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By Sally Griffin

Is it a bandit? Is it a wrestler? Who is out there going through my garbage? Who is the most smart-aleck party animal in our city? That would be raccoons, the masked invaders. They are portrayed by Hollywood and television as wisecrackers, devil-may-care, sassy but not threatening characters that provide levity in threatening situations. Think Rocket, the raccoon, from Guardians of the Galaxy or Rocky Raccoon from Saturday cartoons.

Raccoons are probably the only animal I will write about that is “dressed” appropriately for how they act. The most characteristic physical feature of the raccoon is the area of black fur around the eyes, which contrasts sharply with surrounding white face coloring. They are about 16 to 28 inches long, with a bushy tail that adds another 8 to 16 inches. Their weight ranges from 5 to 60 pounds. This range in weight is the most extreme for any small mammal and is influenced by where they live: city raccoons weigh more than country raccoons.

They steal seeds out of bird feeders, have fun fishing in koi ponds, rearrange garbage to include the whole yard. Then they move into our attics and garages. They consume our liquor. What? That’s right, they are omnivores and that seems to include alcohol.

When I first was talking about doing this article, my sister-in-law, who lives in an unincorporated part of Arvada, told me a story about their raccoons. She and my brother host a big Halloween party every year. One of the guests often brings “Jell-O shots” as her contribution to the party. These are portions of Jell-O in small containers that have shots of liquor infused in them. Most guests will try them, but not all guests enjoy them. The plastic containers are not completely emptied before being thrown in the trash. A helpful guest had placed the plastic containers and other trash in a plastic bag for trash pickup, then it was forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until early morning when it sounded like there was another party going on in the side yard. Upon investigation, the small party-goers scattered to reveal a precisely placed line of completely clean Jell-O shot containers. The other trash had been separated into food or play things, but then forgotten as a party commenced. Not all guests in the first party may have liked these Jell-O shots, but there was no doubt as far as the raccoon party was concerned.

When I researched this raccoon behavior, I found it was not an isolated incident. There have been reports of an invasion of a beer distributor’s warehouse, where a party of the rascals were found still staggering around, apparently still inebriated. In another instance, a single raccoon found a hole in the roof of a liquor store and proceeded to trash the goods until he found the $50 bottle of bourbon. Raccoons seem to be willing to try almost anything. They are omnivores whose diet consists of about 40 percent invertebrates, e.g. bugs and worms; 33 percent plant foods, particularly berries and nuts; and 27 percent vertebrates, e.g. mice, snakes, frog, lizards, fish. Zoology professor, Samuel I. Zeveloff argues that raccoons “may well be one of the world’s most omnivorous animals.”

Raccoons are noted for their intelligence with studies showing an ability to remember solutions for problems they solved almost three years earlier. Within the raccoon’s cat-sized brain, scientists say the neuron count, which indicates active intelligence, is very similar to that found in small primates. And, city raccoons appear to be smarter than their rural cousins.

Suzanne MacDonald, studying raccoon behavior in Toronto, found that urban raccoons outdid their rural counterparts in both intelligence and ability.

“Where rural raccoons took a long time to approach novel containers, city raccoons would attack them the moment I turned my back,” she said. Unlike many animals, raccoons have “flourished rather than receded in face of human expansion.” As cities invent more complex latches and levers to keep food sources from these animals, they may also be training raccoons to open them. Heaven forbid, but some have turned the tables on researchers and have even have taught themselves to open doors with knobs. (Note to self: They don’t close them.)

This intelligence makes raccoons extremely adaptable. They often migrate to and stay in suburban and urban areas, making their home in man-made structures, including attics, sewers, barns and sheds.

National Geographic points out that urban raccoons often travel by using the sewers. This keeps them from being hit by cars or harassed by people.

The Washington Post published an article last year by Karin Brulljard, with the headline, “It’s winter. Watch out for falling raccoons.” The article quotes a wildlife control company saying that about once a month in the winter, they get a call about a raccoon plummeting through a ceiling, stunning the people working below. They particularly like buildings with dropped ceilings that they can use as racoon terrain. The problem is that most dropped ceilings cannot support the winter weight of most raccoons. John Griffin (no relative), the Director of Urban Wildlife for the Humane Society of the U.S., says that, in houses, falling raccoons occur when ceiling drywall has become weakened by moisture or mold or when the critters have had enough time to produce a heavy latrine, as the toilet area is known. There is even a story of a surprised homeowner whose ceiling suddenly gave way, dumping the raccoons and the contents of their latrine on him in his bed in the middle of the night. All I can say to that is “Yuck!”

Unfortunately, raccoons can carry many diseases such as rabies and distemper. According the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, while rabies in Colorado is usually confined to bats, raccoons have accounted for the largest percentage of animal rabies cases reported since 1990. This is because rabies in raccoons can spread widely and quickly.

The symptoms of rabies in raccoons are a generally sickly appearance, impaired motion, strange vocalizations and aggressiveness. Most raccoons are smart enough to know that they will usually lose the fight with humans, but they will become aggressive if they are sick or if it is a mother defending her kits. It is a good rule of thumb to stay away from any animal acting strangely and call Wheat Ridge Animal Control or the CPW.

CPW emphasizes problem prevention by altering human activities such as leaving pet food outside, securing garbage cans, making landscaping changes to discourage raccoons. Havahart – at www.havahart.com/how-to-get-rid-of-raccoons – says that getting rid of raccoons takes an integrated approach and that applying several control methods at once will give you better success. They go into greater detail on these in their website, but generally they include removing food and water, identifying and removing areas where raccoons spend their time, live raccoon traps, raccoon repellents, electronic repellents and fencing.

Also, as my own tip, you might want to be careful how you dispose of your liquor.