By NORA BODRIAN
Raccoons are nocturnal animals, so one might only see them on a twilight walk at Mission Trails. They are curious and resourceful creatures, which allows them to adapt to both wild and urban habitats.
Why do these creatures wear masks and wash their food? One theory about the familiar black mask is that the dark fur reduces the glare and increases nocturnal vision, like an athlete who blackens under the eyes to reduce daytime glare. Another theory is that the different patterns of each mask help raccoons recognize each other.
However, the washing of food is actually a myth! The raccoon’s hairless forepaws have many nerve endings — so many that they use the sensitivity in their hands to “see” and water increases their tactile ability. Even without water, raccoons will rub their hands together as they forage, and can stand upright on their large hind feet while they manipulate objects with their nimble hands.
The third familiar characteristic is the raccoon’s bushy ringed tail, which was made popular in the 1950s on Davy Crocket’s coonskin hat. It is possible that the stripes on the tail create an optical confusion, causing a predator to reach for the most visible tail, which is the least vulnerable body part, as the raccoon escapes. Although they cannot run very fast to escape, they are excellent tree climbers.
Interestingly, the English term raccoon was derived from the Pawhatan (a Native American tribe of Virginia) word aroughton for “one that scratches with his hands.” The Spanish-speaking colonists used the term mapache, derived from the Aztec Nahuatl word, mapachitli, which similarly means “one who takes everything in its hands.” Lastly, the scientific name for raccoon is Procyon lotor, which is neo-Latin, and translates to “before dog washer.”
There are some risk factors surrounding raccoons. They are a rabies vector species, along with bats, skunks, foxes, and coyotes. For this reason, injured or abandoned baby kits should not be handled. On a side note, mother raccoons will almost always return for their babies, so it is best to leave kits alone.
A second zoonotic disease, leptospirosis, is passed through the raccoon urine, which might be contracted by handling kits, or by unintentionally touching areas around a raccoon’s latrine, in your backyard or in the wild.
The third concern is the raccoon intestinal roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis, which can be transmitted by touching feces. Therefore, whenever examining scat on the trail, it is best not to touch it with your hands.
These masked mammals are important for the park’s ecosystem. By feeding on berries and nuts, they help with the growth of plants by distributing their seeds. They help control the overpopulation of terrestrial and aquatic species by eating toads, crayfish, insects, snails, and rodents. They also serve the food chain as prey for hawks, owls, and coyotes. Their role as predator and prey makes them essential for maintaining a healthy dynamic ecosystem.
—Nora Bodrian is a trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park.