PAWS Magazine

Issue 72, Spring 2009

Seeing Beyond the Mask

Photo of a racoon With a distinctive black face mask and a boldly striped tail, Raccoons are one of the most familiar and easily identified mammals in North America. They are frequently referred to as masked bandits, and words such as "mischievous" and "troublemaker" are used to describe them. These descriptions, however, are human characteristics attributed to non-human creatures, and are in no way reflective of the wild animal a Raccoon truly is.

Perhaps it is difficult for us to see beyond their masked appearance and interpret their behavior in terms of biology rather than our own psychology. At PAWS Wildlife Center we receive more calls about conflicts with Raccoons than any other species. But these conflicts are never the result of malicious behavior on the Raccoon's part. If anything, they can be attributed to a lack of understanding by both parties—the Raccoon cannot understand the artificial boundaries of the human, and the human cannot understand the natural behaviors of the Raccoon. What is really occurring is a clash between human expectations and the Raccoon's biology. If we wish to find a way to peacefully co-exist (because Raccoons aren't going away any time soon), we need to concentrate on the part of this equation that is within our power to change.

Any expectations we choose to have in relation to the wild animals around us should be based on what we know they will do, not what we wish they would do. For instance, we know that Raccoons are woodland animals who make homes in tree cavities, hollows under root balls, or other enclosed spaces. We also know that Raccoons are highly adaptable, and if no tree cavities are available, they will readily use other enclosed areas as den sites. An opening that allows access into an attic or crawlspace is just as inviting to a Raccoon as a hole in a tree. Having no concept of "human property," the attic and the tree may well be the same thing in the Raccoon's mind.

The Raccoon doesn't ask, "Who made this den?" She simply takes up residence if it feels like a warm, safe place to raise her young. If you do not secure all potential access points to your attic and crawlspaces to prevent Raccoons (and squirrels, rats, etc.) from entering, it is the same thing as leaving out a welcome mat.

The lesson of the den site example can be applied to all aspects of your relations with Raccoons (as well as other wild animals). Raccoons are opportunistic omnivores, meaning they have an extremely varied diet and will take advantage of most easily available food sources. If you leave pet food, compost, garbage or other food sources where Raccoons will have access, they will help themselves and return for more.

Raccoons are also very protective of their young—as are most species, including humans—and are well-equipped to defend them. If you allow your pets to be outside unsupervised where they may come into contact with Raccoons, they may be at risk of injury or worse. In all of these cases, the Raccoon is not making a conscious choice to cause trouble; rather, he or she is reacting to conscious choices made by humans. We must be the ones to change our choices if we wish to prevent conflicts from occurring.

Here are several small changes you can make right away:

  • Seal off all potential wildlife access points to your attic and crawlspaces (be sure there isn't already an animal inside)
  • Install a wildlife-proof cap on your chimney
  • Do not allow pets to be outside unsupervised unless they are in a wildlife-proof enclosure
  • Do not leave pet food, garbage, compost or other food sources accessible to wildlife
  • Never intentionally feed wild animals, as this will decrease their fear of humans and greatly increase the chances of a conflict occurring
  • Learn as much as you can about the wildlife around you

If conflicts do arise, call PAWS at 425.787.2500 x817.


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