How a Cartoon Raccoon Started a Biological Invasion in Japan

For many years, Japanese families were importing about 1,500 pet raccoons from North America each month. Gary J. Wood [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

When people see animals on TV or in movies, it often triggers an increase in popularity of those specific breeds. A 2014 study found that in the 1940s, there was a 40 percent increase in collie registrations after "Lassie Come Home." In the '50s, there was a 100-fold rise in Old English Sheepdog registrations following the Disney hit, "The Shaggy Dog."

Later movies had people buying dalmatians after "101 Dalmatians," St. Bernards after "Beethoven," border collies after "Babe," chihuahuas after "Legally Blonde" and most recently people jumped on the husky bandwagon because of "Game of Thrones."

In the '70s, this happened with raccoons in Japan.

Nippon Entertainment released "Rascal the Raccoon (Araiguma Rasukaru)," an anime cartoon series, much to the enjoyment of Japanese children, explains Eric Grundhauser in Atlas Obscura. The cartoon was based on the 1963 book "Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era" by Sterling North, which was later turned into a live-action movie by Disney.

A boy and his raccoon buddy

Because kids were so smitten by the tale of a young boy and his impish friend, many of them decided they wanted a fun raccoon friend, too.

Soon, Japanese families were importing about 1,500 pet raccoons from North America a month — and this went on for years after the cartoon's release in 1977.

But it turns out the tale didn't have such a happy ending. The way the story ends is that young Sterling realizes wild animals make rotten pets. He's forced to send Rascal back into the wild.

Real families in Japan who had imported raccoons as pets were discovering the same thing.

"Their imported pets began getting into everything, becoming violent towards humans, damaging homes and property, and generally being, horrible five-fingered menaces," Grundhauser writes. "Taking a cue from their favorite show, many families simply released their raccoons into the wild. As resourceful garbage hounds, the newly introduced species had no trouble gaining a foothold on the Japanese mainland."

Too little, too late

japanese raccoon dogs called tanukis
Imported raccoons compete for food and habitat with native raccoon dogs, called tanukis. S.Brickman/Flickr

The Japanese government eventually ended up banning the import of raccoons, but it was too late to reverse the damage. According to a 2004 report, the animals have ruined crops ranging from corn and rice to melons and strawberries. They now are found in 42 of the country's 47 prefectures and are responsible for about $300,000 worth of agricultural damage each year on the island of Hokkaido alone.

The animals have made themselves quite at home, Jason G. Goldman writes in Nautilus.

"Raccoons have also adapted to city life in the more urban parts of Japan, where they nest in air vents beneath floorboards, attic spaces of older wooden houses, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines. In cities, raccoons forage by going through human garbage, and hunt carp and goldfish that are kept in decorative ponds."

They have hurt native species, as they've made meals of snakes, frogs, butterflies, bees, cicadas and shellfish. They have driven native raccoon dogs called tanukis, red foxes and owls from their habitats and spread diseases. They've caused damage to more than 80 percent of Japan's temples and have been known to harass people who stumble upon them.

Local governments attempted to deal with the raccoon invasion by introducing culling plans. Not surprisingly, there was public backlash with only 31 percent of people supporting the eradication of these now-wild raccoons. (Interestingly, whether people were in favor of getting rid of the furry creatures or not had nothing to do with if they'd ever seen the popular "Rascal the Raccoon" cartoon.)

"This is one unfortunate consequence of fame. A species once beloved by a country’s children thanks to a popular cartoon, has in the space of just a few decades become a public nuisance, a source of significant agricultural economic losses, a possible vector for disease transmission, and a threat to other threatened and vulnerable species," Goldman writes.

"Raccoons are best left in their natural North American habitats — and on TV. Sterling North's choice of name for his pet raccoon was perhaps prophetic, foreseeing the consequences of the mass adoption of an animal that was never meant to be a pet in the first place."