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As most of you know the raccoons that are "caught” during the Grand American Coon Hunt are not harmed in any way. The judges just have to look up in the tree where a hound has bayed and verify there is a coon there for the dog to win or lose points.

With that said, it should be fun to get to know these miniature bears (their closest kin) a little better. They are cool little animals or pests depending on your experiences with them.

GRAND AMERICAN COON HUNT: How the event came to be

Raccoons have some of the most dexterous hands in nature, as anyone who's had a garden, cooler or garbage can broken into by one of them knows. Native Americans were the first to note their unusual paws. The English word raccoon comes from the Powhatan word aroughcun, which means "animal that scratches with its hands."

The Aztecs went in a similar direction when naming the raccoon. They named it mapachitli or "one who takes everything in its hands." Today mapache means "raccoon" in Spanish.

There are six raccoon species native to North and South America. The most recognizable is Procyon lotor or the common raccoon that lives in the United States. Other varieties of the animal can be found farther south, often inhabiting tropical islands.

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Thanks to the black markings that fall across their eyes, raccoons have been typecast as the conniving thief or trickster figure in stories for centuries. But their famous black masks do more than make them look like adorable outlaws -- they also help them see clearly. The black fur works just like the black stickers athletes wear under their eyes: The dark color absorbs incoming light, reducing glare that would otherwise bounce into their eyes and obstruct their vision. At night, when raccoons are most active, less peripheral light makes it easier for them to perceive contrast in the objects of their focus, which is essential for seeing in the dark.

It's unusual for White House pets to start as Thanksgiving dinner, but that was the case with Rebecca, the raccoon that lived with Calvin Coolidge for part of his presidency. At the time, raccoon meat wasn't a terribly uncommon sight on dinner tables in America. But once he met the live critter, Coolidge decided he was more interested in adopting her than having her for supper. Rebecca soon became part of the family, receiving an engraved collar for Christmas, taking part in the annual Easter Egg roll, and frequently accompanying the president on walks around the White House grounds.

About raccoons

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Humans have actually spread raccoons across the globe and raccoons are one of the few species that have thrived thanks to humans. I got this fact from an article online:

The first raccoons were exported to Europe in the 1920s to stock fur farms. By way of an accidental bombing and some bored farmers just wanting to spice up the local wildlife, many raccoons escaped and founded a new population in the wild. Today raccoons in Europe are considered an invasive species.

The animals even ended up in Japan. Their journey there had more wholesome beginnings: In the 1970s, Japanese children were obsessed with the cuddly star of the anime cartoon Rascal the Raccoon. Kids demanded pet raccoons of their own, and at one point Japan was importing roughly 1500 of them a month. Naturally, many of these pets ended up back in the wild when they grew too big for families to take care of them properly. Japan has since prohibited importing and owning raccoons, but the descendants of that initial boom have spread to 42 of the country's 47 prefectures.

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Raccoons are regarded by scientists as intelligent creatures, but city dwellers may notice that their local specimens reach special levels of cunning. This may be because urban raccoons are forced to outsmart human-made obstacles on a regular basis.

When Suzanne MacDonald, a psychologist and biologist at York University in Toronto, outfitted city raccoons with GPS collars, she learned they had learned to avoid major intersections. A second experiment supported the theory that raccoons accustomed to life around humans are better equipped to solve unconventional problems. MacDonald planted garbage cans containing food in urban and rural areas. When it came to opening the tricky lid, most city raccoons could figure it out while the country raccoons failed each time.

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While most animals use either sight, sound or smell to hunt, raccoons rely on their sense of touch to locate goodies. Their front paws are incredibly dexterous and contain roughly four times more sensory receptors than their back paws — about the same ratio of human hands to feet. This allows them to differentiate between objects without seeing them, which is crucial when feeding at night.

Raccoons can heighten their sense of touch through something called dousing. To humans, this can look like the animals are washing their food, but what they're really doing is wetting their paws to stimulate the nerve endings. Like light to a human's eyes, water on a raccoon's hands gives it more sensory information to work with, allowing it to feel more than it would otherwise.

Give raccoons a puzzle and, as long as there's food involved, they'll usually find a way to solve it. They've not only proven this time and time again in yards and campsites but in labs as well. In the early 1900s, ethologist H.B. Davis gave 12 raccoons a series of locks to crack. To access the treats inside the boxes, they had to navigate hooks, bolts, buttons, latches, and levers, with some boxes featuring more than one lock. In the end, the raccoons were able to get past 11 of the 13 mechanisms.

Scientific facts

Here are some scientific facts I gleaned from various articles written on how to get rid of raccoons:

1. Raccoons are capable of achieving body masses made up of 50 percent body fat, but it is mostly the animals in the cooler regions that achieve this.

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2. Their tails can make up 52 percent of their length, up to 405 mm.

3. During extremely cold periods, raccoons have been known to sleep for long periods, but they do not hibernate.

4. These critters climb with great ease and are not bothered by a drop of 35 to 40 feet. This is one of the truly amazing raccoon facts.

5. As well as being agile climbers, these animals are also very strong swimmers, although they are often reluctant to enter the water because without waterproof fur, swimming forces them to take on extra weight.

6. Raccoons have a highly developed tactile sense. Their human-like forepaws (complete with five fingers) are used to pick up food with their front paws before putting it in their mouth. Just like you do.

7. Raccoons can live up to 16 years in the wild, but most don't make it past their second birthday. Did you know that a captive raccoon was recorded living for 21 years? Another of the truly amazing raccoon facts.

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8. Raccoons generally have one litter per year that typically consists of four babies. Although they can have three to seven. Sexual maturity often occurs in females before they are 1 year old.

9. Raccoon pelts have been harvested since the colonial period. Although demand has diminished greatly, the pelts may still be sold as imitation mink, otter or even seal fur.

10. These critters carry many diseases, the worst of which is a microscopic parasite known as raccoon roundworm. It has been known to cause death and blindness in humans. Of course rabies is a concern when you see a raccoon that is not “acting right” or oddly during daytime hours.

Obviously the little varmints are intelligent and that is why the owners of expensive coon dogs seek them out for game. Though raccoons were originally hunted for their fur and flesh, that is not often the case now. They are considered top-notch sporting animals now on par with foxes and wild boar.

For those having never been on a hunt, I would suggest getting a good friend  -- one who won't abandon you in the woods -- and go try it one night. There is certainly more to the raccoon than meets the eye.

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Dr. John Rheney has been writing his outdoors column for The Times and Democrat since 1984.

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