What is a raccoon?

A baby raccoon.

A raccoon is a mammal of the genus Procyon; P. lotor, the common raccoon, is probably the best-known animal of the genus. These animals are native to North America and their range partially extends to Central America as well. Being extremely intelligent and highly adaptable, raccoons are familiar animals to many people in North America, even those who live in cities, as they are perfectly capable of surviving in the urban environment.

A raccoon.

The name comes from the Virginia Algonquin language. The first English visitors to North America were familiar with the animals as early as 1609, thanks to their useful fur as well as their potentially edible meat. Captain John Smith is generally credited with introducing the animal to curious Europeans, writing in a confusing description that they were like badgers, only they climbed trees.

A raccoon on the edge of a garbage can.

Raccoons tend to be about twice the size of a housecat, with thick gray bodies and ringed trails. Most distinctively, they have black facial markings that look like a bandit mask. The animals have extremely agile front legs that many people compare to the muscular hands and hind legs that help them climb trees, swim and quickly run after their prey.

As a general rule, these animals are omnivores, eating a wide variety of foods, including nuts, grasses, seeds, fish, small animals, and scavenged material. Their nimble front legs allow them to catch fish with their bare hands, and they can also open garbage can lids, open doors, and manipulate other man-made objects to get to desirable foods.

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The raccoon is primarily a solitary animal, although they come together in late winter to mate, with litters being born in spring. Mothers usually take care of their children for a few months before encouraging them to seek their fortunes elsewhere, while fathers are not involved in child rearing.

These mammals are excellent problem solvers, which can be a problem for people trying to keep raccoons from accessing things. In cities, they wreak havoc in garbage cans and dumpsters, and have also been known to get into cars and homes in their search for food. For gardeners and farmers, they can be extremely annoying as they kill small farm animals such as chickens and ducks and destroy gardens in search of delicacies.

In some areas, people keep raccoons as pets, usually buying them from breeders or people who specialize in taming children for sale. This practice is restricted in some regions, due to concerns about rabies, a disease that these animals often carry.

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