Raccoons are some of the most prolific mammals in the world. Native to southern Canada, most of the United States and northern South America, they have been introduced into Europe and Asia where they have prospered and made various regions and climates their home. Present across Japan, they are even an important part of their mythology.
Raccoons owe this success to their ability to find a meal in almost everything they come across; especially in their ability to exploit human leftovers. Often considered pests, raccoons have adapted to city life by depending on trash bins, dumpsters, bird-feeders and other sources of food left by us in our daily activities. They do so well living amongst us that raccoon populations tend to be more dense in urban areas than they are in their natural habitat.
We have only one species of raccoon in our region: the Common Raccoon (Procyon lotor), but the 18 total members of the Raccoon Family (Procyonidae) can be found across most of the western hemisphere (from southern Canada to Argentina). Members of this family tend to have slender bodies (although the Common Raccoon is a plump exception) and long tails. Most have distinct facial markings and ringed tails. All members are opportunistic feeders that eat whatever they can when the moment arises. In the eastern hemisphere they are invasive, and often considered to be difficult-to-control pests that destroy crops and feed uncontrollably on native plants and animals.
Although our urban raccoons are often pests, invading trash cans, crawl spaces and sewer systems, their role in our region is that of a common furbearing animal. Hunted and trapped throughout their native range, they are often used as an inexpensive source of food and pelts. In fact, most wild raccoons rarely live over 3 years. Most are either hunted or trapped by humans, or killed by cars. In colder regions they often succumb to malnutrition in the winter months.
In New York State we have a mottled distribution of raccoons. In some areas they are rare, while in others they exceed 100 per square mile (usually suburban regions). High densities of competitive, solitary animals, who often feed in trash and can live in sewers means there is a lot of potential for disease. Raccoons can become infected with canine distemper and raccoon rabies. Although canine distemper cannot be transferred to humans and raccoon rabies can be treated in humans, both illnesses can be easily transferred to pets. The symptoms of both vary and may be confused with other health problems. When confronted with ill wildlife, it’s best to contact your local animal control agency and let them handle it. Some diseases carried by raccoons are symptomatic, such as roundworm, but still transferable to humans. Sure, not all raccoons are disease-carrying vermin; many are seemingly friendly to people, since they may be known as a source of food. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t aggressive wild animals that can claw or bite you if you get too close. Feeding raccoons, or leaving food or trash accessible to them is not recommended. Keeping them as pets is against the law in New York State.
New York State Raccoon Species Identification Guide
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