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Growing Green: Bandits of the Night

 Chickens have been slowly disappearing from our barn, and Saturday evening I found the culprit, a young mother raccoon and her eight little ones.  Although some may find raccoons cute and funny, I find them aggressive and menacing.  Armed with a broom and a Good Dog, I dodged mom’s attack, and, hopefully, banished the raccoons for the time being. 

Raccoons can be a real problem in the garden. They dig in vegetable beds, eat fruit off trees and vines, pillage corn, destroy lawns and ransack bird feeders. They are active during the night, and eat fruit, vegetables, eggs, birds, insects, carrion, fish and other aquatic animals, not to mention pet food and garbage. Residential areas are raccoon magnets due to abundant food, water and shelter. Raccoons den in hollow trees, buildings, drain pipes, under decks and in brush piles and abandoned burrows. They typically weigh between 15-25 pounds (but can be larger) and can kill an attacking dog twice their size.

Raccoons can carry both canine and feline distemper. Distemper is a common disease and is usually fatal. Raccoons with distemper act tame or confused, and eventually lose coordination, become unconscious and die. Distemper cannot be transmitted to humans or immunized pets.

Although rabies is quite rare in raccoons in Minnesota, no bite by a wild carnivore should be ignored. Raccoons are normally not aggressive, but will defend themselves if captured or cornered. If you are bitten by a raccoon, every attempt should be made to capture or kill it (without damage to the head) so that it can be tested for rabies by the Minnesota Department of Health. Medical treatment and advice should also be sought...

Raccoon roundworm infects most raccoons at some time in their lives. The roundworm rarely causes the raccoon any problems, but the animals pass large numbers of eggs to the environment through its feces. The greatest potential for problems is for people who may come into close contact with areas contaminated with raccoon fecal material, particularly small children who may place dirty hands or objects in their mouths.

If you are bothered by raccoons, here are a few things you can do to discourage them in your yard and garden.

  • Bring pet food and water bowls inside at night                                                                                                                                         
  • Use tight-fitting trashcan lids, or bungee loose ones
  • Harvest your garden produce as soon as it is ready and pick up wind-fall fruit promptly
  • Trim tree branches so they don't touch house and shed roofs
  • Block foundation vents
  • Use a two-wire electric fence – with wires five and 10 inches above ground – to keep raccoons away from fruit and vegetable beds.
  • Install wooden lattice to keep raccoons from living under your deck. Be careful not to trap any that might already be inside.

State law allows property owners to control raccoons that are causing damage or injury on their property. They may control these animals without a trapping license or permit. If the animal is killed, it must be reported to the local DNR Conservation Officer within 24 hours.

Thinking about trapping a raccoon? This can be a problem. Make sure you have a plan for dealing with the animal once it’s captured.  Raccoons are wild animals and no attempt should be made to pick them up or pet them, even if they appear tame.

Robin Trott is a Horticulture Educator with University of Minnesota Extension.