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Raccoons and cartoons an agriculture time bomb

Blame Disney. Blame a children’s book. Blame cartoons. Japan’s farmers are victims of the guests that will never leave — raccoons. The agricultural damage is widespread, mounting and costs in the millions each year.

And how did American raccoons wind up running loose across Japanese farmland? There was no stowaway in a cargo ship; no zoo escape; no underground raccoon smugglers — they arrived in plain sight and became the guests that never left.

The unlikely tale begins with the 1963 U.S. publication of Sterling North’s Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era. The book was received with acclaim and became part of the must-read canon for American junior high kids. North’s true account, about his attempt to raise a baby raccoon, became a Disney movie in 1969 — Rascal. The movie may have been the seminal moment for future Japanese coon troubles. In 1977, Japan piggybacked on the Disney film and ran a cartoon series based on North’s book. Unfortunately for Japan’s farmers — the show was a smash and catapulted raccoons to the top of kids’ wish lists across the country.

The 52-episode series lit the fuse on an agriculture bomb. Into Japan came pet raccoons by the hundreds and then the thousands. Jason Goldman, writing in Nautilus, has an excellent account. “… every Japanese child wanted their own pet raccoon, like the boy hero of the cartoon. At the peak of their popularity, Japan imported more than 1,500 North American raccoons each year. And while the government eventually banned their import and the ability for Japanese citizens to keep them as pets, it was too late.”

The raccoons were cute and curious while young; nasty and temperamental as adults. When the raccoons got too big to handle, it was the same story across Japan: owners dumped their pets. With no natural predators in the entire country, it was only a waiting game until the raccoon population exploded. As Mieko Kawamichi, a Japanese mammalogist, told PBS: “Right now, all over Japan, our buildings, farms, fields, and even our native wild animals are all under attack by raccoons.”

Kawamichi takes a direct approach, despite a lack of public support for culls: “My job is to kill as many raccoons as possible before the problem is transported. Unfortunately, that’s my mission…”

(For related, see: Agriculture and ecology clash over badger cull)

Buyer's remorse

On farms, raccoon damage is increasing. “In some parts of the country, they invade cattle farms, where they feed on the same corn that gets fed to cows, and find safe spaces for reproduction in the tall grasses of grazing pastures … The animals damage crops across the food pyramid: corn, melons, strawberries, rice, soybeans, potatoes, oats, and more.”

Japan’s raccoon buyer’s remorse is not without precedent. Germany imported raccoons in the 1920s, hoping to feed the pelt market through a breeding program. The scheme backfired in 1934 — a few were released into the woods for hunting fodder and after only a few years of breeding, the hunters couldn’t keep up. As in Japan, raccoons are now permanent residents in Germany — over 1 million strong.

The Japanese raccoon saga is a textbook case of allowing an invasive species in through the front door — or maybe right through the television set.


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