ONE NIGHT a few weeks ago, I opened the sliding glass door to let my dog out, and noticed a furry rustle behind the ferns.
"Kitty?" I nervously squeaked, wandering outside in my socks. Then suddenly, a blob of fur turned its head—and I found myself staring into the disgusting beady eyes of nature's most despised uninvited step-cousin: the raccoon.
I looked at my precious 17-pound pug, then back again at the gigantic hulking rat three feet away.
"Shoo!" I said. No response from the raccoon.
"SSSSSSSSSSSSSS!" I hissed. Nothing.
Are raccoons afraid of snake noises? Are they afraid of anything? Will it eat my dog? Can my dog eat it? Or—hang on—can I eat it?
It took all of 20 seconds in this death-stare competition to realize I know absolutely nothing about this motherfucker in my fern. And because I want to hate them—along with some of their other confusing urban mammal pals—I set out to find reasons to do so. To make me more smartly biased, I turned to local experts, Mike Oswald from Multnomah County Animal Services and Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland.
WHAT LURKS IN THE SHADOWS OF PORTLAND?
Just as people flock to our lush green city, so too do animals. Raccoons, opossums, squirrels, and nutria are among the grossest, in my correct opinion. We are also blessed with cute urban critters—like coyotes and cougars—but they make sense to me. Birds and insects are annoying, too... but I refuse to get into that here.
WHY ARE THEY HERE?
Raccoons are more or less a native species. Opossums (AKA "possums," if you're a hill-person) came here from the East Coast. They have pouches, like kangaroos, but don't be fooled—they're not kanga-cute. Nutria were brought to Oregon from South America to be made into jackets and hats, and decided they'd much rather escape and freak us out with their red teeth and advanced swimming skills. Squirrels are just everywhere, always, generally. They're little and they're fast. Opossums can get to be as big as a large cat, whereas adult nutria and raccoons easily outweigh my defenseless but adorable pug.
All these very adaptable demons have come to appreciate our urban habits—the way we consolidate our garbage in outdoor areas, and leave cat food and water dishes on our porches. Raccoons can cruise several miles to feast; that said, while they could live in the woods like normal animals, they much prefer the convenience of doghouses, abandoned cars, attics, and the empty spot under the stairs of your porch where they can paw at your feet when you least expect it.
Sallinger from the Audubon Society told me that a huge issue in this kind-hearted city of ours is people feeling a sense of misplaced sympathy about encroaching on animal habitats, and out of guilt, leaving food outside for them. But guess what? Raccoons are not territorial. No matter how much food you put out, as many raccoons as it will feed will gather to eat it. They share. They will never be satiated.
In other words, it's our own damn fault for the evil that raccoons bring to our community.
BUT I DON'T WANT THEM TO HANG AROUND!
"Get used to it," say the pros.
WHAT MAKES RACCOONS EXCEPTIONALLY GROSS?
Raccoons have thumbs, which means they can open things. One time my ex-husband threw away a whole frozen turkey and a raccoon got into the garbage can and ate most of it, spreading turkey carcass everywhere and making a huge mess. I knew it was a raccoon because the mess was very dexterous.
Raccoons are also very smart. Even though we may not always notice them, they are always present. They're staring at us from the trees when we are going to and from work. They know when we're not home, and when it's safe to creep into our yards. They see where we put things and notice the weaknesses in our defenses. You think I'm joking, but I swear to God, this is exactly as creepy as the Audubon Society guy explained it.
"They are very smart," he repeated ominously.
FUN FACT: Raccoons are big carriers of rabies in the Midwest and eastern states. I felt immense West Coast pride to learn that our raccoons merely carry distemper. Distemper is equally bad for you if you're bitten, but it just sounds classier, right?
Sick raccoons are more confident and less fearful of humans, and even when they're not sick, they can turn their paws around 180 degrees to walk down a tree face first. Sleep tight!
HOW DO I DEAL WITH A RACCOON IN MY YARD?
According to my much smarter sources, the way you deal with raccoons varies greatly depending on the percentage of life they have left. Are they dead? Are they mean? Are they alive, but injured? Are they under your house making noise? You can call animal control (988-7387) with questions, but they might refer you out, depending on the status of your intruding raccoon. Mean and injured raccoons will need to be dealt with by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (947-6000), then often passed over to the Audubon Society (292-6855). Dead or nuisance raccoons will probably get handled by the health department (988-3464). A lot of agencies have their fingers in raccoon maintenance. (UGH! We do so much for these monsters!)
That said, this blessed state of ours does not require catch-and-release. The pest control guy you found on Yelp might humanely move a raccoon into some other schmuck's yard, but it'll probably find its way back—or if you're lucky, permanently become that other schmuck's problem, which is not very community-minded of you, is it? If you call a city or county agency to move your raccoon, it will likely be put down. The Audubon Society's Sallinger said that moving raccoons accomplishes nothing. They're only annoying because they want so much human stuff, and since they've become so reliant on us, they're going to be useless on their own in a forest. Calling an agency to complain about an intrusive raccoon is requesting its murder. No judgment! Totally fine with me, I hate 'em, too. Just don't lie to yourself.
"So what do I do if I see one in my yard?" I asked Oswald from Multnomah County Animal Services.
"Stay inside," he said.
Oh, great! I actually worked really hard to purchase this dumb house—but if a raccoon wants it? I suppose that makes it his. Sallinger recommended growling and throwing rocks. (I like his suggestion better.)
WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO KEEP THEM THE HELL AWAY FROM MY STUFF?
Do what you can to make your yard inhospitable. And don't feed them! They can find another sucker to mooch off of, or in the absence of that, a McDonald's dumpster will also suffice. The cocky raccoons that just walk into people's houses—it happens!—are ones who have been pitied by your clueless neighbors. Feel free to glare at everyone.
WAIT... BUT WHAT ABOUT OPOSSUMS?
While researching this story I learned that opossums have existed since the time of the dinosaurs and can eat literally anything. I respect that. Opossums get a pass.
TO REITERATE: RACCOONS = THE WORST?
I tried to get Sallinger to say that raccoons were the worst, but he wouldn't do it.
"Our focus is on co-existence." UGH.
But let's not forget, coyotes are also really bad! I know, I was surprised too, because they're dogs, and dogs are cute. But they're a big issue, because in addition to adapting easily to urban life, they also eat cats and small dogs (which I grudgingly admit raccoons are not likely to do). Sallinger said the majority of the calls about urban animals regard coyotes and concerns about them lurking too close to people.
"But like raccoons, they're always there, too," he said. (Keep an eye on your cats!)
"Then coyotes are worse than raccoons?" I asked.
"Both could have negative interactions," Sallinger said diplomatically. "Coyotes can eat your cat, but raccoons can get into your attic."
In short, nowhere is safe.
The Audubon Society gets upward of 10,000 wildlife questions a year. Sallinger said a lot of people actually ask for grants to help feed the gigantic posse of raccoons that were attracted to people's yards after food was left out for them. Surprise, dummies! They don't give grants for that! In fact, the Audubon Society actively discourages people from feeding raccoons, because (surprise again!) raccoons can find their own shit to eat.
Sallinger's favorite story is about a guy who would leave the top off his hot tub during the day, because he thought it was so cute to come home after work to find raccoons having a pool party. Then one day he came home to discover the raccoons had fully dismantled his hot tub, leaving a gigantic mess. He called the Audubon Society feeling very betrayed. (The Audubon Society doesn't pay for broken hot tubs either.)
Sallinger also said that, back in the '90s, a lot of people "adopted" baby wild animals to raise as pets, then called for help when the critters resumed their wild animal behaviors.
"A woman once called to ask if it was okay for her child to bathe in the bathtub with a raccoon, and if the child might get sick when the raccoon poops in the water." Folks: This is a NO. Sallinger has also spoken with women—human women—who took in baby raccoons and breastfed them. From their human bodies.
Raccoons have eaten three of my friends' chickens. Another friend claimed that a raccoon opened the door to her house and walked right in—like it fucking lived there. Another friend said he had to chase raccoons out of his attic and down the stairs with a BB gun to get it outside. And even my beloved mom insists that the raccoons who lived in her yard would consciously flip her off.
SOOOOO... CAN I LET MY PUG OUTSIDE IF THERE'S A RACCOON OUT THERE?
Both experts advise against it—but if you feel comfortable letting the love of your life take its chances with a filthy, bloodthirsty monster, well... who am I to judge?