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Mary Beth Gardner was walking her dogs in Reno years ago when one of the pets started nosing around a bush.
Curiosity quickly met aggression when a large raccoon leaped out and fastened its jaws on the dog.
Instinctively, Gardner went to the rescue of her pet. The raccoon turned on her.
“It just jumped right on my shoulder. It bit my shoulder and knocked me right to the ground,” Gardner said. “It was terrifying. I felt like I was in a fight for my life. It was hand-to-hand combat with a wild animal and it was a formidable opponent.”
The raccoon ultimately ran off, leaving the Reno lawyer bloodied and facing a series of costly rabies shots. It also left her with a lasting mistrust of the mask-faced critters she acknowledges are “darling” in appearance.
That 2002 encounter with a raccoon Gardner said could have weighed as much as 40 pounds may have been remarkable in its violence but many Reno-area residents are reporting regular contact with the animals. Some say the frequency of those encounters is increasing.
“It’s gotten worse,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, a Democrat and resident of old southwest Reno. “I’ve lived in that neighborhood almost 15 years and there are many more of them,” Leslie said. “Everybody seems to think there’s too many of them and they’re too bold.”
A couple of summers ago, a pair of raccoons entered Leslie’s home in the middle of the night through a doggy door. Sniffing after dog food, they entered an open basement door and chased by her dog, dashed deep into the basement.
“They went in and they wouldn’t come out,” Leslie recalls. She called animal control. She called the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “They told me they don’t do that, that I had to hire a trapper,” Leslie said.
She contacted a trapping company but was told they couldn’t get there for days. Ultimately, a couple of state wildlife officials went to Leslie’s home and after hours of effort, “came out with two very large, very angry raccoons.”
Leslie shared her experience with fellow lawmakers during the 2009 Legislature as they discussed cuts to the Department of Wildlife, including nuisance wildlife programs. She was worried they would worsen the problem by further depleting resources. “These raccoons in my district, in my neighborhood, are a huge problem and you don’t have anyone to call,” Leslie said. “The problem is the resources.”
And in many ways, the problem is the same as it is with bears and coyotes. Increasingly, people are attracting the animals to their homes with readily available food and other attractants, including a warm place to crash.
At the Reno office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, a “gradual trend” of increasing raccoon complaints has been noticed over the years, said Jack Sengl, staff biologist.
This year, Sengl said his office has recorded 272 raccoon complaints in Washoe County, up from 255 in 2008. The vast majority of this year’s complaints, 234, were in the Reno area. "It’s really Reno that’s the big problem,” Sengl said. “In the urban area it’s a lot easier for them to make a living.”
Trash cans, pet food, water bowls, gardens, fruit trees, koi ponds, “all that stuff brings them in,” Sengl said. Raccoon activity ebbs and flows, with peak periods in the spring, early summer and this time of year, Sengl said. The animals use storm drains as a sort of highway network. They hang out in the drains, move around, and at night “come out and just kind of work a neighborhood over,” Sengl said.
Problems are usually minor, consisting of raids on pet food or raccoons making themselves at home in a garage. Others are more alarming, including Gardner’s bloody scrap with that angry coon on a Reno residential street. A similar and more serious incident occurred early this month in central Florida when a 74-year-old woman was attacked by a family of raccoons after she tried to run them off from her home.
Gretchen Whitted of Lakeland, Fla., was hospitalized for two days after the raccoons attacked her and continued to bite and claw the woman after she fell to the ground. “They enveloped her,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told the Associated Press. “We’re not talking about a lot of little bites here. She was filleted.”
Sengl described that incident as “very weird” but acknowledged raccoons can be aggressive and said people should be careful around them, just as with any other wild animal.
Reno resident Ryan Jerz, who encounters raccoons when running at night, has no trouble believing them capable of doing harm. “I can’t stand them. They freak me out,” said Jerz, 34. “They’re just nasty and they look like they’ll hurt you. When I see them I go the other way.” Around his Reno neighborhood, Jerz said, “they seem to be everywhere.”
Officials from Wildlife Services, the Department of Wildlife and Washoe County’s Regional Animal Services all said they will respond to a situation in which raccoons or other wildlife pose a danger. But in most cases, officials said, all they can do is advise people how to avoid attracting the animals.
Recent budget cuts have reduced the Department of Wildlife’s ability to respond to such situations, said Rob Buonamici, chief game warden. “We will respond to immediate threats. It’s a case by case basis,” Buonamici said. “Usually there’s some attractant involved.” When the Department of Wildlife does trap a raccoon, they are euthanized. That’s because raccoons commonly carry such diseases as distemper and parvovirus and can be rabies carriers. Moving them can move disease.
Raccoon problems equate to people problems, said Mark Hutchison, owner of Critter Control in Reno. Hutchison’s company typically responds to about 75 raccoon calls per year in the Reno-Tahoe area.
“People are the No. 1 cause,” Hutchison said. “Raccoons are creatures of opportunity. “If people leave pet food around and leave their homes unsecured, raccoons are going to get in.”
Garder, 54, agrees. While she may not be particularly fond of raccoons following her painful battle with one seven years ago, she knows they have a place here. "We’ve got to live side by side,” Gardner said. “We’ve just got to be smart about it.”
Credits: By Jeff DeLong - RGJ.com