Raccoon dogs in residential areas: misunderstood urban interlopers
Raccoon dogs, wildlife native to Shanghai, once again hit the headlines recently after a resident in Songjiang District claimed one of the animals bit his pet dog near an apartment complex.
Following the complaint, many people living in the Rosebush Country complex voiced their concerns, mostly about what they perceived as a threat to children and the elderly.
Dog walkers started carrying sticks lest they encounter a raccoon dog. Many residents said the animals should be driven from the area by force.
It's an uneasy alliance between raccoon dogs and residential communities in the city's outlying suburbs. Last year, another Songjiang resident claimed he had been bitten by one of the animals, though his version of events was later cast in doubt.
Wildlife experts from Fudan University told Shanghai Observer, a local news website, that raccoon dogs pose no threat to humans and are generally misunderstood by the public.
"The raccoon dog may attack if it feels being threatened or cornered, but it will seldom attack humans or pets without provocation," said Wang Fang, a researcher at Fudan University's School of Life Sciences. "It's unpractical to hunt down or kill wild animals in urban areas. That can bring great harm. We have to learn how to get along with them better."
Forestry authorities last year estimated that there are more than 2,000 raccoon dogs in the city, with sightings in at least 147 residential communities.
The animals are a bit of a misnomer. Raccoon dogs aren't related to raccoons, though they share black, mask-like facial markings. They aren't even closely related to pet dogs. Their closest biological relatives are foxes. Raccoon dogs have poor eyesight but an excellent sense of smell.
Their normal diet is birds, fish, snakes, lizards, frogs, insects and fruit, but in urbanized areas where their natural habitat doesn't provide enough food, they are known to scavenge through garbage or eat food left out for stray cats.
The Rosebush Country resident who raised the latest alarm about raccoon dogs said he was out at dawn on June 9, walking his two dogs when a raccoon dog sprang out from underneath a parked car.
According to his account, the raccoon dog and the pet dogs were growling at one another in a stalemate lasting nearly 10 minutes, when the raccoon dog suddenly attacked one of his dogs, biting it on the hind leg.
He produced a photo of the wound on his dog to prove his story.
A surveillance video, however, showed two French bulldogs passing at that time, but they suddenly turned and ran to a greenbelt area blocked from view by several cars. It was impossible to tell what had transpired.
After about 20 seconds, the two dogs appeared on the video again and began barking at a parked car. Then the raccoon dog emerged, and the encounter began.
"Our preliminary judgment is that the two pet dogs noticed the raccoon dog and barked at it," said Zheng Yunxiang from the wild animal protection department of city's forestry authority. "The female raccoon dog had a pup and was trying to protect it."
May to July is the normal lactation season of female raccoon dogs. They are sensitive to the smell of other animals and will act aggressively if they believe their pups are threatened.
Wildlife experts worked with members of the neighborhood committee to investigate the surroundings. They found a raccoon dog den and two pups nearby.
"Generally, adult raccoon dogs don't show up in daytime, unlike their curious babies," said Zhao Qianqian, a postgraduate at Fudan University's School of Life Sciences, who has monitored the raccoon dog in local communities for a long time.
The experts say that the majority of local residents lack understanding about raccoon dogs and any negative news about them can get distorted and exaggerated.
Gu Yaxiang, Party secretary of the community, said in the past a few years, residents have spotted raccoon dogs in Rosebush Country but nothing untoward has occurred.
Last year, the resident who claimed to have been bitten by a raccoon dog later admitted he might have scratched himself on branches while fleeing from the encounter.
"The experts will determine major spots where raccoon dogs are active, and we will post notices near those areas to warn the residents who walk dogs to keep them tightly on leash to prevent them from dashing off into the territories of raccoon dogs," said Gu.
In response to rumors that raccoon dogs eat stray cats or hurt children, researcher Wang said his team has never found any case of that happening in the more than 100 local communities where they monitor the activities of raccoon dogs.
In Wang's investigations of how the raccoon dogs react to sudden stress or danger, he said the animals normally flee.
"I've met hundreds of raccoon dogs but was unable to approach any of them within 5 meters," he said.
Several security guards and members of the property management company in Rosebush Country confirmed that raccoon dogs are shy and keep a distance from people. When approached, they quickly run away.
Wang's team has set up two monitoring devices in the community. He said he hopes his team can collect more basic data about raccoon dogs to help government agencies work out ways of protecting the animals and reassuring residents that they have nothing to fear.
Recent results of investigation by the Shan Shui Conservation Center said Songjiang, Minhang and Qingpu districts are the areas with most raccoon dogs in Shanghai.
The Milan Nuoguidu residential community in Songjiang District, which reported tens of raccoon dogs last summer, now has its population of the animals under control.
Wang Hua, Party secretary of Xiangyangqiao Residential Area where the community is located, said better management of garbage bins and water supplies has discouraged the animals from coming too close to residential buildings.
Residents have also been told not to feed stray cats at night, when raccoon dogs are active.
"We find that the animals are most active near residential areas when there is food and water easily available," said Zhao.