Raccoons in Portland, Ore. – 06/18/2004

  • September 30, 2013 at 11:43 pm #532


    As in many of these animal-death stories, the question to ask is: WHY NOW? What has changed? (-MC)

    Easily obtained garbage and pet food encourage urban populations to
    build up until they become more susceptible to disease

    Wednesday, June 16, 2004
    Since April, when eight raccoons tested positive for distemper, the
    virus has spread in raccoons throughout the Portland area, sickening
    and killing dozens.

    The outbreak has called attention to the large population of furry
    bandits working the city and suburbs. But wildlife experts say there
    is not much for people to fear. It’s the raccoons that are getting
    hurt — and people are partly to blame.

    In Portland and other cities all over North America, raccoons gather
    in higher densities than in rural and natural areas. In the city,
    they are relatively protected from natural predators, and supported
    by a wealth of kitchen garbage, garden vegetables, and pet food —
    often supplied intentionally by well-meaning people. But the crowded
    gatherings allow infectious diseases to spread rapidly across large
    numbers of raccoons.

    “Putting out food for raccoons, that’s one of the most destructive
    things you can do,” said Bob Sallinger, director of the animal care
    center for the Audubon Society of Portland.

    Distemper can’t infect people, but it can be highly contagious among
    dogs that have not been immunized. Distemper is not related to
    rabies, which has not been detected in raccoons in Oregon for many
    years. Raccoons sick with distemper typically become lethargic rather
    than aggressive.

    Raccoons are resourceful, intelligent scavengers and hunters; they
    need no handouts to thrive. The common name for the species derives
    from an Algonquin tribal word, “aroughcun,” which refers to grasping
    hands. Raccoons’ paws have slender, dexterous digits like human
    hands. Their prey include crayfish, frogs, waterfowl eggs, worms,
    snails, and bee and ant larvae. They also dine on such vegetarian
    fare as wild berries, grapes and corn — a favorite.

    Leftovers and snacks, especially junk food, are as bad for raccoons
    as for people. Raccoons fed by visitors at a state park in Illinois
    developed elevated cholesterol levels, higher rates of gum disease,
    and more tooth caries than other raccoons, in a study done several
    years ago by the Illinois Natural History Survey Center for Wildlife
    Ecology and the University of Illinois.

    In Portland area raccoons, outbreaks of distemper repeat about every
    five to seven years, according to the Audubon Society and the Oregon
    Department of Fish and Wildlife. The current outbreak began in
    Southwest Portland, and about three dozen sick or dead animals have
    since turned up throughout the metro area, Sallinger said.

    Immunity not transferred

    Similar cycles occur in localities across the nation. Authorities
    speculate that distemper outbreaks erupt when raccoon numbers reach
    critically high levels.

    However, a population increase would not be necessary to sustain an
    outbreak. As older animals die naturally, they are replaced by
    younger animals who have not developed immunity from past exposure to
    the virus.

    Wildlife authorities don’t systematically count raccoons in Portland
    or statewide, so there is no direct way to measure whether the
    population is rising, stable or falling.

    Research in other regions, however, suggests that cars, trappers and
    hunters are what most regulate raccoon populations, killing more
    animals than diseases and predators. Studies in Illinois and Iowa in
    the 1990s found that trapping, hunting and roadkills accounted for
    more than 80 percent of raccoon deaths in mostly rural settings. A
    raccoon’s chance of dying in a given year was about 25 percent to 50
    percent in those studies.

    In Oregon last year, trappers and hunters killed about 3,400
    raccoons, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Raccoon
    pelts fetched an average of $6 in 2002, the most recent year tallied
    by state officials.

    Many are killed for sport or to get rid of “nuisance” individuals
    around homes and farms, which is legal only if you have a permit or
    hire a professional service that has a permit from the Department of
    Fish and Wildlife.

    Small risk of diseases

    Besides raiding crops and invading attics, raccoons bring a small
    risk of transmitting diseases to people. Rabies among raccoons is
    expanding along the East Coast. On the West Coast and elsewhere,
    raccoons harbor a parasitic roundworm called Baylisascaris, which can
    spread to people exposed to raccoon droppings. Only 13 cases have
    been documented in the United States, but four have occurred in
    California since 1993, and the victims were mostly children. A third
    of the people died, and the rest were left with severe brain damage.

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