You might wake up one morning to find your backyard littered with the well-gnawed remains of a late-night smorgasbord furnished by your trash bin. Maybe the pear tree next to your house has mysteriously lost all its fruit overnight. Or perhaps you fall asleep every night listening to the thump-thump-THUMP of many paws touching down on the attic floor overhead. You have a raccoon. But don’t worry. You are not alone.
Raccoons are common urban inhabitants—and regarded as pests by most of their human neighbors. But there are a few people who actually like having them around. October 1 is International Raccoon Appreciation Day (IRAD), a holiday started in 2002 by a young girl in California as a way to show that not everyone hates raccoons, according to the holiday’s website, which defines IRAD as “a day meant to celebrate all animals, specifically raccoons, that, while being an important part of their ecosystem, are misunderstood and considered ‘pests’ or ‘nuisance’ animals to local peoples.” To celebrate the holiday, the website encourages people to talk about raccoons with their friends and neighbors, and suggests going on a nature walk, donating to a local wildlife rescue or cleaning up litter at a local wild area.
The premise of Raccoon Appreciation Day—to help spread knowledge about wild animals that are sometimes considered pests—is something that permeates Megan Isadore’s work as a wildlife rehabilitator at Oakland’s Yggdrasil Urban Wildlife Rescue Center. Although she has never before celebrated the holiday, she said, “I think it’s a great idea and am so thankful to the young woman who thought of it. People who work toward a kinder, more generous and more inclusive relationship between humans and our natural world are to be admired and thanked.”
Isadore takes in orphaned raccoons and finds them foster families—volunteers who care for the babies until they can be released. She also manages Good Riddance! Wildlife Exclusions, a rescue center project that helps people solve wildlife-human conflicts without trapping or poisons. This is often as simple as waiting for the raccoons to leave on their nightly foraging runs and sealing up the places where they enter the house, she said. To protect fruit trees, rings of flexible plastic can be attached to the trunks of the trees to keep raccoons from climbing them.
“One of the reasons that I do this work is that our backyard wildlife—especially in places like Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda—sometimes are the only wild animals that people see. And they’re ubiquitous and they’re not going away,” Isadore said. “In response to living with wild neighbors we can either treat them like pests and kill them or we can be a little bit kinder to them and live in peace with them.”
For many people, however, the damage that raccoons can do to homes and yards makes them more of a nuisance than creatures to be appreciated. So far this year, the Alameda County Vector Control Office has received 674 calls about raccoons, making them the number one wildlife complaint, ahead of 389 calls for skunks and 151 for opossums, said Daniel Wilson, community relations coordinator with the agency. For the third year in row, wildlife calls have surpassed rodent complaints. According to Wilson, incidences of rodent calls began to drop after the real estate frenzy that seized Alameda County about ten years ago. As houses and neighborhoods were repaired and improved, rat populations went down and have been holding steady since then.
Raccoon problems, on the other hand, are on the rise. Wilson said that raccoon complaints have been going up steadily over the last three years. People usually call because they discover one or more raccoons living in their homes, digging up their yards in search of grubs, eating the fruit in their trees or going through their garbage. People also call when their pets have run-ins with a raccoon. Wilson said they’re seeing more and more of this trend involving smaller dogs that tend to have plenty of bark but not so much bite. “If a Chihuahua barks at a raccoon twice its size and provokes it, that’s a dangerous situation for the dog,” Wilson said.
Alameda County Vector Control will trap biting or nuisance animals, but because federal and state laws prohibit transporting wildlife across state and county lines, those animals will be euthanized rather than released elsewhere, Wilson said. In the majority of cases, the agency’s inspectors try to work with homeowners to find ways to exclude wildlife from their homes without resorting to trapping. Usually this means eliminating attractants in the yard, such as food or water left outside for pets, or uncontained garbage. Sealing up openings the raccoon uses to get in and out of the house, including dog or cat doors, also helps.
Wildlife experts say that the abundance of wildlife in urban areas stems from cities’ ready supply of food and shelter. In the wild, raccoons have to travel much farther to find enough food to eat and adequate places to sleep and bear their young. “In cities and suburbs, the concentrations of raccoons are actually higher than they would be in the wild,” said Susan Heckley, the wildlife rehabilitation director of the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek. “Raccoons are territorial animals and their ranges are determined by access to resources. In urban areas where there’s lots of food, they can get pretty tightly packed.”
The Lindsay Wildlife Museum has a veterinary emergency room and specialized out-care facilities where staffers provide rehabilitative services to injured wildlife, most of which come to the museum from urban areas. “The most common injuries we see are from cars, but wildlife will also come in with injuries from dogs or after having ingested poison, or falling out of trees and attics if they’re young,” Heckley said.
So far this year the museum staff has taken 133 raccoons into their care, the bulk of which are young that have been orphaned or abandoned. After they have been cared for, they are released where they came from, or at least within a mile or two of it, according to Heckley. “Biologically it’s correct to put them back,” Heckley said. “Raccoons have been known to travel up to 75 miles to get back to their homes when they’ve been displaced. They’ll come back, this just saves them the extra time it would have taken them.”
International Raccoon Appreciation Day may strike some as odd—celebrating an animal that seems to both be always around us and yet is still not very well understood. But Wilson, who has seen his share of human-raccoon conflicts in his 21 years with the Alameda County Vector Control office, sees no reason not to appreciate the raccoon. “Raccoons are a lively, attractive animal but unfortunately the way we organize ourselves into cities sets us up for conflict,” Wilson said. “But I realized that sometimes one person’s pest is something that someone else appreciates.”
Oakland North reporters Megan Molteni and Dylan Bergeson set out to track a raccoon in observance of International Raccoon Appreciation Day. They failed spectacularly.