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Living Sanibel: Say hello to your little friend

By Staff | Oct 22, 2014

If there is one wild mammal you can expect to see in southwest Florida, it is the raccoon. Intelligent, curious, and persistent, the raccoon has adapted well to the behavior of humans. Because of this, and in large part owing to the raccoon’s ability to access both residential and commercial refuse containers, its population in urban and suburban settings is artificially higher than could be sustained with natural foraging alone. Studies have indicated that this population of urbanized raccoons can be 20 times denser than in a natural wooded environment of the same size.

In the wild the raccoon eats insects, lizards, acorns, plants, worms, nuts, and fruit. It will take young marsh rabbits, raid birdnests for eggs and chicks, and dig up sea-turtle nests to reach the eggs. The raccoon also eats the small black dates found in the fall on cabbage palms, as well as the figs of the strangler fig. In urban and suburban settings it subsists predominantly on residential and commercial garbage, ferreting out everything from old milk cartons to greasy chicken wings. The word raccoon is derived from arakun, an Algonquin word meaning “he scratches with his hands.”

The raccoon found in the southern part of Florida is much smaller than its northern counterpart. It also tends to have longer legs to help dissipate heat. In Colorado one raccoon was verified to weigh 62 pounds, while most Florida raccoons seldom exceed 10 pounds. The raccoon is a very distant relative of the giant panda and the bear, but it is much more closely related to the similar-looking coati and ringtail, found in Central and South America.

The raccoon is one of the primary carriers of rabies in the United States. It is also prone to picking up canine distemper. If you see a raccoon behaving strangely, especially if it appears to be disoriented or unusually aggressive, call the local authorities and report the animal. Never approach or attempt to capture a wild raccoon, as it has very sharp teeth, strong jaws, and can inflict a vicious bite. If you are bitten by a raccoon, you will have to undergo rabies treatments.

The lifespan of a wild raccoon is much shorter than that of a captive raccoon. The young are preyed upon by owls and eagles, while the adult is taken by alligators and bobcats. Many of the young, who are weaned by 16 weeks, simply starve to death.

Raccoon litters range from two to five kits; 90 percent fail to survive past the age of two. Much of the adult and juvenile mortality comes from of automobile collisions. The age-old adage “Speed kills!” should be amended to “Speed kills wildlife!” Please obey the posted speed limits and be on the lookout for wildlife, especially at night, dusk, and dawn when the majority of wild animals become active.

Look for raccoons just about anywhere, but especially the same night you put your garbage cans out for pickup. Considered as intelligent as dogs, local raccoons seem to know the garbage pickup days better than do most husbands.

Charles Sobczak is a Sanibel author whose works include the novel “Six Mornings on Sanibel,” and two local guide books, “Living Sanibel A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands” and “The Living Gulf Coast A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida.” His books are available online and at most local bookstores. For more information about Sobczak’s writing, go to www.indigopress.net.

This article is from “The Living Gulf Coast.”