Earlier this week, a pair of raccoon dogs were reported to be “terrorising” a village in the United Kingdom after they escaped from a nearby enclosure. Raccoon dogs, also called tanukis, look like supermodel raccoons with their lanky limbs, slender necks, and soulful eyes. But they’re actually wild canines, most closely related to foxes. The stories that came out of Nottinghamshire—a goat and pony attacked, a dog walker spooked, the invading beasts chased off with big pieces of wood—demonstrate all the ways you shouldn’t interact with tanukis. But if one did need to keep a raccoon dog happy, fed, and well tended, how would a responsible animal caretaker do it right?
I asked Rebecca Snyder, the curator of science and conservation at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. She’s also the former curator of mammals at Zoo Atlanta, where she worked directly with raccoon dogs for several years. They’re native to eastern Asia, but have also been introduced to Europe. In the United States, Oklahoma City and Atlanta are the only two accredited zoos that have raccoon dogs in their collection.
Snyder told me that the animals are curious yet shy, fun to take care of, and have the potential to wreak havoc if they get out—not just the kind the residents of Nottinghamshire experienced, but ecological havoc as well.
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.
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.
Gutman: What kind of precautions do zoos take to make sure they don’t get out?
Snyder: In the U.S., you have to have a double-containment system. So that means you just have to have two barriers all the time. [At Zoo Atlanta and the Oklahoma City Zoo], all of those enclosures would have what we call a dig barrier. So that would be fencing that goes underneath the ground that prevents the animals from being able to dig out.
Gutman: One eyewitness in the U.K. told The Independent that one of the escaped raccoon dogs attacked her goat, and was acting very aggressively. As she said, “It was absolutely crazy. It was hissing and screaming and snarling. It was going absolutely mad.” Is that behavior consistent with what you’ve seen from the zoos’ raccoon dogs?
Snyder: I think that would be an unusually large animal for a raccoon dog to try to overcome.
Gutman: In what kind of situation would it go after something like a goat?
Snyder: I can’t imagine that it would. That would be more like the behavior of a coyote. In my experience with raccoon dogs, I can’t imagine that.
Gutman: What about the snarling and hissing?
Snyder: [Laughs.] If the animal felt threatened, it might hiss and snarl and growl. We don’t really see that in the zoo, because we’re not ever putting the animal in a situation where it really feels threatened by us. That would happen, I think, if somebody tried to capture one, or cornered it, or something; it might be vocalizing and trying to defend itself. But we don’t put them in that situation in the zoo.