Raccoons Gone Wild
Enhanced Video Resource

This video segment from Nature: “Raccoon Nation” highlights how a cartoon inadvertently led to the modern-day problems posed by raccoons in Japan. The segment describes how people, after seeing the cartoon Rascal the Raccoon, decided to adopt raccoons as pets and then, after seeing how violent and destructive they could be, released them into the wild. This led to the release of thousands of raccoons into forested areas of Japan, near sacred shrines and temples. The segment describes the damage that raccoons—non-native species with no predators in Japan– have caused to more than 80% of Japan’s temples, and efforts to solve this problem.

Discussion Questions:

Before watching the video:

  • In the 1970s, the Japanese began importing raccoons so people could adopt them as pets. Many of these raccoons were then released into Japan’s forested areas. What do you think are some potential consequences of these actions?

After watching the video:

  • Explain why thousands of people in Japan started adopting raccoons in the 1970s. Discuss factors that have contributed to the increased numbers of raccoons in Japan since the 1970s.
  • Describe the current raccoon problem in Japan and what people are doing to solve it.
  • Explain why people released raccoons into the forest, and whether you think they anticipated the damage that raccoons have caused.
  • Mammalogist Mieko Kawamichi has been hired to kill over 10,000 raccoons each year in order to reduce the raccoon population in Japan and protect the sacred temples and shrines. What do you think about this approach to the situation? Explain your reasoning. Can you think of another way to solve the current problem without killing the raccoons? Describe your solution.
  • People started adopting raccoons as pets after watching the cartoon Rascal the Raccoon. What do you think the creators of a TV show or movie could do to prevent people from going out to adopt the species featured in the program? Do you think the creators of media programs have a responsibility to warn people of the potential dangers related to adopting animals as pets?

Background Essay:

Raccoons, which are not indigenous to Japan, have damaged more than 80% of Japanese temples. The forested areas of Japan are currently overrun with raccoons and, as a result, Japanese authorities have adopted a “zero tolerance” policy, killing over 10,000 raccoons each year in efforts to reduce raccoon populations and minimize damage to temples, shrines, and native wildlife.

Japan is not the only country with raccoon problems. In the early 1930s, a few raccoons were released in the German countryside outside Berlin to amuse hunters and, in 1945, about two dozen raccoons escaped from a local fur farm. Since that time, the raccoon population has multiplied and now Germany has approximately 1 million raccoons, the largest raccoon population outside of North America. Kassel, in Central Germany, has the largest raccoon population in Europe, with up to 100 raccoons per square kilometer. German authorities have tried different strategies to deal with the raccoon problem, including killing raccoons and creating drainpipe protectors to prevent raccoons from climbing up them and causing damage to homes. Germany and Japan are still trying to find the best ways to deal with their raccoon problems.

Although raccoons are not native to Japan, the cartoon Rascal the Raccoon, which aired in Japan in the 1970s, inspired individuals to adopt baby raccoons as pets and, as a result, Japan imported thousands of raccoons from North America. After keeping raccoons in their homes and seeing how violent and destructive they could be, thousands of families got rid of them by releasing them into the forested areas of Japan, as was shown in one of the scenes in the cartoon.

Other TV shows and movies featuring animals have similarly inspired people to adopt pets and then, after realizing that the animals weren’t as cute and cuddly as in the program, get rid of them.  This trend is often referred to as the “101 Dalmatians Syndrome” (or “101 Dalmatians Effect”) since thousands of families adopted Dalmatian puppies after the release of the popular movie “101 Dalmatians,” and then, after finding they were difficult to take care of, brought them to animal shelters and/or abandoned them. Within a year of the 1996 release of that movie, there was a 25% increase in Dalmatians at shelters and rescue organizations. Movies such as Legally Blonde and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, as well as Taco Bell commercials featuring a talking Chihuahua, led to increased popularity of Chihuahuas, and Along Came Polly led to increased interest in ferrets.

In recent years, in order to prevent people from running out to adopt a species featured in a show, media and animal rights organizations have distributed information about animals and encouraged families to conduct research before selecting a pet. For example, for the 2000 release of 102 Dalmatians, the Humane Society distributed information about the challenges of owning Dalmatians and Disney included a message at the end of the movie, encouraging responsible pet ownership. Similarly when the movie G-Force, featuring computer-generated guinea pigs, was released in 2009, animal rescue groups created information discouraging families from adopting guinea pigs, and statements were included in the movie’s promotional materials and website encouraging people to think carefully and conduct research before adopting pets.

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National Science Education Standards

Grades 5-8:

Content Standard C: Life Science
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Populations and Ecosystems
    • The number of organisms an ecosystem can support depends on the resources available and abiotic factors, such as quantity of light and water, range of temperatures, and soil composition. Given adequate biotic and abiotic resources and no disease or predators, populations (including humans) increase at rapid rates. Lack of resources and other factors, such as predation and climate, limit the growth of populations in specific niches in the ecosystem.

Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Populations, Resources and Environments
    • When an area becomes overpopulated, the environment will become degraded due to the increased use of resources.
  • Natural Hazards
    • Human activities also can induce hazards through resource acquisition, urban growth, land-use decisions, and waste disposal. Such activities can accelerate many natural changes.
    • Natural hazards can present personal and societal challenges because misidentifying the change or incorrectly estimating the rate and scale of change may result in either too little attention and significant human costs or too much cost for unneeded preventive measures.
  • Risks and Benefits
    • Individuals can use a systematic approach to thinking critically about risks and benefits. Examples include applying probability estimates to risks and comparing them to estimated personal and social benefits.
    • Important personal and social decisions are made based on perceptions of benefits and risks.

Grades 9-12:

Content Standard C: Life Science
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • The Interdependence of Organisms
    • Human beings live within the world’s ecosystems. Increasingly, humans modify ecosystems as a result of population growth, technology, and consumption. Human destruction of habitats through direct harvesting, pollution, atmospheric changes, and other factors is threatening current global stability, and if not addressed, ecosystems will be irreversibly affected.

Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Natural and Human-Induced Hazards
    • Human activities can enhance potential for hazards. Acquisition of resources, urban growth, and waste disposal can accelerate rates of natural change.
    • Natural and human-induced hazards present the need for humans to assess potential danger and risk. Many changes in the environment designed by humans bring benefits to society, as well as cause risks. Students should understand the costs and trade-offs of various hazards—ranging from those with minor risk to a few people to major catastrophes with major risk to many people. The scale of events and the accuracy with which scientists and engineers can (and cannot) predict events are important considerations.

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