‘Raccoon Nation’ reconsidered

Cartoons can be hazardous to your health and ancient Japanese temples. That’s one conclusion you can draw from Nature’s latest episode. How timely that PBS will be airing “Raccoon Nation” just when Florida is contemplating their disappearance. Nature’s episode on this cute little bandit premieres on Wednesday, 8 February 2012 at 8 p.m. ET. Check local listings.

“Raccoon Nation” isn’t about a drop in the raccoon population, but the explosion of raccoons–specifically in Toronto, Chicago and parts of Japan. Raccoons weren’t originally found in all parts of North America–just the mixed forests and deciduous forests. However, with their cute faces they were picked up as pets. The spread of urban areas also gave them increased opportunities. They quickly adapt to life in the city–eating food that’s been left out for pets, garbage and even those expensive koi fish in man-made ponds. It’s easy to understand their love for sashimi and expensive fish, but what do we know about those rascals who dine au natural in your backyard?

Raccoons live in groups and have small territories and are willing to perform a few acrobatics in order to stay alive. We witness a mama raccoon teaching her kits a few squeeze and contortionistic exercises. You know how life is made easier by lazy dogs and cats who can’t juggle balls with their paws or unzip or unlatch various things around your household. Raccoons didn’t earn their bandito masks without a few tricks up their dexterous paws.

How did they get to Japan? The same way they got to Europe as pets that later escaped or were dumped. Here’s where the cartoon comes in. The Wisconsin-born Sterling North‘s classic “Rascal,” a 1963 book about the year he raised a raccoon kit, was made into an animated series for Japanese TV, “Araiguma Rasukaru.”

In Japan, there are no wolves or coyotes to control the raccoon population. Those same animals would have kept the raccoons in check in North America. Are you tempted to feed them and perhaps purchase your own raccoon kit? Remember at the end of the story, the raccoon became too wild for the boy to keep.

All that cuteness conceals health hazards: rabies and parasites that can cause severe illnesses in humans. In Los Angeles, raccoons have become roving banditos. In some areas, roving raccoons have attacked cats and small dogs.

What’s the solution? Leaving less food out? Bringing back the traditional carnivores or their relatives? Introducing new carnivores like in Florida?

We do know that the Burmese Python is keeping the raccoon and opossum population down, perhaps too low even, in the Everglades of Florida. Even the rabbits can’t breed fast enough. And the bobcats are on the decline as well and bobcats put up more of a fight than your Easter bunny’s cousins.

Why not solve the problems in Japan with a snake in the temple? It wouldn’t be the first time there was a large snake in a temple at least according to legend. That snake happened to be a jealous woman desperately in love with a priest. Talk about burning passion!

But would the solution for Rascal-fever in Japan bring us to another children’s book: Nancy Gurney’s “The King, the Mice and the Cheese“? Yes, taking Burmese pythons to Japan might be as crazy as taking elephants to Australia.

What a tangled web one weaves. It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature!

PBS’ “Nature: Raccoon Nation” is good family edu-entertainment as long as you don’t end up with a little rascal raccoon as your next pet.

“Raccoon Nation” premieres Wednesday, February 8, 2012 at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT. Check your local listings.

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