JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald
By anecdotal accounts, more raccoons are making their home in Durango this year than last.
Patt Dorsey, the Durango-based area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, wouldn’t doubt it because the raccoon adapts easily to urban life.
But no one counts raccoons, Dorsey said.
Deborah Kendall, a zoology professor at Fort Lewis College, thinks there are more – forced into the city by drought conditions. The same conditions that bring deer and bears to the city, she said.
“They’re going to go to water and food,” Kendall said.
A perceived over-abundance of raccoons could simply be kits or cubs, as they’re called, leaving their mother and dispersing, part of normal raccoon migrations. Kendall and Dorsey said.
“Males move away first, sometimes several together, to join other families,” Kendall said. “This is a way to avoid inbreeding.”
Raccoons also could be looking for winter quarters, Dorsey said.
“They may have spent the summer on a hillside behind your home,” Dorsey said. “But with winter here, they could be looking for a snug spot under your deck.”
Evonne Tocco, an instructor of Nia (a combination of martial arts, dance and yoga), lost three laying hens to raccoons.
“One a month for three months,” said Tocco, who lives in the Crestview neighborhood. “The first time I didn’t have the coop door closed. The second time they tore the door off.
“I love to have chickens, but I don’t want to go through this again soon,” Tocco said. “Maybe in the spring.”
Dorsey said the raccoon population may well have increased since she arrived nine years ago.
“They’re miniature black bears in the sense that they adapt to urban life, are comfortable in town and eat anything.”
In fact, Dorsey said, there probably are more raccoons in Durango than in an area of equal size and terrain between, say, Hesperus and Mancos.
But a strong indicator of normal raccoon activity this year is the lack of distemper, Dorsey said.
“When raccoon populations get extremely high there can be outbreaks of distemper,” Dorsey said. “Raccoons are social animals so there’s a lot of contact.
“So when their populations gets too high, distemper knocks it down,” Dorsey said. “Distemper kills them, but we haven’t noticed a lot of dead raccoons.”
Distemper, which is highly contagious, is caused by a virus similar to the one that causes measles in people. Early symptoms – secretion of mucous in eyes and nose – lead to vomiting and pus blisters. Ultimately, the virus attacks brain cells, bringing seizures.
“A concern is pet health,” Dorsey said. “People should make sure their dog or cat is vaccinated against distemper.”
Pets can contract distemper by inhaling the viruses shed in raccoon secretions, Dorsey said.
Another worry is the parasitic raccoon roundworm that can cause serious or fatal diseases in pets and people.
“It’s illegal in Colorado to keep wildlife, including raccoons, as a pet,” Dorsey said. “Health problems are another good reason not to have a pet raccoon.”
Because raccoons can find food and shelter in a couple of city blocks, Dorsey said, they’re not going to travel a lot. They’re omnivores and can be comfortable in a chimney, a shed or under a porch, she said.