“I was asleep and woke up hearing what I thought was my cat eating kitty crunchies very loudly,” said Sparks resident Lori Floto. “Then I realized my cat was on the bed.”
This middle-of-the-night disturbance led her to her kitchen where she discovered a raccoon.
“I went around the side of the kitchen to see if I could kind of encourage it to go back outdoors, and it did,” she said. “It went out the kitty door. But a couple of nights later I heard it again. I turned the light on it, and there were two of them. It had come back and brought a friend.”
This time, she closed the cat door for good.
Floto lives in a neighborhood near Prater Way and McCarran Boulevard, which is not particularly near the outskirts of town. Raccoons are also seen regularly even deeper into the downtown, with recent sightings north of the movie theatres on C Street and south of Prater Way.
“Raccoons are a high risk species for rabies,” said Washoe animal control director Barry Brode.
The animals also may carry distemper, a form of parvovirus, and an internal parasite called Baylisacaris.
Children (attracted by the cute animals) and house pets can be threatened. In some states, dogs and cats have been killed by raccoons. In an incident in Seattle a few weeks ago, a raccoon went after a dog in a back yard, then attacked the owner when he went to the dog’s aid. Both dog and owner were hospitalized, with the owner telling a reporter, “I think they [physicians] were like, ’Whoa, it actually bit you.’ I think I had about 10 injections last night, and I have to go back for four rounds of rabies treatments.”
Fortunately, Nevada Wildlife Department spokesperson Chris Healy said, “Raccoons are nocturnal.” Because they tend to come out at night, the chance that they will interact with small children is small.
When raccoon sightings are reported in the Truckee Meadows, it’s difficult to do much about them. By the time animal control officers arrive, the animals are gone. Brode says they are skilled at survival.
“We will respond if they are reported,” he said. “They live in places like storm drain areas and know how to survive. When they leave an area, they have their path already laid out where they want to go.”
In 2012, PBS’s Nature broadcast an episode that explored a theory that humans are contributing to the evolutionary success of raccoons, in effect making them smarter by challenging them in urban areas. The theory suggests that “ever more complex obstacles that our fast-paced urban world throws at them [are] actually pushing the development of raccoon brains.”
Asked how often raccoons are reported, Brode said, “I’d probably say one or two a month.”
He said available pet food is probably the single biggest reason raccoons show up somewhere, or frequent a place more than once. Thus, not leaving food outside is the best way to keep them away.
“They’re omnivores, so they will go after pet food. They’ve been known to eat small animals like mice.”
Omnivores do not get their food exclusively from animals or plants but from a variety of sources that may include both.
Raccoons are pretty bold, and not all that intimidated by humans. It is common, when they are discovered getting into bags of pet food in garages or through open doors, for them to simply stare at the human and wait or continue trying to get at the food.
In 2011, after several years of severe recession-related funding cuts, the Nevada Wildlife Department had to stop responding to raccoon, bear and mountain lion calls unless they involved threats. Mere sightings would not prompt action.
“If they see a bear or raccoon or a mountain lion we’re not going to respond. We’re going to direct them to our website and tell them we’ve given you some hints on how to live with wildlife,” Chris Healy said in March that year.
“If they’re in danger physically, if their property is being damaged we respond,” he added.
That hasn’t changed, Healy said this week. “If it’s a dangerous situation we’ll respond,” he said. After such calls, he said, “If they continue to have a problem, then we would direct them to [commercial] animal control places.”
Underfoot and overhead
Healy said it is common to get calls about raccoons from the section of Reno bordered by Forest, California, and Mt. Rose streets, known as “the old southwest.”
“We’ll hear, ’I had a raccoon come through my pet door and wreck my kitchen.’ They get into attic spaces.”
Some people may be living with raccoons without knowing it. Attics and other dark spaces attract them, and may lead to other problems. Wildlife ecologists Scott Craven and Robert Bluett have written, “Raccoons do not make good pets. Young raccoons are frequently found after the raccoon family is evicted from a chimney or attic, or after the mother meets with an accident. Resist the urge to care for the cute babies beyond assuring their immediate survival. … Young raccoons grow quickly and may become aggressive and destructive with age.”
“They get into crawlspaces under the house,” Healy said. “They tear up the insulation. They tear up the pipes.”
Healy said transplanting raccoons, a technique used with other species, won’t work.
“Because they’re a potential vector species, we can’t transplant them because it would mean moving their diseases into a new area,” he said. “If you take them to a place that’s disease free, you’ve compounded the problem.”
He said raccoons are intelligent animals and technology has aided their activities.
“They are very adaptable, very smart, and all over the place. … When we built our storm drain system, it was to move water around. But we also built it into an area where a nocturnal animal can navigate the city. It’s like an underground pathway for them to go where they want.”
Healy said he’s seen raccoons in the city several times himself.
“Whenever I’ve seen a raccoon peeking out at night, it’s always been peeking out a storm drain,” he said.