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Nature | Raccoon Nation

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Watch Sunday, August 24, 2014 at 8pm on WORLD.

When the lights go down in cities across North America, another world is revealed, populated by shady little characters that live alongside us, but exist in the margins. These pint-size problem solvers are smart, adaptable and omnivorous, and they love a good challenge. Welcome to the world of urban raccoons. With their busy little hands, they can do what other would-be urban animals can’t – open doors, get into attics, and raid secured trash cans. And they are especially fond of big cities, like Chicago, New York, and Toronto – the raccoon capital of the world. In cities everywhere, wherever they’ve been introduced, they have done very, very well. Using both night-vision cameras and raccoon-proof radio collars, scientists set out to learn about their hidden, intimate world. 

Originally from the tropics, where they could be found foraging along riverbanks, over time raccoons moved north, adapting to new environments, predators, and foods. In the process, they developed a real taste for big city life. As a result, raccoon populations have grown twenty-fold in North American cities over the last seventy years, and there are now fifty times more raccoons living in Toronto than in the same area in the surrounding countryside.

Following a family of urban raccoons over the course of six months as the young leave their den high in a tree and head down dark alleyway and haunts with their mother, high-definition cameras 12/9/11 and intensive GPS tracking reveal new insights about a species that is far more elusive and wily than most people ever imagined, and more destructive.

A study on interspecies communication has demonstrated real risks associated with urban raccoons. Increased contact between animals rarely in such close contact can escalate exposure to contagious diseases and cause them to become more robust and infectious. Chicago is fighting outbreaks of parasites carried and transmitted by the raccoons that have overrun their city.

North America is not the only place raccoons have populated and made their own. In Japan, where raccoons are not indigenous, a popular 1970’s cartoon made baby raccoons all the rage and thousands were shipped into the country. Then these tiny pets grew up, became far less appealing and were released into the wild, where they immediately found new accommodations that suited them well. Their new landlords, however, are less than happy.

These tenacious tenants have caused damage to 80% of the ancient shrines and temples in the country and have proven nearly impossible to evict.

The city of Kassel, in central Germany, is home to the largest population of raccoons in Europe, nearly 300 per square mile, all descendants of a pair of raccoons imported in the 1930’s and some two dozen raccoons that escaped from a local fur farm. Using the drainpipes they found on every home in the area to climb up and in, raccoons have made su casa es mi casa their way of life. Scientists and engineers are left to take on their ever growing numbers, house by house.

It seems that the more obstacles you throw in their way, the smarter they get. In an effort to outwit raccoons, we may be pushing their brain development and perhaps even sending them down a new evolutionary path. One biologist who has been studying raccoons for 25 years believes the city life is in fact cultivating “über-raccoons,” ready to take over the world. But it looks as though they will continue to do so one small area at a time. At the end of a two-month radio-collar study, it’s discovered that city raccoons average a surprisingly small home range of only about three square blocks. Still, it’s all they need to live in comfort. And only time will tell just how advanced this
“nation” of urban raccoons will become.

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