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An Introduction to the Raccoon

A lot of people love the raccoon, with their little black burglar masks, and their shiny silvery fur, and their little baby hands that they touch everything with.  They are cute little things, but they can cause a heck of a lot of trouble!  Most wildlife species do everything for a reason.  Squirrels chew on things to keep their teeth in line.  Opossums hiss and drool to scare off predators.  Skunks dig up your yard looking for grub worms.  Raccoons sometimes cause havoc for absolutely no good reason.  They play.  They want to touch things because it is shiny, or soft, or it makes a fun noise.  That gazebo you put up?  It has shiny zippers that jingle when they are touched.  Those Christmas lights you hung?  They’re blinking and if you play with them you can make them go off and on by pulling out one bulb.  That garden you planted?  It might not have the tastiest fruits and vegetables, but tomatoes are squishy and fun to get in between your toes, and the trellis around the tomato plant is fun to climb.  That raccoon-proof trash can you paid $40 for?  That’s just a personal challenge waiting to be defeated.  The trash can could be empty, but it’s worth trying to outsmart anyway,  Oh – and that Koi pond?  How are we raccoons supposed to know that you silly people paid $200 a fish for a relaxing spot in your yard to sit?  We just assumed that these fish were here for us to play with!  Because of this playful nature, raccoons are often very difficult to solve conflict with.  We have to outsmart them, and at times outwit them in order to succeed.  Here are the most common raccoon conflict calls we receive.

RaccoonsRaccoon stuck in dumpster / window well / etc.

Raccoons do not think about an exit strategy when they jump in, head first, into a dumpster, or window well.  In the dumpster’s case, it is probably a place that they have often visited for their nightly meals.  To them, they have jumped into a dumpster  many times before and had no problems getting out when their bellies were full.  But when a dumpster is somewhat empty, there is nothing to climb to get out and the sides of the inside of a dumpster are very slick, with nothing to hold on to.  When you find a raccoon in this predicament, he will often cower in one corner of the dumpster, and when you look in, he will hide his head in his chest fur, or put his nose in the corner.  They almost look as though they are sorry, regretful, and embarrassed about the situation they are in.  You can help by putting something in the dumpster that the raccoon can use to climb out.  The item you place in the dumpster needs to be tall enough to at least reach halfway up the dumpster.  So if you have a 4ft deep dumpster, you’ll need something at least 2ft tall to let the raccoon use as a boost.  Booster items can be a milk crate or two, a plastic tote upside-down, a lawn chair, sturdy cardboard box that won’t fall apart when climbed on (like a computer paper box, or heavy shipping box.  You can also try lending the raccoon a hand by using things that he can climb to get out.  A 2×4 or any piece of lumber that can reach top to bottom, a tree branch that is long enough to touch the bottom of the dumpster and reach the top to climb, even a ladder or step stool will do.  Leave the lid up on one side of the dumpster, preferably the opposite side where the raccoon is.  Place the item he can use for climbing in the dumpster, furthest away from the raccoon.  And as always, WALK AWAY.  Give the raccoon time to think that the coast is clear so that he will climb out and go on his merry way.  After he is gone you can retrieve your item that you loaned him, and close the lid of the dumpster.  If for some reason the raccoon will not leave the dumpster after being left alone for an hour or more, call the wildlife hotline @ 1-855-WILD-HELP for further instruction.

Raccoons Raiding Trash Cans


People try bungee cords, “raccoon proof” trash cans, “repellents”, cayenne pepper, regular black pepper, spray the can with WD40 to make it slippery.  None of it works.  None of it will work.  The best solution is the simplest solution.  Do not put your trash out until morning, when the raccoons have gone in for the night.  A study was done in Canada in 2009 that showed that raccoons know what night trash is put out in one neighborhood versus another.  They know who puts trash out on Tuesday, and where to visit on Wednesday nights too.  They know when it’s just recycling stuff and nothing good to eat.  If you normally keep your trash cans outside even when they are not full, you may want to look into building a small, cheap cabinet to keep your trash cans inside.  Using plywood to build a small cabinet to hold two trash bins is fairly cheap and simple, and it allows you to lock your trash inside something when you go to bed at night.  If possible, store your trash cans indoors, in a garage or shed where animals cannot get to it.

Raccoons Out During the Day

Raccoons are rabies vector species, and it is fairly common for raccoons to get the rabies virus.  However, it is much more common for raccoons in Northeastern states than it is here in the Midwest.  Some of our specialists have been working with wildlife for over 20 years and none of them have ever encountered an actual rabies positive raccoon.  Rabies is a terrible virus that is terribly painful and debilitating, and often causes the animal to hide in the woods suffering until they succumb to the virus and die.  It is extremely uncommon in Missouri & Illinois.  However, it is possible for them to get it and transmit it to you and your pets.  The more likely cause of the raccoon that you see in your yard during the day is something much more benevolent.  Momma raccoons, like us humans, have to get up at all hours of the day to take care of their kids.  Sometimes this means that we/they are operating on 2 hours of sleep and when that baby/babies finally goes to sleep, it’s our only chance to get something to eat, drink, go to the bathroom, groom ourselves, and everything else we need to do.  If a Momma raccoon has five kids and is up at all hours feeding and caring for them, then it is totally normal to see her out in the middle of the day trying to find food, or get a drink of water.

RaccoonsIf you see a raccoon out during the day, take a moment and pay attention to what the animal is doing.  Is it purposeful, as though it is late for an appointment, and has a lot to do?  Is it wandering aimlessly?  Is the animal well kept, clean looking, and not acting drunk or disoriented?  A raccoon that is out during the day, regardless of the reason, should be clean, shiny looking, and should be in a hurry.  People often see them running from one place to another, or hurriedly grabbing bird seed off the ground while constantly looking over their shoulder for trouble.  This is absolutely normal.  It is also normal to see a juvenile raccoon (who may look like an adult) out and about during the day in some cases.  Kids have to learn how to be adult raccoons, and part of that process is learning to only go out at night time.  Sometimes juveniles don’t learn this lesson until a bit later in life, but don’t worry, they’ll figure it out eventually.  Again, the animal should be acting as though it has purpose though – not aimlessly walking in circles, or lying in the middle of an open area not even trying to hide or look out for predators.  That behavior is not normal and requires more investigation.  You can always call the hotline for more information if you’re not sure.

RaccoonsAs always, keep your pet’s vaccinations current and never leave them unattended or tethered outdoors where they may encounter a sick raccoon.  As opposed to rabies, raccoons here in the Midwest often get the canine distemper virus.  Distemper presents as a raccoon who is out during daytime, aimless, drunken, walking in circles, sometimes with nasal and ocular (eye) discharge.  Often times, these raccoons appear extremely friendly and approach people, kids, and domestic animals.  They do not intend to scare or hurt anyone, but because they are essentially ‘brain damaged’ by the distemper virus, they are extremely unpredictable and unsafe to be around.  If you see an animal like this, please report it to your local rabies control office, conservation department, or call the wildlife hotline for advice.  Warn children and pets to stay away, and warn your neighbors to make sure that their pets are current on their distemper vaccinations.  Distemper is an airborne virus and it is extremely contagious.  Sadly, it doesn’t take much for a distemper outbreak to spread and be completely devastating to our pet population.


Injured Raccoons

Sadly it is somewhat unlikely that you are truly seeing a raccoon with a broken leg.  When a wild animal is injured it usually hides, and becomes extremely defensive.  Wild animals never think that we are coming over to them to HELP them.  They will always think that if they are injured, they are vulnerable, and someone or something is going to attack them while they are down.  So if you see a raccoon that you think has a broken leg, and it is lying in plain sight, out during the day, or approachable in any way, it probably does not have a broken leg.  Most likely, it has distemper.  Distemper causes hind end paralysis at times, and often raccoons with distemper kind of ‘drag’ their back end along with them when they walk.  They may also walk in circles, and act extremely friendly when you walk up to them.  Even if a raccoon is so injured that it cannot get away from you, it should act terribly aggressive when you walk toward it.  It should hiss, snarl, show its teeth and fluff up to seem bigger.  If it does none of that, it is most likely not an actual physical injury.  It is more likely to be the distemper virus.  When in doubt, call the wildlife hotline @ 1-855-WILD-HELP for help in determining the best course of action to assist the animal.  Do not attempt to pick up, catch or handle the animal in any way, and keep household pets FAR away from the animal.  Vaccinations are not always 100% effective and there is no reason to take a chance in exposing your pet to a lethal virus that has no cure.


Baby Raccoons

Raccoons have babies in March/April and September/October each year.  They often choose hollowed out trees, under porches, in attics, sheds, carports to den these babies.  There are times that Mom leaves the babies behind while she goes out to get food, water, and what she needs to survive.  Depending on the age of the cubs, they will sometimes wander a bit while she is away.  These cubs are often unafraid of our household pets, or us humans.  Most times, mom will return soon, so try to usher the cubs back to their den site to await mother’s return.  If Mother doesn’t return, call your local rehab facility, or call the wildlife hotline @ 1-855-WILD-HELP to be directed to the closest available rehab center.

Raccoon mothers have a really nasty habit of leaving just one cub behind when they move the rest of the kids from den to den.  If you find just one raccoon cub, it may be the one she left behind.  Often this means that the little one just wasn’t as strong as the others and Mom had to make a judgement call.  It’s sad, but it is the way of nature.  Most local rehabbers would be happy to take the extra time to bring that little one up to adulthood.  Call the wildlife hotline to find a rehabber near you.

Transport & Travel Instructions for Getting Babies to Rehab


… A Word about Poison …

We at the Wildlife Hotline are strong opponents to poisoning wildlife.  First off, it is not a legal way to handle wildlife conflicts.  Secondly, poison never ends up only affecting the animal that you intended to poison.  These animals are part of the circle of life, and if poisoned a predator comes along and eats the dead animal which then kills the predator, which gets picked apart by birds, which then kills the birds, then the birds are found by a domestic cat and kills the cat.  It just isn’t simple issue.  Poison has proven to be a far too dangerous way to handle wildlife conflicts.  Before you decide to use poison to handle your wildlife conflict please read our ‘Poison Risks & Consequences’ page to learn more about this issue.

As always, if you find an injured, orphaned, or sick animal, or you need more assistance, please call the Wildlife Hotline @ 1-855-WILD-HELP to speak with a wildlife specialist.