Image Source: Der Spiegel via SOTT.
Recently, a friend was complaining about raccoons overturning trash cans in the back yard. I was surprised, because my friend is visiting family in Germany and raccoons are a North American species. Many outlets have reported that the raccoon presence in Germany is due to a little-known history of the Depression and the Second World War. The story goes that in 1934, leading Nazi Hermann Goering released a breeding pair outside Kassel, near Frankfurt:
Goering ordered the release of a breeding pair of raccoons when he was the Third Reich’s chief forester in 1934, to give hunters something to shoot. More got out in 1945 when an Allied bomb hit a farm where they were being reared for their pelts.The Telegraph mentions further:
The L A Times corrects this story, stating that the 1934 release is true, while the Goering connection is false; raccoons were actually introduced to Germany under controlled conditions in the 1920s for their pelts:[A]t the request of the Reich Forestry Service, ... [Goering] authorised a pair to be released into the German countryside both to “enrich local fauna” and for sport. In the event, the hunted outlasted both the hunters and Hitler: with no natural predators, there are now 500,000 to a million raccoons in Germany, resulting in a decline in songbird numbers due to their fondness for eggs, and millions of pounds worth of damage to property. The animals have since spread to France, Eastern Europe and Russia.
The Nazi reference springs in part from an account of the raccoon's origins in Germany that zoologists and wildlife biologists like Ehlert say is a myth.The initial German releases were compounded when departing NATO soldiers turned loose their raccoon mascots in France in the 1960s. Like many stories in the media these days, the Goering connection is so compelling that it is reported even though it's not true. The false story becomes the generally-accepted truth. If anything, the real Nazi legacy here comes from Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister. And the spread of raccoons, like the spread of the cane toad in Australia, is an ongoing corner of ecological history, the environmental dimension of human affairs.
The story has it that one of Hitler's closest advisors, military leader Hermann Goering, personally ordered the release of imported raccoons into Germany's forests, either to foster biodiversity — in utter contrast to the Nazis' evil ideology of human racial purity — or to increase the number of game animals for Germany's avid hunters.
Ehlert said a forestry official did release two pairs of raccoons from the United States into the wild in 1934 to promote diversity of fauna, though Goering had nothing to do with it. Then, during World War II, a bomb destroyed a farm near Berlin where raccoons were being raised for their pelts, allowing about 20 of the critters to escape.
These two dozen ancestors essentially gave rise to today's raccoon population in Germany, which is impossible to tally exactly but which Hohmann estimates is edging toward the 1 million mark.
Hermann Goering (1893-1946), WWI flying ace, founder of the Gestapo, and WWII Nazi commander of Hitler's air force. He was the first Nazi authority at the scene when the Reichstag burnt down in 1933. But the raccoons in German back gardens are not part of his legacy. Image Source: Heinrich Hoffman via Life via dA.
German pest control services use traps baited with marzipan or chocolate (which I'm sure raccoons would really like). This all may sound funny, or if you're an animal rights activist, terrible. But having a family of raccoons living under your back stairs quickly changes both perspectives. Raccoons are distant cousins of the bear family; they are clever, and have little hand-like paws. They carry rabies and also carry a newly-discovered strain of bacteria, Bartonella rochalimae, which is similar to the strain which caused trench fever among WWI soldiers. They are generally unafraid of people. Cohabitation with them is most unpleasant. Last year, New York City held a 'Raccoon Summit' to deal with a local explosion of the species.
The chaos and decline which raccoons can bring to houses came across well in the 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens, in which Jacqueline Kennedy's cousins, who were down on their luck, inhabited a rotting mansion in East Hampton, New York. There is an unsettling scene in which Edith Bouvier Beale tears a wrapper off a loaf of white bread in their attic library, and raccoons climb down the books from the ceiling to come eat it (you can see a related scene at the end of this video).
The German press is full of stories of raccoons tearing up lawn furniture, climbing down chimneys, eating food in kitchens, frightening housecats, taking over attics and even sauntering onto subway cars:
The first time Kassel hotel manager Karsten Damm saw a pack of raccoons on the march -- a "gaze" as the specialists call it -- he was fascinated. But then came the pungent smell, followed by the racket in the attic at night. "They set up a real playground up there!" he wailed. The desperate Damm tried everything to eject his striped tailed guests from his well-appointed Lindenhof hotel. "I relaid the tiles they pulled off, once, twice, three times. I used loud music but they seem to be deaf. Finally, it came down to them leaving or me," he said. At the end of his tether, Damm called in expert Frank Becker who had just the trick: a small electric fence along the gutters and metal sheets covering the pipes to keep the masked marauders from climbing up with their nimble little paws. In the neighborhood, nearly every other house is equipped with similar anti-raccoon ramparts and nearly all the garbage lids are battened down.The Star notes:
Hunters complain that raccoons kill partridges and pheasants, devour bats and steal eggs from wild ducks’ nests. Raccoons also seem to have developed a taste for the endangered European pond turtle.
Still, DJV officials are calling for calm, saying the environmental damage has only been minor. At most, they say, there is the potential danger to humans from rabies.
Kassel isn’t the only city with a raccoon problem. In cities such as Dresden and Bielefeld, the animals have started banding together to harvest entire cherry or plum trees. Another problematic occurrence is when these marauding gangs make their homes in attics, where they tear the insulation to bits and leave their droppings everywhere.
Some residents fight back with steel traps or poisonous gas. Some even eat the pests, which are said to taste best marinated with celeriac and onions.
Animal lovers and activists feel the raccoon deserves protection despite its non-native status, and they are appalled by such crude responses. Ignoring all advice, they intentionally attract the animals to give them milk and advocate anything but shooting them.
Image Source: Der Spiegel via SOTT.
"Marga Trautmann-Winter, with a trapped raccoon behind her, says the animals eat fruit from her trees and leave her backyard, where her grandchildren like to play, covered in droppings. "They look very smart, but I think they are very dangerous," she says." Image Source: Henry Chu / Los Angeles Times.
The L A Times reports that Germany is a "wonderland" for raccoons. They are spreading across Europe, and are popping up in the UK. Another report confirms that they have made their way over the Alps.