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The Raccoon (Procyon lotor), also known as the Northern Raccoon, Common Raccoon, Washing Bear or Coon, is a widespread, medium-sized, omnivorous mammal native to North America. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, they have also been widespread on the European mainland and in the Caucasus region, after having escaped from fur farms. Raccoons usually live together in small, loose groups. Their original habitats are mixed or deciduous forests, but due to their adaptability, they are often found in urban areas where they can be considered pests.
An adult weight varies with habitat and range and can range from 3–16 kg (6.6–35 lb) and measure 60–90 cm (24–36 in) along the body, minus the 25 cm-10 in tail. The smallest species are those found in Southern Florida, while those near the Northern limits of the raccoon's range tend to be the largest. The largest recorded raccoon was over 22.7 kg (50lb), by far the largest size recorded for a family member of the Procyonidae. They have black facial colorings around the eyes, and have a bushy tail with light and dark alternating rings. The coat is a mixture of gray, brown, and black fur. On rare occasions, raccoons may be albino. Currently there is a search under way to validate sightings of half albino, possibly leucistic raccoons. These sightings have occurred in Indiana, specifically the West Lafayette region. The dark patches around the eyes, perhaps the raccoon's most prominent trait, are reminiscent of a "bandit's mask", which has enhanced its reputation for mischief.
Raccoons have 40 teeth, which are adapted to an omnivorous lifestyle. The chewing surface is not as wide as for herbivores, but the teeth are not as sharp and pointed as those of a carnivore.
Raccoons are omnivorous, consuming a varied diet that includes berries, insects, fruit, chickens, and small mammals. Raccoons sometimes wash, or douse, their food in water before eating it. It is not known why raccoons perform dousing (a lack of adequate salivary glands to moisten food has been cited as one reason), but cleaning food is unlikely to be the reason. Studies have found that raccoons engage in dousing motions when water is unavailable; researchers note that captive raccoons are more likely than wild raccoons to douse food. It has been suggested that captive raccoons are mimicking fishing and shellfish-foraging behaviors. It may also be that the raccoon is searching for unwanted material, as water is thought to heighten their sense of touch.
Raccoons are often considered pests because they forage in trash receptacles or eat dog food left on back porches; they are able to open garbage cans with their hands.
Raccoons will not harm cats or dogs. However, they will attack and fight if cornered. If a raccoon appears to be aggressive and showing abnormal behavior, such as appearing sick or disoriented, then there is a good possibility that the raccoon is rabid. In this case the proper authorities should be notified.
Introduced into Germany in the 19th century, raccoons seeking food in wine cellars and storage areas have become a threat to the country's wine industry. Beginning in April 1934 raccoons, which were being commercially farmed in Germany for their fashionable fur, were experimentally released into the wild in the Kellerwald range. Population growth greatly accelerated in 1945 when disruption of the infrastructure led to numerous raccoons escaping from farms across Germany. Because they appeared to have minimal impact on forest ecology, raccoons were initially a protected species. This status has changed in recent years, however, as the species' population density in some regions may have reached 100 raccoons per square kilometer. In certain areas, hunters have been offered rewards to kill the animals due to over population.
Mating usually occurs in January or February, and a litter of four or five young are born in April or May (varies by climate). Raccoons usually live in hollow trees, ground burrows, or caves. They often travel along streams or rivers in search of food. However, there are raccoons that live in the forest not near any stream. Males have no part in raising the young. By late summer, the litter will be weaned and will begin to fend for themselves. Raccoons do not truly hibernate. They enter a torpid, inactive state, when temperatures fall below about 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
Raccoons are common throughout North America from southern Canada to Panama. Raccoons are one of the largest animals to have adapted well to human development. Suburban areas, and many large cities, have significant raccoon populations. Raccoons are skilled foragers who can thrive on garbage and pet food. They have been known to take up residence in attics and garages, and even to enter houses through "pet doors" in search of food. When confronted by humans or household animals, raccoons may be aggressive; urban raccoons tend to lose their fear of humans over time.
In 1934, Hermann Goering, then head of the Reich Forestry Office, gave permission for the release of two pairs of raccoons into the German wilderness to enrich the fauna. The raccoons have since been extremely successful due to the lack of natural enemies. Others are believed to have escaped from fur farms during Allied bombing in World War II. The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported in 2002 that the raccoon had established itself in a small area of north-central France and in a considerable area of central Germany, where it had become a neighborhood pest to some and a beloved pet to others. The city of Kassel, Germany, hosts Europe's densest population of raccoons with about 100 individuals per square kilometre (around 260 per square mile), a figure well comparable to statistics from the raccoon's natural habit in North America.
While raccoons held in captivity can live up to 20 years, they seldom live longer than 12 years in the wild, with most only living a few years. The species' life expectancy in the wild is only about 1.3 to 3.1 years, and only about half of all males survive their first year. Illnesses, accidents, and the death of the mother are the most common causes of death for young raccoons. For adult raccoons, road kill and hunting account for more than 75% of deaths. However the population of raccoons is not at all affected by these deaths because they are over populated in almost every part of the range they inhabit.
Raccoons can carry Baylisascaris roundworm, canine distemper, parvovirus and rabies. Of the 6,844 documented rabies cases reported in the United States in 2004, 37.5% were in raccoons (Krebs et al. 2005, pp. 1912-1925). Seeing a raccoon during the day is an indicator, though not absolute, that the animal may be ill. However, healthy animals, especially nursing mothers, may also forage for food in the daytime. Rabies may be entirely without visible symptoms in the raccoon.
Raccoon rabies is as dangerous to humans as any other strain, even though there is only one documented case in which it has led to a fatal case of human rabies. Any animal with suspected rabies should not be approached. If it requires euthanasia, the local health department should be notified to obtain instructions on means of disposal. Saliva and other bodily fluids may carry the rabies virus. Many communities have animal control officers who can deal with rabid animals.
Rabies is so prevalent in some populations of wild raccoons that several states and the U.S. federal government, as well as authorities in Canada, have developed programs of oral vaccination to try to reduce the spread of this lethal disease. In Europe, raccoons have not yet been found to play a notable role in the spread of rabies or canine distemper, however the Baylisascaris roundworm is widely present in certain populations.
Raccoons are sometimes kept as pets. The results of ownership vary, depending on how responsible and knowledgeable the owner is of the raccoon as a species, as well as behavior, diet, etc.
In some states of the United States, it is illegal to keep raccoons as pets (see rabies). Other states allow the practice, but require exotic pet permits. Young orphan raccoons born in the wild may not always be a good choice for a pet - these animals are cared for and potentially released back into the wild through professional wildlife rehabilitation. Raccoons raised in captivity and released do not typically adapt well to life in the wild.
Tamed raccoons acquired from reputable breeders may make suitable pets. However the raccoon is still a wild animal by nature, so that is to be kept in mind before taming. Training raccoons is an intensive process. During mating season, many captive raccoons retain destructive and/or aggressive natural behaviors, such as constant biting. These problems are usually resolved ahead of time by spaying and neutering at around four months of age. Raccoons from breeders can sometimes come in different color variations, such as silver, albino, blonde, black, cinnamon, cream, and red to name a few.
Although nocturnal, captive raccoons can be trained to sleep at night and to be active during the day. Captive raccoons can also develop obesity and other disorders due to unnatural diet and lack of exercise.
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