On a normal day of work in Ökohaus Markkleeberg, I spotted three racoons lying on one of the trees that surround the building. I was surprise to see such animals, as I have always thought that they lived in countries like Canada or the US.
I asked my boss since when racoons live in Germany, and he confirmed that they are not native of here. So, I did some research on the story of the importation of racoons (or raccoons, according to the American spelling) to Germany. Here is what I found.
The racoons are omnivore mammals that live in forests, marshes, prairies, and sometimes even in cities. In German, they are called “Waschbären”, literally “bears that wash”, because ethologists have observed that they rinse their food in the water of rivers or lakes before consuming it. This is very unusual for an animal, but the reason behind this behaviour is not related to hygiene. In the past, scientists hypothesized that raccoons suffered from chronic dry mouth or a shortage of salivary glands, but studies disproved those theories. More recently, ethologists and biologists discovered that these nice little bears have a well-developed sense of touch - their paws have four to five times more mechanoreceptors than most other mammals. Therefore, unlike humans, who use mostly the sense of sight, racoons gather information about the world around them thanks to their sense of touch. Water increases the receptiveness of the nerve endings in racoons’ paws, making them understand better whether what they are eating is good or not. In a few words, water is for racoons what light is for humans.
Racoons, as I said, are not native of Germany. The fact they were introduced here from North America is connected to their exploitation. In fact, in the early 20th century racoons started to be imported because of their fur. The first breeding farms were established in Germany around 1920. If these animals were being kept in captivity, how is it possible that today about one million of them live all around the country? Some exemplars ran away from zoos and farms - about 20 raccoons were able to break out of an enclosure in Brandenburg after a bomb hit in 1945. Others were deliberately released. For instance, on the 12th of April 1934 two couples of pregnant females were abandoned on the Edersee, a lake in the state of Hessen. Contrary to what the English press rumoured, it was not Hermann Göring who ordered to set the animals free, but he only had to give the authorisation, due to his position as Reichsjägermeister (plus, the permission does not have his signature, but only that one of an employee of Oberlandforstmeister Walter von Keudell.) Rolf Haag was the name of the fur breeder who wanted to release racoons on the Edersee. In February 1934 in a letter he explained that the reason behind his gesture was just “the pure joy of being able to enrich our fauna”. However, the experts advised against it, warning that the introduction of a new species can be dangerous for themselves or for the animals already living in that habitat, and it might cause a disequilibrium in the ecosystem. Fortunately, the racoons adapted very well to their new habitat: in 1956 there were already 285 animals, in 1970 already 20,000 and in 2003 around 250,000 raccoons. Moreover, some examples have reached other countries such as Denmark, Austria, and Switzerland.
In the first two decades of the 21st century, journalists from different mittel-european countries were talking about invasion. In 2012, Matthias Schulz reported on the Spiegel that racoons reached the cities. “One raccoon sauntered into a police station in the eastern German city of Dresden” he writes “Another found the front of the Federal Administrative Court building in Leipzig to be a comfortable place to sleep”.
Hunters took advantage of the situation, using the excuse of the “invasion”. It has been calculated that Germans are currently killing more than 60,000 raccoons a year (one important weapon is chocolate-baited traps). In fact, there is no law against trapping raccoons, and the European Union encourages hunting invasive species that could threat the current biodiversity. However, exterminating a species (even if it is dangerous for humans or other species) pones an ethical problem, and many animalist advocates protest against it. In case of overpopulation of a species, it would be important to find a solution that harmed its members as little as possible.