Fur has always been big business in Russia, with one writer describing its colonial expansion as “a massive hunt for bears and minks, sables, ermines, foxes and otter”. The Soviet Union was not exempt from this desire for pelts. It’s this lust that leads us to our next invasive critter: the racoon dog. Between 1927 and 1957, around 9,000 racoon dogs were plonked around Eastern European countries to feed the fur-farming industry. Thanks Russia.
The furry, rather criminally cute looking animal is originally from eastern Asia. It’s renowned in Japan for supposedly having gargantuan testicles (which it doesn’t), and was also the inspiration for Mario’s flying racoon “tanooki suit” in Super Mario Brothers (it also doesn’t fly, just FYI).
By all accounts it’s a strange beastie as it is the only canine that hibernates. Racoon dogs also form strong partnerships with their mates, developing one of the closest bonds between canines. Mates will follow each other around, traveling around their territory together and hibernating together (awwww). Racoon dogs that have been observed however, tend to be wandering around on their own, raising doubt whether this ultra-tight mating bond lasts for a whole year. Those dogs got commitment issues, what can you say.
While we may live the high-life by using WhatsApp, Facebook and email to stay in touch, but racoon dogs have simple old toilets. Yes, in this case they are one and the same. Racoon dogs will do their business in a communal toilet, which is thought to be some rather unhygienic form of information exchange. They don’t keep it in the family either, as other racoon dogs will happily wander into this shit-and-urine-fest to get the latest on the wire. So next time that annoying person isn’t responding to your message, just put yourself in the paws of a racoon dog. Yeah, that’s some perspective.
These poop-sharing pooches are also not particularly bothered by new environments and they love to travel, making them extremely adaptable (and a tremendous invader of foreign lands). Young dogs can travel pretty far in search for new territory, with some recorded to shift themselves up to 90km in search of new digs. That’s why when they were introduced into Eastern European countries by the Soviet Union, they then proceeded to spread across the continent. Now, they are found across Eastern Europe, Central Europe (in Germany, France and reportedly in the Netherlands) and as far north as Finland.
The racoon dog may look cute and fluffy, but it’s been listed in the 100 most damaging invasive species by the curiously named DAISIE project (Delivering Alien Invasive Species Inventories for Europe). It’s said to be “the single most important vector of rabies in Europe”, as well as a carrier of fox tapeworm and other diseases. A three year project to manage populations in Denmark, Finland and Sweden resulted in the death or capture of 1401 racoon dogs. 170 of those were used as “Judas animals,” basically they helped turn the others over to the hunters (just like Judas with his pal Jesus, but without the self-awareness and all that).
Racoon dogs also impact native fauna, but perhaps not to the extent that is thought. Throughout most of the year, they don’t really compete for food and when they do it’s mainly in winter, when they and other animals feed on carrion. However, species that have been impacted by the arrival of the racoon dog are numerous: pole cats (which appear to be particularly impacted), red foxes, pine martens, bears and badgers are a few. One study in Germany showed that there was a decline of fox numbers between 2000-2004, thought to be caused by the arrival of the racoon dog, but nature is flexible, and afterwards the numbers leveled off, suggesting that a new state of equilibrium had been found between the invader and the fox. Another study in Lithuania suggested that the racoon dog has a “moderately negative” impact on local fauna.
Indeed, racoon dogs have well and truly made themselves at home as they regularly share the dens, or “setts”, of badgers. This isn’t uncommon among foxes and badgers, particularly in winter, and it seems that the racoon dog has got itself in on this inter-species flat-share.
So it appears the racoon dog is here to stay in Europe, it’s so well adapted and seems to have settled in for the long haul. Programmes such as MIRDINEC (Management of the invasive Raccoon Dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) in the north-European countries) are still working to keep a handle on population numbers to stop them overwhelming native wildlife – they give a timeline of 10-20 years for racoon dog numbers to reach “critical levels” for native animals.
But the evidence suggests that the racoon dog isn’t done with its cross-continental march. Even without those pesky fur-loving Soviet’s encouragement, it’s thought they would have been roaming around parts of Central Asia by now. So, they’ll most likely keep on the move, sleeping their way across Europe, all the while holding the paw of their fluffy, bandit looking companion (it’s kind of hard to hate such an adorable invasive species).
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