Raccoons are distinguished by their black facial mask, dark gray fur and a tail ringed with black stripes. They are medium-sized mammals in the order Carnivora and have bodies about 1.5-2 feet in length and tails about 10” long, weighing normally in the range of 10-30 pounds, but individuals may be much heavier. Raccoons are in the family Procyonidae, along with other species occurring in the U.S. such as the Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), which is rather widespread in southwestern states, and the Coati (Nasua narica) found throughout Mexico and up into the southern parts of the border states.
Raccoons are naturally nocturnal forest mammals, with great climbing ability, and they commonly sleep in tree dens or tree notches during the day. They may also take refuge in other sheltered sites like dense shrubbery or wood piles, or underground in woodchuck or badger holes. Their very mobile front toes, five on each foot, enable them to climb well and to manipulate food items almost as if they had hands. They prefer habitats near water where they can hunt for various aquatic prey like crayfish and other mollusks as well as fish and amphibians. Though genetically related to other carnivores, most closely to bears, raccoons are omnivorous in diet. They seem to enjoy the act of feeling around in the water for food items there and will even take dry food items and dunk them in water in order to fish them back out again. This behavior is so common that the scientific name reflects it; “lotor” being Latin for “washer.” I have observed this behavior enough in captive raccoons that I have concluded that they are not so much “washing” their food as just creating a situation in which they can search for and retrieve a food item from the water.
They have been described as opportunistic in feeding habits, after the digestive tracts of carcasses were found to contain masses of particular foods, like corn or berries. The assumption was that raccoons ate any potential food item they came across until it was exhausted before moving on to find something else. However, I conducted a multi-year food preference experiment in which I discovered food preferences in two groups of captive wild raccoons. When offered a selection of naturally occurring foods, raccoons selected high calorie sweet fleshy fruits most often over other items, with acorns (hard mast items) coming in second. Corn, fowl eggs, crayfish, and soil invertebrates were eaten but not preferred over the top two foods. This experiment proved that if a raccoon had a choice of more than one natural food in the wild it would make a choice and not just randomly eat whatever it came across first. In other words, a sweet corn field would probably be passed by if there was a fruit tree nearby.
Raccoons are widely distributed across the U.S. and Canada and down through Mexico and Central America. However, they are very adaptable omnivores and their populations have increased in the U.S. with urbanization, as the raccoons find an abundant and varied supply of foods around human habitations that are unavailable in the wild and which produce a virtual gormet diet for the animals. They are also active and aggressive, not hesitating to forage in urban environments. In addition to abundant and varied foods, urban environments offer multiple refuge sites, such as abandoned buildings and attics.
While raccoons will readily approach and explore around human habitations for food and refuge, they do not make very good pets. They are intelligent and versatile animals, but their nature is to actively examine and explore their environment. In addition to their being wild animals, not domesticated over generations like our dogs and other pets, these natural behavioral traits do not bode well for them living peacefully in a structured, orderly human home. My personal experience with attempting to raise an infant Coati during my youth taught me a good lesson in the hazards of bringing a wild procyonid into the home. During waking hours it actively foraged around the house. This involved systematically removing books from shelves and tearing through the pages looking for something to eat. Other items of value were similarly destroyed. The animal was not amenable to any kind of training and had no submissive behavior. It was eventually donated to the local zoo, a less than desirable option and the result of a foolish choice on my part to adopt the animal in the first place.
While raccoons may live more than 20 years, their life in the wild is fraught with dangers that often limit longevity to much shorter spans of time. Some 50% of young may die within the first year. Loss of the mother to predation, hunting, disease, or vehicular mortality, sentences her infant young to death. Cold winters also affect survival of juveniles. Natural predators include bobcats, coyotes, and great horned owls, among others. Hunting raccoons for fur or for sport is a significant source of population mortality. Raccoons are easily “treed” by dogs, being large, easily seen, and rather limited in their ability to escape and hide.
Raccoons are also subject to a range of diseases and parasites, rabies being one of the most common. While normally nocturnal in activity patterns, observing a raccoon during the day does not necessarily indicate a diseased animal. However, any raccoon that is seen to be overly aggressive, unafraid of or approaching humans or pets, or otherwise behaving strangely, should be avoided and reported to local animal control officers.