The Humboldt State University campus doesn’t just house students. A whole ecosystem of local wildlife is nearby, living in the redwoods or hidden away on campus and eating all the food we toss in the trash. If you head out late at night you can probably catch a sighting of our neighbors, the raccoons. They are commonly seen all around campus on their search for something to eat and somewhere to hide.
What brings raccoons to our campus? As mesocarnivores, they mostly eat meat, but are also able to digest a whole lot else. According to HSU Wildlife professor Barbara Clucas, this adaptability is what makes them such a common sight here and in cities across the country.
“Raccoons are pretty adaptable, they do well in urban areas,” Clucas said. “They like the food, the trash.”
This highly flexible diet is one of the reasons why raccoon populations are actually growing around the world and have even become an invasive species in some places. Their ability to eat nearly anything humans can and their skill at getting into garbage cans or forcing open food containers gives them access to food sources that other animals miss out on, and lets them stay fed with much less overall competition.
According to the 2019 study “Current and future climatic regions favorable for a globally introduced carnivore the raccoon,” by Vivien Louppe, Boris Leroy, Anthony Herrel and Géraldine Veron published in Scientific Reports, raccoon populations are likely to grow and spread across more of the world as urbanization increases and areas that were previously unsuitable for them become warmer as weather changes.
While this has already occurred to a degree, according to the report, by 2050 the population will spread quite a bit further.
“The raccoon presents a tolerance to a very wide range of bioclimatic conditions resulting in extensive regions currently favorable to the species,” the report said. “Moreover, predictions for 2050 reveals wide newly favorable areas north of the current favorable regions.”
Because campus is so close to the redwood forest, our raccoons can come back and forth between wild and urban environments, but those living in larger cities with fewer wild spaces face some problems. Animals in an urban environment tend to live in close proximity to each other and at a greater density. Because of the more abundant food, raccoons are more likely to end up all congregating around the same source. This makes them more likely to spread disease to one another and possibly to pets and even people.
According to Richard Brown, a wildlife professor at HSU focusing on animal pathogens, animals in close contact with people can become a health issue.
“Raccoons in urban areas may congregate at garbage dumpsters or in areas where people feed their pets outside, and congregation can also facilitate spread of some pathogens,” Brown said. “Rabies, of course, is a risk for humans as well as other mammals. Raccoons can also carry raccoon roundworms which can be a risk for people who try to clean up their latrine sites or people that are crawling around under houses, etc. Of course, there are a lot of pathogens in nature, but those are the two that come to mind.”
While they may like the food, raccoons may not be better off for living in an urban area with us.
“There is a perception that animals are doing great but that’s not really the case,” Clucas said. “They could have lower reproductive rates or be less healthy. They may be here but that doesn’t mean they’re doing great.”