Raccoons are part of a small unique group of mammals, along with humans, and monkeys, that have a large number of nerve endings in their hands and a disproportionately large area of their brain devoted to those nerve endings. Wet paws enhance their sense of touch. So though we think they are washing their food, they may be really just trying to get a better feel of it by wetting their paws. Scientists are conflicted on this point with some saying they are washing, and some insist raccoons are using their wet paws to thoroughly examine their food.
That explains why they prefer to be near wet habitat such as streams, rivers, lakes and marshes. But they have discovered that more developed areas around people are great, too. Away from people, a hollow log or abandoned burrow makes a nice den. But near you, a basement, crawl space, attic, and chimney will work in a pinch.
In our cities, rather than eat natural berries and nuts, they scour your garbage, pet food bowls, restaurant discards, and fast food litter for their meals.
In the city without any natural predators save the fast-moving car on the road, they are flourishing. The excess population spreads beyond the city and threatens songbirds, ducks, frogs, geese and more. Dense populations promote the spread of diseases like distemper and rabies.
All of this has meant that raccoons are frequently a nuisance. They dig up your lawn looking for grubs, use your pet bowls to wet their paws, raid your garbage cans and eat the food you put out for your dog. Our website has suggestions for dealing with problem raccoons: http://www.pawspartners.org/nuisance-raccoon.html.
And, here is a simple hint if you have a vegetable garden. If you grow sweet corn, plant squash between the rows of corn. Raccoons do not like to walk on the prickly squash vines and leaves.
They are sometimes a nuisance, but these cute masked critters are an important part of nature’s balance. Both in cities and on farms, they help to control lawn and agricultural pests. Be sure to practice good hygiene around your home to minimize the nuisance and let these raccoons do their job controlling pests.
One last point, these are not pets. Remember when your mother told you never to pick up a bird because it carried germs? Well, that is true for raccoons as well. Raccoons carry some dangerous bacteria that can be transferred to people. So, enjoy your dog or cat as a pet, and let the raccoons live the wild life.