The Cartoon That Launched A Raccoon Invasion

By Nolan Moore on Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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“Ten thousand years ago man regarded the natural world as divine, but as he domesticated animals and plants so nature lost some of its mystery and appeared to be little more than a larder that could be raided with impunity.” —David Attenborough, The First Eden (1987)

In A Nutshell

Baby raccoons might look cute, but when they grow up, they start getting a tad unruly. After all, they’re wild animals. That’s something the Japanese learned the hard way after a popular cartoon encouraged kids to adopt the little critters as pets. When the families tired of them, many were released into the wild although they are not native to Japan. They have been wreaking absolute havoc on the ecosystem ever since.

The Whole Bushel

When you think about Japanese animals, you probably imagine macaques, cranes, or Pikachus. Chances are good you don’t think about raccoons . . . unless, perhaps, you’re Japanese. As it turns out, the Land of the Rising Sun is infested with these North American mammals. These masked troublemakers spend their evenings creeping into homes, eating crops, and just generally wrecking the environment. And it’s all thanks to a little Wisconsin boy named Sterling North.

During the 1910s, Sterling found an orphaned raccoon and decided to adopt it. Sterling named his new pet Rascal, and the two spent a magical year together, roaming through the woods, fishing in nearby streams, and riding on Sterling’s bike. (Rascal sat up front in the basket.) However, things got trickier as Rascal grew older. He started killing the neighbor’s chickens and showed interest in hanging out with other raccoons. Eventually, Sterling freed Rascal in a nearby forest and wrote a story about their friendship, a 1963 tale called Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era.

Since the sappy story was full of children and cute animals, Disney snatched it up and put it on the silver screen in 1969. In 1977, a Japanese company followed suit, turning Sterling’s book into an anime series called Araiguma Rasukaru. And that’s when the trouble really started. The show was a hit, but Japanese children seemingly skipped the parts about raccoons growing up to be mischievous monsters. Instead, all they saw was a little boy frolicking with a cute pet. Suddenly, raccoons became the number one pet in Japan. In fact, they were so popular that, at one point, 1,500 were imported into the country every year. That’s a lot of raccoons.

As you might assume, this didn’t end well. Quite a few children released their pets, and other raccoons escaped on their own. Eventually, the mammals started spreading out, and even though the government eventually banned any more raccoons from entering the country, it was too little too late. By 2004, the masked bandits had infested 42 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and since there aren’t any creatures around that can eat them, it’s only a matter of time before their invasion is complete.

So how exactly has the raccoon invasion affected Japan? Well, the pests help themselves to any crops they can find like corn, melons, strawberries, and rice. They regularly rob fish farms and steal cattle feed. In the cities, they raid garbage cans and snatch carp out of koi ponds. When they need a place to stay, they often creep inside human homes, and it’s estimated they’ve damaged over 80 percent of Japan’s temples. Even worse, they’re pushing out native species and threatening others with extinction. One of their favorite meals is the Tokyo salamander which is considered threatened, and in 1997, they chased a group of grey herons out of their traditional breeding grounds in Nopporo Forest Park. The birds haven’t come back since.

Desperate for solutions, the government announced a plan to cull the raccoons in 2004, but things didn’t exactly work out. Because people don’t like killing cute and cuddly creatures, there was a huge public outcry. Sadly, it looks like raccoons are now a permanent part of the Japanese ecosystem—an ecosystem they’re slowly destroying. But hey, at least they look adorable while doing it.

Show Me The Proof

PBS: Raccoons Gone Wild
The Japan Times: Raccoons—new foreign menace?
Nautilus: How a Kids’ Cartoon Created a Real-Life Invasive Army