This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Gutman: What is taking care of raccoon dogs like?
Rebecca Snyder: They’re a small, wild canid, so they’re curious, they’re intelligent, and they’re pretty easy to train. And we found them to be really inquisitive, so they were fun to work with. Pretty much anything you put in their exhibit, they will explore and play with.
Gutman: How does interacting with a raccoon dog compare with interacting with a normal dog that you’d have as a pet?
Snyder: They’re wild animals. So we don’t treat them like pets. We typically don’t encourage them to touch us, and we don’t often touch them unless it’s for a medical check or procedure. So they’re curious and smart like a domestic dog would be, but we don’t pet them or play with them. They’re unpredictable and a little shy.
Gutman: When you worked with the raccoon dogs at Zoo Atlanta, what kinds of things would you do to keep them happy and stimulated?
Snyder: We gave them lots of different toys and things. We did use toys that you would use with dogs. They like those kinds of things to chew on and carry around and play with. Pretty much any kind of object that we put in there, they were interested in. We also sprayed scents in their enclosure because, like other carnivores, they use their olfactory sense a lot. So they’re curious about smelling new smells. We put bedding from other animals in there [for them] to investigate.
Read: It’s not about the raccoon
Gutman: How would they react to that?
Snyder: They’re just interested in everything. So they just smell and explore new things. They like to chew things up and carry things around.
Gutman: Sounds like a dog. Are they aggressive in the wild?
Snyder: No. They’re very similar to the red fox that we have here in the United States. They’d mostly avoid people, they’d be active when people aren’t around, and they would just be looking for any kind of food source that was available to them.
Gutman: Is it possible to keep a raccoon dog as a pet?
Snyder: You have to have a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have them in the United States. USFWS classifies them as injurious wildlife. That doesn’t mean that they are capable of causing great injury. Basically it means that because they’re so omnivorous and they adapt really well to a wide variety of environments and they do well in urban areas, they have the ability to become an invasive species.
Gutman: According to news reports, the raccoon dogs on the loose in the U.K. “dug out” of their enclosure. Are they big diggers?
Snyder: I actually don’t consider them to be especially good at digging. I don’t know what kind of enclosure they were in that they were able to dig out of; we don’t know how secure that was. But they don’t typically dig big burrows or anything like that.