Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

Years ago we entertained several members of the Stuttgart Symphony Orchestra who were in town for a concert. After dinner we were extolling the virtues of Ashland when the conversation got around to the local wildlife. Raccoons were mentioned. Seeing the Germans’ puzzled look, I described a small mammal a little bigger than our dog, black-masked, full, bushy, ringed tail. “Ah, Waschbaren,” they said in unison. They knew our raccoon as the washing bear, an immigrant that has become a fixture of European fauna since 1945.

We don’t know why raccoons wash their food before they eat. Perhaps they wash their food to clean away sand and grit. Others maintain that they are feelers. They find their underwater crayfish prey by grope and feel. In captivity they wet their food, perhaps to heighten their sense of touch. If there is no water, they rub and eat dry food. If there is no food, they rub their hands together, maybe in anticipation of another meal. Maybe it is just a nervous habit.

Ashland raccoons are natives, but not true urbanites. True urban dwellers live in attics, crawl spaces, and dormant chimneys. Urban raccoons use storm systems and sewers as freeways. Ashland raccoons are more suburban, entering town to work and dine, but spending much of their time sleeping in the wild.

Raccoons are omnivores with teeth to prove it. Sharp canines and incisors for crayfish and other small animals and flattened molars for berries, nuts, and seeds, or your sweet corn and cherries.

At the time, Ashland’s bold, brassy raccoons were quite a nuisance. Noisy late-night interludes included “chirring” noises in the backyard lawn over big fat nightcrawlers, or maybe something, err ahh sexual. There were climbing and feasting in grape arbors and fruit trees. Ears of sweet corn with husks pulled back with just a dainty bite or two removed were on the ground. Piles of excretory offerings from your or neighbors’ trees and garden resulted. There were confrontations with your cat or dog, or you. Big surprises on your side of the pet door, like 40 pounds of indignant raccoon who didn’t like his meal interrupted by the help.

What to do or not? Trapping, live or the other way, won’t work. Others will occupy their space. Decreasing the carrying capacity of their environment is the best solution. Quit feeding them, don’t leave out Bowser’s uneaten dinner, lock up the garbage can, prohibit public feeding. If they are using attics, crawl spaces and dormant chimneys, seal them over.

As far as I know rabies hasn’t been reported in Oregon raccoons…yet. Rabid raccoons are not a direct threat to humans, though pets are at risk. Immunize Fido and the cat against rabies, and don’t take on raccoons yourself. In the southeast, raccoons carry at least 13 pathogens known to cause disease in humans. Still want to feed raccoons on your deck?

The raccoon problem disappeared in Ashland when Mother Nature asserted her somewhat less than gentle self. Canine distemper caused the local raccoon population to crash. I have seen but one in the last five years. Friends tell me they are back in town and my tiny patch of watered lawn has little cavities dug out by raccoons hunting earthworms. I just haven’t seen them.

I have read that raccoon meat is good (tasting somewhat like lamb), but all fat should be removed before roasting. Horace Kephart, source of our opossum recipe (page 106), suggests removing the scent glands under each front leg and on either side of the small of the back before parboiling with one or two changes of water depending on the animal’s age. Horace says stuff it like a turkey, bake it to a delicate brown, and serve it with fried sweet potatoes. Be sure to cook it well. As with all omnivores, trichinosis is always a risk. Horace Kephart doesn’t mention bourbon whiskey as an accompaniment this time, as he did for opossum. I do, for you.

— Dr. Frank Lang

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