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The Politics Of Raccoons At The Oregon Capitol

Penh Gwyn

SALEM, Ore. - Depending on who you ask, raccoons are either cute little woodland critters or a menace to pets and humans alike. There’s certainly no consensus on that question in the Oregon legislature. One measure in Salem would ban the feeding of raccoons. It’s an idea that’s proven to be surprisingly controversial.

Kristy Neubo has a small dog. She calls it "Baby. She's a little five-pound shih-tzu yorkie mix.

One night Kristy and her husband were enjoying an evening on the patio of their Lake Oswego home. It's in a wooded neighborhood just south of Portland. And out of nowhere, a raccoon attacked Baby. Kristy and her husband jumped into action.

"He's kicking the raccoon to get the raccoon off Baby, and I'm reaching in to grab her, and the raccoon's attacking both of us," Neubo recalls. "We're real lucky that we all didn't get ripped up."

Another time, Neubo's family was sitting inside their sunroom on a warm summer's evening. The patio doors were open to let the cool air in. And in walked a masked bandit with four paws.

"We couldn't believe our eyes. It just sauntered by us and went right over first to the food dish that's in the kitchen there and started eating our cat's food. And then it sauntered back over and started eating Baby's food. It just sat there watching us within three feet of us."

Neubo says raccoons also started coming into the house through the cat door until she sealed it shut. She says the creatures swarm their neighborhood after dark looking for food. Neubo suspects a former neighbor created the problem by putting out food night after night.

She supports the proposal in Salem to ban the feeding of raccoons. Wildlife advocates say it's a huge problem.

But when the measure came before the Oregon Senate, even supporters weren't taking it very seriously.

"The opponents are the raccoons themselves," says Republican state Senator Alan Olsen, the bill's sponsor. Turns out he was wrong about the level of opposition to the measure. Some of his colleagues said their spouse or friends feed raccoons.

Republican Fred Girod said he likes to feed raccoons himself.

"Don't make me a criminal," he quips.

Girod says he feeds about 50 pounds of food to raccoons every two weeks outside his rural Willamette Valley home. Olsen explained that the bill would mostly act as an educational tool for wildlife officers to use. Fines would be issued only in extreme cases.

But Girod insisted that raccoons are not to be feared.

"I had a pet raccoon as a kid. It was the best pet I ever had. And people are laughing, but it truly was. I would go fishing with it. It slept in my bed."

"It's a really bad way to interact with them," says Bob Salinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. He says raccoons are wild animals and should be treated that way. And he says if you're fond of them, you should know that feeding raccoons is perhaps the worst thing you can do for them.

"One of the things that happens when you attract large numbers of wild animals to the same spot over and over, it becomes an easy way to spread disease."

Diseases like distemper, a leading cause of death for raccoons. Wildlife managers have noted several outbreaks of that disease in Oregon in recent months. And distemper can be passed to household pets.

The bill that would ban raccoon feeding has now moved on to the Oregon House, but it remains a contentious issue. A similar attempt failed in the Oregon legislature two years ago. This year, the measure did pass the Senate but only with the narrowest of margins. At 16-14, this was the closest vote so far this session.

On the Web:

SB 474: Ban on feeding raccoons - Oregon Legislature