Raccoons — new foreign menace?

Masked critters face kill for badgering farms, city folk

by Reiji Yoshida

Raccoons were strangers to Japan until around 1977, when a television cartoon about an American boy befriending one of the cute little carnivores led to the animals being imported as pets.

But the relationship since “Raccoon Rascal” aired in Japan has soured. Owners, fed up with trying to tame the wild species to be cute little critters like the one in the cartoon, dumped them in the wild — where, lacking a natural predator — they have proliferated and are now perceived as pests, occasionally damaging crops and bothering people.

There are now mounting calls to eradicate raccoons in line with a law taking effect in April geared toward protecting Japan’s native ecosystem from alien species.

The controversy has pitted farmers, urban dwellers and scholars on one side of the debate and animal rights activists on the other, who fear a mass kill is in the offing.

Raccoon eradication advocates argue that the animals cause serious damage to crops, pester neighborhoods and threaten to disrupt the nation’s ecosystem.

The new law will allow local governments to hunt and kill certain wildlife designated as harmful — raccoons being a main target — regardless of other legislation designed to protect specific wild birds and animals.

“Some people feel certain animals are cute, and because of this, argue that they should be spared,” said Kunio Iwatsuki, a professor at University of the Air. “But it is very dangerous if an ecosystem undergoes rapid change without the outcome being understood.”

There are many cases in which nonnative species have multiplied rapidly in a new environment if there are no natural enemies, disrupting the biodiversity of the host habitat.

Iwatsuki, who helped the government draw up the bill for the new law, said the Environment Ministry probably will target three animal species for eradication when the law takes effect: raccoons, mongooses and nutria, a beaverlike rodent from South America.

Although no national raccoon tally is available, the animal is believed to have spread rapidly across the country.

Hokkaido blamed raccoons for some 33.3 million yen in crop damage in 2002 — the same year the prefecture hunted down and killed more than 1,000 of them.

Hokkaido now plans to kill 2,000 raccoons a year. But officials say their goal of total eradication is not in sight.

Besides crops, raccoons have also become a nuisance in developed areas.

The city of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, fielded 1,600 queries from residents reporting raccoon trouble over the past four years. In that period the city killed 758 of the animals.

“Raccoons often get into and nest in attics or under floors in old houses, scratching and causing other noises,” municipal official Hideshito Watabane said.

This scares elderly residents and disturbs their sleep, Watabane said, adding that raccoon urine has also been known to leak from ceilings.

Trapping and killing raccoons just in the city proper is only a Band Aid solution, Watabane said, because Kamakura is separated from adjacent communities by wooded hills that allow the animals access to many neighborhoods and easy hiding places.

“We need measures that cover wide areas, not only in the city of Kamakura,” he said. “To this end, we welcome the new law.”

But Sayoko Yamada, chairman at the Kanagawa Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is critical of the legislation.

The government must first put stricter curbs on the import of animals and plants to lessen their impact on Japan’s environment and to reduce the chance they will later be subject to cruel eradication measures should they eventually be deemed a nuisance.

The new law will effectively have a black list banning the import of certain creatures deemed potentially harmful to Japan’s ecosystem.

Yamada said, however, that the government should also adopt a “white list” that would allow certain safe species to be brought in.

Yamada says more emphasis should be placed on respect for life, suggesting sterilization, instead of killing, could be an option.

Chikako Fujii, who has a 12-year-old pet raccoon in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, agrees.

“Some people say raccoons are driving away ‘tanuki’ (raccoon dogs). But how does the value of one life differ from that of another?” she asked. “Should they be killed simply because they are foreign? I really don’t understand that.”

Raccoon eradication proponents argue that adult raccoons, if agitated or feel threatened, could hurt people with their sharp teeth and claws.

But Fujii, who has kept her raccoon for more than 10 years, said the animal is gentle if not pestered by people, and is actually timid.

A raccoon can turn violent if it feels threatened in some way, she said.