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