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12/16/2003
Division of Wildlife

DISCOURAGING UNWELCOME RACCOONS FROM YOUR BACKYARD

Tips on coexisting with wildlife: dealing with raccoons in your backyard

With their distinctive black “bandit” mask and ringed, bushy tail, raccoons (Procyon lotor) are rarely mistaken for any other animal. However, since they are most active at night, the only evidence they have visited your yard may be damaged plants, scattered garbage, and occasional droppings. Although raccoons prefer wooded areas near streams and marshes, they thrive in urban areas where there is easy access to such food as garbage, gardens and bird feeders. Like its larger cousin, the bear, the raccoon is an omnivore, and its ability to find food in nearly any habitat has allowed it to expand its territory and adapt easily to human presence.

While many people enjoy glimpsing the charming behavior of raccoons, they sometimes move into locations that are too close for comfort. If you have raccoons living where you don’t want them, the only real solution is to correct the problem of attractants. Try to determine why the raccoons are in your yard or attic. Are they finding food, water and shelter? Whatever is attracting them must be removed or cleaned up. This means all residents in a neighborhood will need to change their ways because the raccoons cannot change their behavior – their instincts will direct them to look for food.

Raccoons often spend daylight hours hidden under decks, in hollow trees, and even in attics or drainpipes, and spend nights searching for food. Raccoons are opportunistic, and their diet can include fruits, nuts, grains, insects, rodents, rabbits, birds, eggs, turtles, fish, carrion, garbage and crops such as corn. They will eat dead animals if they find any; they'll sample gardens, bird feeders and pet food bowls when available; and they'll raid garbage cans that aren't secured.

Garbage cans and dumpsters can be a banquet for raccoons and other small critters. If there is a shed or secure garage where trash can be stored prior to pickup, this will reduce the attraction to raccoons and other wildlife. Look for garbage cans with secure lids or use straps to attach the lid to the can. Rinse cans with ammonia to remove food smells that appeal to raccoons.

Decorative Koi ponds, with bright ornamental goldfish, are special favorites of raccoons. Raccoons love wading in shallow ponds to catch Koi. If you don’t want to remove your backyard pond, you must either make radical changes to the pond design or prepare to continually buying more fish to feed any raccoons and predatory birds who visit your yard. Ponds with steep sides have fewer raccoon problems than ponds with a gentle slope. If the sides of the pond are nearly vertical, raccoons would rather find another meal than go for a swim. If the water is deep -- at least 3 feet -- add some cinder blocks or large rocks at the bottom so fish have a place to hide from predators.

Raccoons can create dens under decks, porches and cellar crawl spaces. With their long, finger-like digits, they can pull away loose boards and pry into small entrances. By using smells, noises and lighting, you may be able to make your location less desirable and encourage a raccoon family to find a new home. To be certain that raccoons are using a den site, you can sprinkle flour at a suspected entrance at night. Check for tracks leading away from the site, and place ammonia-soaked rags inside the entrance when the raccoons are out. (Place the rags on an aluminum pie pan so the ammonia doesn’t soak away into the ground.) If you have a portable radio, find an obnoxious music station, turn it up loud, and leave the radio in side the den. Bright lights, especially flashing lights, also discourage raccoons from an area. (You may be able to find a flashing emergency flashlight where camping equipment or auto supplies are sold.) If you have a bright light that operates on motion sensor, point it to the raccoons’ area to annoy them. Check for tracks to determine when the raccoon has ventured out at night. Once you are certain the raccoon family is out, cover every possible entrance with woven fencing, such as chicken wire, to prevent the return of the raccoon. You can also stuff newspaper inside the hole to make it harder to enter, and so you can tell by ripped paper if the persistent raccoon has returned.

Raccoons can climb trees, downspouts, or vines near the house to get into an attic. To prevent raccoons from entering houses, roofs and chimneys should be well maintained. Check for holes, replace loose shingles, and securely place a chimney cap over the chimney. Limiting the access to the roof by trimming trees and shrubs may also be helpful.

Electric fences may help to keep raccoons out of gardens. The wires must be spaced close together and close to the ground in order to be effective. (Do not use electric fences in an area where they pose a danger to small children or pets.)

Making your yard and home an unpleasant place for raccoons can seem like a lot of work. Some people ask why animal control officers or the Division of Wildlife won’t come remove an unwanted animal and take it to an appropriate location.

“Moving problem wildlife doesn’t solve the problem,” said Sharlene Haeger, District Wildlife Manager. “If a raccoon, or any other wildlife, has established a home in your yard, it means that it has found the food, shelter and water it needs to survive. If you move an animal, but leave the attractants in place, new wildlife will find the attractants and move right in. Unless you change the habitat to discourage animals you don’t want present, they will keep moving back in the same places.”

While raccoons are not generally aggressive or vicious, they are defensive and will fight back if they are cornered. Use caution if you find a raccoon that appears sick or injured; do not let your pets approach any wildlife, but particularly avoid an animal that is cornered and frightened. Raccoons are susceptible to outbreaks of distemper and rabies and can transmit these diseases to unvaccinated pets. It’s generally a good idea NOT to approach or touch wildlife, but if you see a raccoon or other animal showing signs of abnormal behavior such as attacking, being out in the open during daylight hours; exhibiting “drunken” behavior; appearing disoriented; paralyzed or acting “strange,” assume the animal may be ill and keep your pets away. Canine distemper in raccoons starts slowly, first appearing as an upper respiratory infection, with a runny nose and goopy eyes. Humans are not at risk from distemper, as the disease cannot be passed on to people.

Raccoons breed in late winter or early spring; and the young are typically born in April or May. Females produce one litter per year, with an average of four cubs per litter. The cubs are born blind, helpless, but by three to four months, the cubs begin to forage on their own.

“Young raccoons are very appealing. When people happen upon a baby raccoon, they may want to pick it up and keep it as a pet,” Haeger said. “But, don’t! Not only is it illegal to possess wildlife, but as it grows up near humans, it will learn behavior that will make it difficult to release into the wild.” Animals that are used to being hand-fed can become aggressive asking for food, and aggressive animals that bite or scratch will have to be destroyed.

“Having raccoons and even fox around can be beneficial,” Haeger said. “If you keep the pet food put away, they will eat mice and other rodents, and they are enjoyable to watch in a wild setting. Keeping your yard and house free of attractants will go a long way to keeping the peace in your neighborhood."

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