Last week Rocket Raccoon made his big debut in the Guardians of Galaxy trailer and the internet is already collectively squeeing over the combination of a cute furry animal, Bradley Cooper's voice and a lot of guns. But before we get too carried away with our love for the Procyon lotor species, let us not forget the cautionary tale of "Rascal the Raccoon" in 1970s Japan.
Rascal was a popular cartoon character that the Japanese loved so much, they imported baby raccoons from North America as pets. As these animals grew up, their owners discovered that raccoons aren't as easily domesticated as cartoons led them to believe. Many were abandoned in the woods of the country to fend for themselves. They have since bred like crazy, building an animal army that has decimated over 80% of Japan's ancient temples.
It's not just in Japan either. Raccoons were brought to Europe as well and are now considered an invasive species, especially in Spain and Germany. Japan's since turned to those countries for help, trying to engineer obstacles that keep their furry neighbors from climbing all over their homes and wrecking the infrastructure.
Before you make the same mistake as Japan, Spain and Germany, please consider the following reasons not to get yourself a pet raccoon. Instead of getting a new pet because you like Rocket Raccoon, why not consider supporting Bill Mantlo, the character's creator? Mantlo suffers from a brain injury and needs help with his ongoing medical expenses. And unlike a raccoon, he won't give you brain worms.
As previously mentioned, the raccoons in Japan are destroying temples by chewing the wood in the buildings to make dens. They're also rotting the temple structures with their feces and urine. These temples stood for over 1,000 years until the raccoon incursion.
Worse still, Buddhist monks are spending their time fending off these fuzzy critters and with a zero tolerance policy, over 10,000 raccoons are trapped every year. By "trapped" they really mean captured and killed. It's a nasty bit of business.
One of the reasons the raccoons didn't work out as pets was they naturally become aggressive as they age. Between their sharp teeth and claws they can put up quite a fight. Their thick fur can also act as a defense against other animal attacks. But in Japan, raccoons have no natural predators, apart from human beings.
Remember in "Aliens," when the doomed crew of space marines realizes that the xenomorphs bearing down on their position are actually solving problems and learning through observation? Apply that same logic to raccoons, because while they may not bleed acid, they adapt very quickly to their surroundings.
For example, Germany is so overrun that they placed mounts over their drainpipes so raccoons couldn't climb their homes and destroy their rooftops. The crafty critters figured out ways around the mounts and still got up. Some researchers think that by creating more obstacles for them, we may actually be helping raccoons get smarter. In fact, many compare the evolution of humans to raccoons because we both learn in a quest for food. Like us, raccoons are omnivorous and get fairly creative about what they'll eat.
This is especially true of raccoons in cities, where they've adapted exceptionally well. Their capacity for learning is so individualized that scientists have found studying just one set of raccoons doesn't yield data that's indicative of the general population's behavior. In the PBS documentary "Raccoon Nation," researchers discovered that the raccoon territories in Toronto were fairly small, only 3-4 blocks wide. They also learned that city raccoons live longer than their rural cousins, probably because their only urban predator is the automobile. They're so smart that Toronto's raccoons actually build their territory around major roads to avoid cars.
Contrary to popular belief, urban raccoons are also very sociable with one another, often living in the same spaces together. Possibly to impress their counterparts, city raccoons are also fearless when it comes to people. They'll build their dens in and around our houses, unless there's a dog present.
All this bravado inside their cozy dens probably doesn't hurt raccoon's rapid breeding practices. As we saw in Japan, in 40 years raccoons have gone from a non-native species to one that's overrun their forests with their expansion. That's a lot of baby making.
Still think a pet raccoon is a good idea? What if I told you that if you breathe anywhere near raccoon feces, there's a good chance airborne larvae will grow into roundworms inside your body?
The nematode worm Baylisascaris procyonis (otherwise known as "raccoon roundworm") is a pathogenic parasite found in 68% to 82% of American raccoons. In humans this illness causes parasitic persistence under our skin. Oh, they can grow in other organs too, like your brain. While it used to be found only in North America, this lovely parasite is now prevalent in (you guessed it) Japan and Germany as well.
Let's not forget the host of other diseases raccoons can spread, from rabies to West Nile virus.
All right, this one's actually kind of cool. Along with their adaptability, raccoons have physical traits that help their survival. For example, they have collapsible spines that allow them to get through all kinds of tight spaces.
But the real kicker is that their front paws are a lot like human hands. My BrainStuff colleague Cristen Conger wrote a piece about how when raccoons "wash" their food the water softens their nerve meshes, making their hands five times more sensitive. So its not surprising that scientists believe there's a link between their ability to manipulate objects and their growing intelligence.
As anyone who's found their garbage cans opened and scoured in the morning can tell you, raccoon hands aren't just sensitive, they're incredibly dexterous as well. Their forepaws are on par with primates, allowing them to hold objects, climb trees and even unlatch doors. Conger's article delves into the science behind raccoon hands, but suffice to say, you wouldn't want one in your bedroom, routing around through your underwear drawer.