Masked Bandits: The Necessary Precautions with Raccoons

closeup of Raccoon's face

Okay, I’m the first to admit that there’s not much cuter than a baby raccoon. Mischievous little roly-poly bundles of fur and fun, they are entertaining, intelligent and nimble. Absolutely irresistible, you say?

Well: resist them.

The extreme “adorable-ness” of raccoons has gotten them (and the humans who succumb to them) into more trouble than just about any species of wildlife native to the United States. Wildlife rehabilitators across the country probably receive more calls about raccoons than most of the other mammals which wander through the same range. Unfortunately, many of those calls run along the lines of:

“I found him as a baby and, suddenly, he’s forty pounds and attacking me!”

“He was hit by a car and let me pick him up; can I bring him to you?”

“They raided the trash (no, I didn’t lock down the covers, why?) in my yard and I think my dog is eating their poop.”

Looking at the above seemingly different scenarios, a wildlife rehabilitator is going to see something in common. That “something”, when you’re talking about raccoons, is a big problem:  direct contact with humans and household pets.

When You Find A Baby Raccoon

All wildlife should be left alone, unless there is a serious reason to intervene (such as knowing for a certainty the parents are dead, or the animal is injured). Unfortunately, raccoons seem to have a knack for finding trouble. Rescuing them requires special training, equipment, and licenses.

If you find a baby raccoon, don’t handle it. If you find an injured raccoon, don’t handle it. If a raccoon gets stuck in your attic … well, you get the idea. If you find raccoon excrement, keep the pets in the house, don a mask and rubber gloves, arm yourself with cleaning supplies that will prevent contact with the feces, and bleach the heck out of that area (a 10% solution of bleach and water should be sufficient).

Why All The Precautions?

  1. Baby Raccoons Grow Up. That adorable two pounds of wiggling, mewing sweetness may soon become forty pounds of snarling hormonal boar raccoon. Adult raccoons can easily tear apart a cat or small dog, and have been known to deliver serious bites to their “owners”. Not only is it illegal to keep a raccoon as a pet, it is dangerous, and (to be frank) just plain, well … not very smart.
  2. Raccoons are a Rabies Vector Species. Although states vary as to what animals classify as “Rabies Vectors” (some states list fox, others woodchucks, etc), most agree on “raccoons”. This means they are one of the most common species to contract, carry, and spread rabies to other mammals (human beings included). As with all “RVS”, special licenses and facilities are required to rehab them. If a human has handled a raccoon, even if the animal did not bite, the law in most areas considers that a rabies exposure. This may mean the animal will have to be destroyed and its brain tissue examined. If the presence of rabies is found, the human(s) who handled it will have to undergo post-exposure shots to prevent the disease from establishing. If the process is delayed, and symptoms of rabies begin, it’s too late for treatment. At that point rabies is 100% fatal — a horrific way to die.
  3. In addition to rabies, raccoons pose yet another potentially fatal threat. They frequently carry a species of roundworm called Baylisascaris procyonis. Although this parasite, for raccoons, delivers no more than a belly ache (like most roundworms do to their otherwise healthy host species), in other mammals, including humans, it is often fatal. The parasite can attack the liver, brain, and other organs. It often causes blindness. Eventually, coma and death will follow.

It’s a nasty one.

Don’t get me wrong, I love raccoons. I admire them, I laugh at their antics, I agree with everyone who oohs, aahs and grins over the cuteness of these masked bandits of the animal world. However, I also respect them.

Truly loving our wild neighbors begins with respect. Unless we understand both the blessings and the potential dangers that come along with being a part of nature, and treat her with the honor and caution she deserves, we have not yet learned what “loving wildlife” means.

Love the raccoons, but love them from afar. If you find yourself in potential confrontation with the species, call on the experts. Your local vet should have a list of numbers for local rehabbers, including those with Rabies Vector permits. Many Nuisance Wildlife Control officers are also vaccinated against rabies and licensed for raccoons. Don’t be tempted to handle the animal yourself — that’s a story that rarely has a happy ending.

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