during the winter months and extends through to June.
During the mating season, males will try to mate with several partners. The female will accept and mate with a single male and thereafter reject subsequent males for the rest of that season. Nine weeks after mating the kits are born. Just before giving birth, the female hastily prepares a den. Most births are in late spring or early summer. Litters are typically 3 to 4 kits but can vary between 1 and 7. For the first 3 weeks, the newborn are blind and deaf.
The male leaves after mating and takes no part in the upbringing of the kits. It is the female who provides protection and food as the kits grow and she continues that care through the first winter, all the while teaching them how to find food and safe shelter. In the following spring, the young raccoons leave their mother and venture off alone.
Raccoons are generally not social. Pairs or families may sometimes be seen but these sightings are most likely to be a mother and her young.
They are characterized as fission-fusion societies, meaning that they will sometimes merge into a group and subsequently split-up. When they do merge it is often at good feeding and resting spots. In such circumstances, they are also known to have shared common areas for urination and defecation.
In the wild, raccoons live a largely solitary life. They do not hibernate and so must survive off body fat and foraging during winter. To protect themselves from extreme weather and predators, they make their dens in hollow logs and trees and cavities in rocky outcrops. They also occupy dens when the female gives birth.
They are easily attracted to urban areas where significant foraging opportunities exist in the form of human garbage. When searching for urban dens they exploit the limitless opportunities to occupy roof attics, crawl spaces, basements, garages, sheds and even storm drains. These man made dens have proven to be irresistible and are more commodious than natural dens. During winter, increased den-populations have been observed in some urban locations. Raccoons use fences as “highways” through subdivisions. In urban areas they may be seen moving about in daylight hours. Other behavioural changes such as attacks on domestic cats and dogs may be expected in urban settings.
Foraging and Diet
The raccoon is omnivorous, foraging and feeding on a wide variety of small animals and plants. Aquatic food can include crabs, crayfish, fish, snails, clams, mussels, amphibians, frogs, reptiles, turtles and invertebrates (including insects). In our gardens, corn, seeds, nuts, worms, snails and human garbage are all food for raccoons. They will also raid waterfowl nests for eggs.
The presence of a waterbody is essential so that raccoons have foraging access to aquatic animals. In many south coastal areas of BC, crabs are an important food source for raccoons. On inland waterbodies they hunt for various shelled and amphibious creatures and waterfowl eggs. For example, on Hotel Lake raccoons can be seen precariously perched on deadfalls along the shoreline and reaching into the shallows to grasp a mussel from the bottom. Watching them balance on a log, cracking the shell and consuming the mussel is a highly entertaining.
Their omnivorous nature means that they can also forage for fruits, vegetables and nuts. Other plant foods includes corn (gardeners beware; they are legendary corn eaters), grains, nuts and berries. Various sources suggest that plant foods may constitute the majority of their diet.
Despite clawed paws and canine teeth, racoons are not particularly good hunters although they do have some success in catching small mammals such as a mice, rats, rabbits, muskrats, or squirrels (although a squirrel might have to be sick or dead to be caught).
Because they are opportunistic scavengers they will readily forage through human garbage in urban areas to fill their needs.
“Washing their Food?”
As their long list of nicknames suggest, raccoons are famously but improperly known for “washing” their food. Even their name, Procyon lotor, arises from early observations and incorrect assumptions; “lotor” is a Latin word meaning “one who washes”.
However modern research provides us with a different perspective on raccoons and washing food. At the heart of this misconception is the dexterity and sensitivity of their paws. While raccoons have five fingers they do not have an opposing thumb so they cannot grasp things in exactly the same way as humans. Regardless, when using both paws together, they have considerable manipulative capabilities, particularly with food. Researchers noted that raccoons “wash” meat more often than plants and they didn’t make any attempt to “wash” the dirt off worms or grubs. The long-held notion that they were “washing” simply did not hold water.
Eventually, it was discovered that their paws have 4-5 times more nerve endings than we humans have in our hands. Because their paws are primarily used for walking and climbing they develop a callous-like covering that thickens and this reduces sensitivity. But when raccoons immerse their paws in water, this callous-like layer softens, which excites the nerves and increases tactile acuity thus providing them with important information about the food they are evaluating for consumption.
Raccoons have excellent hearing, sight and touch. Taste and smell are less developed but they compensate using the dexterity and sensitivity in their front paws to carefully feel and evaluate food in shallow or intertidal waters. They are not washing their food but evaluating it.
Climbing up Trees and Climbing up Anything
Climbing is a vital skill for the survival of raccoons. Because they are preyed on by coyotes, wolves, hawks, and owls, and sometimes humans, they will often employ their climbing skills to escape up a tree or a structure.
They have amazing paws that can rotate 180 degrees which enables their strong claws to grapple with tree bark for efficient climbing and even decending down a tree trunk head-first.
Mothers begin teaching their young kits to climb as soon as they are able. Trees, with textured bark provide excellent grip for the young but in urban settings, climbing up and down the sides of buildings and structures is also a skill that they readily acquire. Of course, this means stucco walls, siding, downspouts, chimneys and high-rise commercial buildings may be navigable.
Raccoon tracks are quite easy to identify in soft muddy areas. It is particularly interesting to walk out after a fresh show fall and find their tracks. Given that they are amongst the most prevalent mammal in our neighbourhood, it is not uncommon to find tracks and learn where they travel and it comes as no surprise that tracks often lead to the shoreline of Hotel Lake. Learning to recognize their tracks is quite easy and if you click here you will learn more.
Endangered or an Invasive Species
How are our raccoons doing? Do we need to be concerned? Governments have little to say about raccoons. It doesn’t take much searching to find that in BC the population is increasing, and that they are rated as “Least Concern”. Another authoritative source states: “Raccoons are one of the most successful furbearer species inhabiting North America today with substantial range expansion having occurred during the 20th century.” Another indicator is the plethora of pest control companies dealing with raccoon removal and re-location.
The adaptability of raccoons has contributed to a general population expansion. What we see and hear, about raccoons in the press today are primarily stories of abrasive interactions between humans and racoons and most of these occur in urban areas. This is primarily the result of human development activities that essentially build on or pave over raccoon habitat. When their natural habitat is destroyed, raccoons must either move or adapt to survive and the option to adapt is often easier because they are able to tap into human waste as a food source.
They actually seem to thrive when in close proximity to humans. In past years, careless human garbage disposal practices contributed to a general increase in raccoon populations in urban and suburban areas. However today we stand on the threshold of fundamental change in our society as we slowly improve our handling of garbage into more secure containers and create collection systems that recycle food and green waste. The human garbage, that has for several decades been an easy food source for urban, suburban and even rural raccoons, is about to disappear. Will there will be a consequence?
How Can Humans Help and Respect
‘'Don’t leave your garbage out’’ and “don’t feed wildlife” are common refrains that apply to raccoons and a wide range of wild animals such as bears, coyotes, deer, and more.
In the case of raccoons, there are specific foods that are toxic such as onions, macadamia nuts, chocolate and raisins. Garlic and bread will upset raccoon’s digestive system. Candy, coffee and cocoa cause health problems and affect behaviour towards humans.
As cute as they may be, they really do not make good pets. There is ample photographic evidence online of people trying to domesticate highly active, wild raccoons. However the reality is that many of these are destined to be dropped off at animal shelters. The reasons for not trying to domesticate a raccoon are well documented. Adopting a raccoon as a pet is not recommended.
Raccoons are by nature, cautious of people and under normal circumstances are not aggressive and don’t attack people; simply put, they would rather run away!
In rare situations where they feel threatened or cornered raccoons may “huff, grunt or charge at you, but they’re just trying to scare you off so that you will leave them alone.” When that happens, back off a little and give the raccoon(s) room to get away from you. Unleashed domestic dogs can complicate encounters with raccoons. You can read more about these tactics from BCSPCA by clicking here. If you encounter a serious attack, you should report all wildlife conflicts to the BC Conservation Officer Service RAPP line at 1-877-952-7277
Raccoons are known to carry Rabies and Canine Distemper. If you get bitten or scratched by a raccoon, you should contact your family doctor immediately.
Rabies: Despite the discovery of rabies in raccoons in Ontario, the following quote from BC Center for Disease Control in March 2023 states: “In British Columbia (BC), the only animals that carry rabies are several species of bats.”
Canine distemper: “Canine distemper is a disease of canids, or dog-like animals such as dogs, coyotes, foxes and wolves, of mustelids, such as mink, marten, otter, weasel, fisher and wolverine and of raccoons. Prevention of the disease by vaccination of dogs as puppies has reduced the occurrence of canine distemper in the dog population however outbreaks have been reported in areas of British Columbia where vaccination is not commonplace or groups of susceptible dogs exist.” The quoted text is from a BC government info sheet that you can read by clicking here.
Short Story and photo by Brad McCannell
It’s not much of a story really but it’s not a bad photograph. There was a big ruckus down on Yuma deck. Service Dog Chip had come across a mamma racoon and her little ones and when the mama saw Chip, she went into defence mode while her kits scrambled up the nearest tree and watched. It wasn’t a major confrontation, in fact, Chip could care less and turned and walked away. But I got the shot!!
National Geographic Animals - How Smart Are Raccoons, Oct 2016
BC Government, managing raccoons
The Canadian Encyclopedia
Canadian Wildlife Federation
BCSPCA, all about raccoons
UBC, Urban Raccoon Project
Just How Smart Are Raccoons, article by Elana Spivak at Inverse
Animal Facts Encyclopedia