The first thing you need to know about raccoon dogs is that they are neither raccoons nor dogs—kind of like how Grapenuts cereal contains neither grapes nor nuts. Native to Asia and known as “tanuki” in Japan, they got their English name because of their resemblance to both wild raccoons and domestic dogs. Although they aren’t closely related to either, they do, however, belong to the canid family, which includes wolves and foxes. There are five subspecies of these cuddly-looking omnivores, which you can find in just about any environment—from wetlands and forests to farmlands and urban areas.
Instead of barking like their distant canine cousins, raccoon dogs whimper and whine. These vocalizations, which sound more cat-like than dog-like, signal either friendliness or submissiveness. When threatened, however, they growl and hiss. Recently, there have been reports of two raccoon dogs terrorizing an English town with “blood-curdling screams” in the middle of the night.
Since the 7th century, tanuki have been depicted as mischievous shape-shifters with a rather striking feature: an enormous scrotum. The Japanese apparently aren’t shy about body parts: countless cartoons and children’s stories told all over Japan are centered around this oversized protuberance, which is said to stretch to the size of eight tatami mats. Apparently, its presence is meant to bring great prosperity to businesses. The larger the sack, the more prosperity it brings! For this reason, it is not unusual to see well-endowed tanuki statues outside of businesses all over Japan.
In the 1990 Nintendo game Super Mario Bros. 3, Mario can switch into a magical “Tanooki Suit” which transforms him into an invulnerable statue with the ability to fly. Nintendo is a Japanese company, so it is not too surprising that they incorporated some of Japan’s cultural folklore into their iconic games.
As cute and fluffy as they are, tanukis will never win any popularity contests in Sweden. In fact, the Swedish Environment Agency actively encourages people to hunt and kill raccoon dogs on sight. Why? They are an invasive species there, infamous for obliterating vineyards and gardens, and massacring amphibians and ground-nesting birds in the wetlands. They also have the rather inconsiderate habit of spreading menacing diseases, like rabies, mange, and tapeworm.
So, how did this native Asian species gain a foothold on European soil? You can thank Russian wildlife trappers, who at one time thought it was a good idea to set a bunch of them loose in Eastern Siberia. Hardy creatures that they are, their numbers exploded from there—and the rest is history.
In 2014, Kohl’s suffered some severe backlash from animal rights activists when it was discovered the fake fur on some of the jackets they sold was, in fact, genuine raccoon dog fur. They weren’t the first to come under fire for this, either. In 2006, Macy’s was also maligned for its misleading claim that the real tanuki fur on their Sean John jackets was “faux.” In addition to Kohls and Macy’s, the Humane Society of the United States has also sued Neiman Marcus and Burlington Coat Factory for the same issue. They also put pressure on the Federal Trade Commission to stop labeling tanuki fur as “Asiatic Raccoon” in favor of “Raccoon Dog.” Unfortunately, the battle was lost when The Fur Council of America countered that raccoon dogs were “completely dissimilar from a domestic dog and should not be confused with a dog or references as a dog.”
Do raccoon dogs make good pets? Ask June Lincoln from Wales, who has attracted media attention for keeping a pet raccoon dog named “Bandit.” She walks Bandit around on a leash in her small Welsh town, much to the bemusement of onlookers, and claims her unique pet gets along just fine with her two pet dogs.
But you’re not going to have much luck finding a raccoon dog of your own here in the US. Tanuki are illegal to own as house pets in every state. And you might want to ask the Japanese their opinion on this matter too. Thanks to a popular TV series featuring raccoon dogs, 1,500 tanukis were imported into Japan as pets. Regret soon followed, and they were released back into the wild. The result was nearly half a million dollars of agricultural damage before they were finally eradicated.
One thing’s for sure: you can’t accuse a raccoon dog of being a deadbeat dad. Much like humans, raccoon dogs pair off monogamously with one another, and the males and the females raise the resulting offspring together. The father goes off to forage for food to feed his “missus” while she is pregnant and nursing their pups. The pups are weaned within 40 days and can fend for themselves in four months.
While foxes, wolves and other canids brave snowy, barren winters, raccoon dogs in the far northern reaches prefer to snuggle up until spring. In preparation for their annual winter sleeping stint, they pack on the fat and cut their metabolism by 25 percent, then cuddle with their partner in a bundle of fluff.
In 2013, a snow white, blue-eyed tanuki was captured on a farm in Japan. While the brown and black variety can be found all over Japan, white tanuki are especially uncommon and finding one is considered good luck. The island of Miyajima is one of the few places they've been spotted.
Want to see a raccoon dog up close and personal? Better plan a trip down South. The only tanukis in the US live at the Atlanta Zoo, and there are only two of them: Thor and Loki.
Why are they so rare here, when they’re so commonplace in Europe and Asia? The truth is, these diminutive dog-like creatures would pose a very real threat to American wildlife. Because they are so hardy and able to survive in nearly any climate and eat nearly any type of food, they have a great advantage over our native furbearers.
In 1982 they were declared an “injurious animal” in an effort to crack down on their importation. The final two raccoon dog fur factories were shut down in 1984, and about 150 raccoon dogs were euthanized; the last privately owned tanukis in North America.
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