NYC Baby Raccoon Woes

From the Walking the Pandemic Series

Two young raccoons gaze out at Riverside Park as the sun sets over the Hudson.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a video of urban raccoon babies venturing out from their den in the retaining wall of Riverside Park. Amusing and cute, like babies everywhere.

But life in the urban raccoon world is complex and so is the intersection between urban humans and the wildlife that lives among them.

Three masked animals regard each other.

Since we’re in the middle of a pandemic caused by a wildlife disease, let’s start with raccoon health.

Check out the raccoon on the left in the photo below: No tail. Not even a stub! This could be due to a genetic abnormality or the result of a scuffle with one of its many siblings or perhaps with an adult raccoon.

No tail.

More worrisome is that many of these young raccoons are suffering extensive hair loss.

No pants.

They look, well, mangy.

Mange is, in fact, my guess as to what’s ailing them. Sarcoptic mange is caused by parasitic mites that lay eggs beneath the surface of the skin where the larvae hatch. Some burrow to the surface, while others burrow deeper into the skin, causing intense itchiness. The mites are highly contagious, so it’s hardly surprising that most, if not all, of these raccoons are showing signs of the disease.

Bare-chested.

Mange is not lethal in itself. But infected animals tend to scratch excessively in an attempt to relieve the itch.

This well-furred if itchy raccoon was photographed in 2011. It is not one of the current crop.

All the scratching can inflame and break the skin, causing secondary infections which in turn can lead to death. I reported the situation to the Urban Park Rangers who confirmed that it sounded like mange and said the rangers would check on the raccoons to assess the situation.

About ten years ago, Riverside Park’s squirrel population suffered from mange. The following year, I talked about the disease with a man I met in the park. He fed the squirrels when he could afford to and called them his friends.

“I was afraid they was all going to die off,” he said. “Lot of them did die. But they came back. Yes, they came back.”

A friend to Riverside Park’s squirrels.

I’ve been watching raccoons in Riverside Park since 2009 and this is the first year I’ve noticed mange. Which is not to say the raccoon population has been healthy all this time.

In 2018, an outbreak of canine distemper killed hundreds of raccoons in NYC’s parks. And in 2010, a rabies epidemic swept through Manhattan’s raccoon population. You can read my coverage of the epidemic here, including the painstaking, humane and remarkably effective response by USDA, the Parks Department and the NYC Department of Health that involved trapping, examining and vaccinating the entire non-rabid raccoon population. Non-lethal traps were baited with … well, who knew raccoons like marshmallows?

But then, what don’t they like?

Garbage raider along Morningside Park.

Which brings me to the ongoing problem of New Yorkers feeding the wildlife, which seems to me worse than ever during the pandemic. I understand. We’ve all been shut up and confined. Many of us are craving connection with nature and more people are out walking in the parks at all hours of the day. People often feed animals out of a genuine, but misplaced desire to be generous and to help. But please, for your own sake and for the sake of the animals: don’t do it!

As of mid-May, large amounts of food were being left out nightly on the retaining wall, directly above the den. And as you can see, it did not go to waste. (Of course, whatever raccoons don’t eat simply helps to sustain our bloated rat population. But that’s another story.)

Nuts, sandwiches and take-out dinners have all been left for the raccoons.

Instead of learning to forage effectively on their own in the park, these curious babies are learning that food comes from humans. They’re already coming to expect it.

Is the buffet laid out up there yet?

This is not healthy for either species. We need our wildlife to stay wild. Our parks offer plenty of natural food, even discounting the raided garbage cans.

I haven’t been able to check on the raccoons since mid-May, but will post more about them as soon as I can.

Meanwhile, stay healthy and keep our wildlife healthy.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2020, In the City, Morningside Park, NYC Parks, raccoons, Riverside Park, Seasons, Spring, Walking the Pandemic, Wildlife/Natural History

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