by Elizabeth Trickey, Photos by Jennifer Howard
Raccoons seem to be a “love ’em or hate ’em” critter. If you worked at Procyon, you would quickly come to “love ’em”! In the early spring we get many orphaned raccoons, just born, with their eyes still closed, not able to take care of themselves. Their care is very intense since they need feedings every few hours, up to 6 times per day. Most rehabs won’t take babies that young because of the amount of care that is required. Procyon specializes in this area, so receives infant raccoons from many parts of Ontario.
Even if you’ve never seen a raccoon in the wild, you’d most likely recognize the critter if you saw one. It is the size of a fat cat, grey in colour with a black mask over its eyes (think Zorro!) and a black and grey striped tail. The little bandit has the most interesting forepaws that are long and slender with sensitive fingers that feel around for, and often “wash”, food. Many people erroneously believe that raccoons have opposable thumbs because their hands are so dextrous.
Raccoons live in the southern half of Ontario, in a variety of habitats including forests, wetlands, farm fields, and cities. Anywhere that there is food, water, and shelter for their families is good for them since they are extremely adaptable. Raccoons are excellent climbers so are often found in trees, though we also know that they love warm attics and sheds!
It is amusing to watch trash bandits eat. Well, maybe not if they are tearing apart your garbage bag, but if they are being watched, they will keep an eye you as they gently move their paws blindly about, patting the ground until they feel something worth eating. Their paws are very sensitive, more so if they are wet. The dampness is thought to help the paw pads more accurately recognize what they are touching and whether or not it is edible. Due to this innate behaviour, it was once thought that raccoons liked to wash their food, hence the scientific name “Procyon Lotor” meaning “before-dog washer”. Mmmm, and now you must realize how our rehab got our name!
A momma raccoon gives birth to about 5 kits each spring, though if anything happens to her babies, she may have another litter in late summer. Papa disappears after breeding, leaving momma a single parent. The infants are born with their eyes and ears shut, no teeth, very little fur, and no striped tail or mask marking. I guess they don’t need a mask yet because they are too young to scavenge trash bins, so don’t need to sneak around at night incognito!
The babies stay with momma for almost a year, nursing for 2 months, then learning to climb, swim, hunt, as well as the fine art of breaking into “raccoon-proof” garbage pails! Their diet is quite varied and they are not particular about what they eat. They will consume all types of fruit, vegetables, fish, insects, nuts, eggs, birds, and small animals, dead or alive. Perhaps their lack of pickiness is one of the reasons raccoons have been on this planet for so long. That, along with their intelligence and interest in looking out for one another.
Raccoons spend much of their time during the late summer and fall foraging for food in the wild and dumpster diving in the cities, in order to fatten up for the winter. They do not hibernate, but neither are they active. They spend the cold months mostly sleeping, living off their fat reserves, usually with other raccoons since they are very social animals. Trash bandits live for about 3-5 years in the wild.
No doubt that young raccoons are irresistible – cute and playful for sure! But, please, do not try to keep one as a pet. For one thing, it is illegal to have a wild animal in your possession for more than 24 hours. Most importantly, though, baby raccoons grow into adult raccoons with diseases that are sometimes fatal for humans, as well as having scavenging instincts that could decimate your home. They are best left out in the wild. Unfortunately, every year, Procyon gets raccoons that humans have tried, unsuccessfully, to domesticate. Those trash bandits either get sick from the wrong diet they are given or aren’t friendly enough to keep anymore. But they also aren’t ornery enough to survive in the wild. So, please, let momma do her job bringing up her babies, and if momma is no longer around, take the babies to a licensed rehab. It’s the best chance they have.
So let’s all celebrate National Raccoon Appreciation Day this October 1st by supporting a raccoon. Procyon rehabilitates many of this species every year, making sure that they are all healthy and vaccinated before being released back into the wild. Every donation helps. You can also check out our online store for raccoon slippers and greeting cards!
Last year, Captain Lucky was caught in snare trap and lost his leg as a result. He was successfully rehabilitated and released earlier this year.
Images taken by Jennifer Howard