How Japan's Pet-Raccoon Craze Threatens Its Wild Dogs

The country's indigenous "raccoon dogs," like the viral sensation Tanu, are forced to compete with their doppelgangers in order to survive.

Just look at that face. (@chibi_tori / Twitter)

It’s a near-universal rule that when two independently adorable things are combined—dog dressed as bear, cat clad as burrito, Hello Kitty masquerading as Winnie the Pooh—the power of their collective cuteness is greater than the sum of its parts.

No one knows this better than the newly Internet-famous Tanu, a so-called “raccoon dog.” Tanu is a member of the canine species Tanuki, which bears a striking resemblance—but no relation—to the North American raccoon. But the two species are also tied together by something more than appearance: Wild Tanuki, natives to Japan, are actively threatened by their garbage-eating, bandit-masked doppelgangers, imported en masse during a raccoon craze decades ago.

Tanuki have long been considered  harbingers of prosperity and fortune in Japanese culture, often represented by statues holding sake at restaurants. But their own good fortune abruptly came to an end in 1977, when Nippon Animation Company released a 52-episode television program in Japan about a character appropriately named Rascal the Raccoon, based off a 1969 Disney film. The show chronicled the myriad zany adventures of the misbehaving creature and his human best friend—and, as popular Disney cartoons are wont to do, it spawned a rush for associated merchandise. In this case, that merchandise came in the form of  live raccoons as pets. Following the debut of the show, Japan began importing 1,500 raccoons a year, on average, until the government placed limitations on the practice.

Rascal the Raccoon: the face that launched thousands of pet purchases (Wikimedia)

The Rascal cartoons were based on an autobiographical book by Sterling North, an author who had indeed adopted a young raccoon as his pet. As the raccoon grew older, however, it became unsatisfied with domestic life and prone to aggression, forcing him to set it free. Many Japanese families realized this as well when their baby raccoons reached maturity and began wreaking havoc on their homes. As a result, many once-enthusiastic raccoon owners released their furry pets into the wild—and, because there are no natural predators in the region, the animals have flourished ever since.

By 2004, raccoons had a presence in nearly all prefectures in the country. On the island of Hokkaido alone, they account for roughly $300,000 in agricultural damage each year. They’ve gone on to vandalize temples, harass passersby, and hurt local ecosystems, hunting voles, frogs, and even endangered crayfish. In the process, they’ve aggressively encroached on the indigenous Tanuki, competing for many of the same resources. Local governments throughout the country have launched programs to cull raccoon populations, in an attempt to curb the spread of these latent, ahem, rascals. It’s hard to tell from his face, but Tanu must be pleased.