In California, humans live in close proximity to wild animals. With a population of nearly 40 million, the Golden State's cities and suburbs continue to grow and encroach upon areas that were once home to only wildlife. The state of California considers raccoons fur-bearing animals and, while they are plentiful, there are strict laws in place regarding removing, trapping and owning them. Raccoons make their dens on a person's private property and can live off of everything from trash to fruit trees and vegetable gardens.
Raccoons (procyon lotor) are wild animals that have a doglike appearance. They are easily identifiable by the black mask of fur across their eyes, a bushy, ringed tail and hair that is in shades of gray-black to reddish-brown. They can weigh up to thirty pounds and can be aggressive when cornered, with few predators willing to take them on.
They are intelligent and have hand-like front paws that enable them to manipulate objects and excel as swimmers and climbers. Their hearing and eyesight are also quite keen. They are nocturnal animals and primarily solitary.
During breeding season (typically February or March), males will travel a few miles from their den, while females stay within a half-mile radius of their home. Raccoons do not hibernate in the colder months, but they do become inactive and can lose up to half their body fat during that time.
Raccoon Habitats in the United States
The raccoon lives in most areas of the United States, except in some mountainous areas at higher elevations in the Southwest. They are prevalent in the wooded areas of the East Coast and prefer hardwood forest habitats with a water source.
They don't inhabit deserts, but they live near or on farms with crops and livestock watering areas in the western United States. They also thrive in California urban areas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento. Raccoons make their dens in any place they can hide; hollow trees, piles of brush, abandoned buildings, barns and haystacks are all places where raccoons make a home.
Raccoon Food Habits and Diseases
Raccoons are voracious eaters and can cause plenty of damage to a home or garden in search of food. They are omnivores whose diet consists of everything from fruits and vegetables to nuts, pet food, earthworms, insects and grubs, rodents and even koi fish. They also eat chickens and their eggs.
Raccoons catch both canine and feline diseases. They are prone to distemper from both species, which can be fatal. Raccoon rabies is prevalent on the East Coast, but California has yet to report rabies in its raccoon population.
Raccoons and Property Damage
Raccoons can cause considerable damage to a home and property. They will leave partially eaten crops and destroy plants. They may seek to gain entrance into a home's attic or chimney when building a den or raiding garbage cans in search of food – in some instances, they will even tear off shingles to gain entrance to a home.
A raccoon will seek shelter when it's time to give birth, when the temperature cools and when night falls. They will crawl on the roof of a home to gain entry to its attic; residents often hear their heavy movements during the night.
What to Do When Encountering Raccoons
Most people in California live relatively close to wild animals, including deer, coyotes, skunks, bobcats, opossums, squirrels and raccoons. These animals generally steer clear of humans and should be scared away if they don't as it is only through negative interactions that they learn to avoid humans. Human interaction with wildlife can lead to the animals' destruction.
A person who comes across a raccoon that doesn't run away in their presence may encounter an animal that is sick, protecting its young or not afraid of humans due to feeding. When this happens, they should contact their local animal control office to report the animal.
Feeding Raccoons and California Law
According to the California Code of Regulations Sec. 251.1, it is illegal to herd or harass any wild animal. The state describes harassment as an act that disrupts an animal's usual behavior. It generally exempts small birds because a bird feeder does not interfere with natural behaviors. Also, the law does not apply to property owners or tenants who actively drive off wild animals to prevent damage on their property.
Human food scraps should not be readily available to wildlife. Pet owners should not leave food for domesticated animals out overnight in an area accessible to predatory animals, including raccoons. Feeding wildlife is also illegal when used as part of an attempt to hunt the animal.
Keeping Raccoons as Pets
California has some of the strictest pet ownership laws in the country. It does not allow people to keep wild animals due to their special dietary and housing needs. They also pose a risk to the public, as they can transmit dangerous diseases to domestic animals and humans. In California, it is a misdemeanor to own a raccoon. Penalties include:
- $500 to $10,000 civil fine, with additional costs for removing the animal and its care.
- Maximum penalty of up to six months in jail, a $1,000 fine or both.
The state rarely prosecutes people for illegal possession of wild animals. However, it does have the right to take the pet away. Depending on the species, the pet can go to a rehabilitation center, a laboratory, back to the wild or face being euthanized. Trappers generally euthanize raccoons, therefore, attempting a safe co-existence from a distance is best for the animal.
Methods for Trapping Raccoons
A person can catch a raccoon using a trap, but it needs to be sturdy – they are strong animals. California Fish and Wildlife suggests a live, cage-type trap over a leg-hold trap. It should be at least 10 x 12 x 32 inches and made from weighty materials. Raccoons will take baited cat food, chicken or fish.
When a person traps the animal, they should leave the food behind the treadle and put a small amount outside of the cage near its opening and inside near the entrance. They should also place the back of a single door trap against a solid object with a maximum 1/2-inch mesh wire to prevent the animal from pulling out the bait altogether.
These traps do not allow for a selective non-target catch release, so person attempting to trap a raccoon in an area where non-target capture is more likely should use a box trap instead. These should be body-gripping or on leaning poles to keep dogs from getting caught in them.
Practicing Exclusion With Raccoons
The best way for a homeowner to keep a raccoon from being invasive is to shut them out by:
- Securing chimney screens and sealing gaps around eaves to prevent their entry.
- Trimming trees and other tall plants away from the roof.
- Placing mothballs in the attic
they dislike the smell. Sealing all entrance points once they leave. Keeping trash can lids secure and barbecue grills clean. Protecting vegetables and poultry with an electrified wire mounted close to the ground or using heavier gauge wire to secure chicken pens. Controlling garden pests to limit food sources from foraging raccoons. Securing metal flashing up to three feet around the base of fruit trees. Pinning sod down by using thin spikes or wooden stakes or netting it until it can root.
Homeowners who need guidance can contact their local nursery.
Removing Raccoons During Spring and Summer
Homeowners attempting to remove raccoons in the spring and summer months should know that there may be kits, or young raccoons, still on the property. They should not exclude any raccoons until they know for sure that removal of all raccoons has occurred or all have left the area of their own volition. Racoons often use uncapped chimneys as den sites to raise their young until they wean them. This requires property owners to be patient, as they will hear weeks of scratching, walking and other sounds from the raccoon family above, but the mother will eventually move the kits from the area when weaned.
If the property owner does not have the patience, they can call a pest removal service in their area to remove the raccoons. Nevertheless, once the raccoon family is gone, the property owner should put exclusion techniques into practice. They should never attempt using poison to kill a raccoon – this is illegal in California. Property owners with a chronic raccoon issue should instead call a professional pest control company in their area; they have a valid license to trap and remove the animals.
Frightening Raccoons to Keep Them at Bay
While homeowners can use exclusion techniques to keep raccoons off their property, they are persistent and will stay on it anyway. Property owners who grow crops sometimes try to frighten raccoons into keeping away by using lights, dogs, noise from radios, streamers made from cloth or plastic, plastic windmills or by banging on pans or lids. Property owners have also tried turning on motion sensors or sprinklers to frighten the animals.
These techniques have only varying degrees of success. None of them have had much effect over long periods of time because raccoons simply get used to them; once they are over their fright, they will return. Therefore, California Fish and Wildlife advises property owners not to rely solely on these methods.
California Bans All Fur
In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation making the donation, sale or manufacture of all fur products illegal in the state. Assemblywoman Laura Friedman authored the bill, which applies to all products made with fur, including clothes, handbags, shoes and other fashion accessories. Those who break the law will face civil penalties. The ban on fur begins on January 1, 2023.
There are exceptions to the law in regard to used fur, taxidermy products, leather, shearling and cowhide. Fur used by Native American tribes or in religious ceremonies is also exempt, as is fur taken when someone lawfully hunts an animal with a hunting or trapping license.
- Los Angeles County: California Department of Fish & Wildlife Trapping License Examination Reference Guide
- LA Animal Services: Raccoons
- California Legislature: AB-44 Fur Products: Prohibition
- Cornell Law School: Sec. 671 - Importation, Transportation and Possession of Live Restricted Animals
- Shouse Law: 5 Popular Animals That Are Illegal as Pets in California
- Cornell Law School: Sec. 251.1 - Harassment of Animals
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.