In the Spotlight: University of Wyoming Raccoon Project

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by Lisa Barrett 

Besides my dissertation work with Asian elephants and zebra finches, another project within the Animal Behavior and Cognition Lab at the University of Wyoming (UW) focuses on raccoon behavior! This blog is an interview with the manager of the UW Raccoon Project (UWRP), Rachel Fanelli.

  1. How/why did you become UWRP manager? What is your favorite part of the job? Why?

I became the Project Manager for the University of Wyoming Raccoon Project (UWRP) in July 2016, but prior to this, I was a research technician for the UWRP. Working as the Project Manager was appealing to me because it’s really a Jack of all trades type of position. Every week there is something new to do! Some of my favorite moments have taken place early in the morning when the research technicians and I check the live traps we baited the previous evening. We have captured numerous skunks, minks, feral cats, and of course raccoons, so it’s fun to see what the day’s catch entails! It is also very exciting to track down the raccoons we fitted with VHF radio collars. This can be challenging at times since the raccoons live in the city of Laramie, WY, and we encounter a lot of interference from buildings and homes when we use radio telemetry to triangulate their locations. For this reason, it can feel like quite the rush when you finally pinpoint the location of a raccoon!

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Emily, UWRP member, searches for a raccoon using radio telemetry.

A large goal of the UWRP is to educate the public about our research and create excitement around a local wildlife species. I truly enjoy working with local organizations and schools to promote our research and encourage the public to get involved by becoming a citizen scientist. We have received dozens of raccoon sightings from members of the Laramie community, and numerous residents have allowed us to trap on their property. The ability to trap on residential property is critical for the UWRP since our study species often lives in the backyards of Laramie’s residents. The outpour of support for our research has been inspiring and fundamental for the longevity of the UWRP.

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The UWRP teaches students about their research goals and findings.

  1. What is UWRP’s mission?

The University of Wyoming Raccoon Project is a research group founded by Dr. Sarah Benson-Amram, an assistant professor in the Zoology and Physiology Department at the University of Wyoming. Along with Dr. Benson-Amram, the UWRP is comprised of 2 graduate and 8 undergraduate students. Our mission is to learn more about the behavior and cognition of North American raccoons. Students in the UWRP have presented captive raccoons with different puzzle box apparatuses to learn more about their problem-solving abilities, and they are currently do the same thing with the wild raccoons living in Laramie, WY. The UWRP is also interested in gathering biological data from the Laramie population. We trap raccoons so we can collect: blood, hair, whisker and fecal samples from each individual. This allows us to learn more about the health, diet and genetics of the Laramie raccoons. All of the raccoons we trap are released in the areas they were captured, but before we release them, we mark each individual with ear tags and PIT (Passive Integrative Transponders) tags (similar to a pet microchip), and if the individual is large enough, it is fitted with a VHF radio collar. This allows us to identify individuals so that we can gather long-term data on these raccoons.

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Rachel, UWRP manager, with a raccoon during sample processing.

  1. What would you tell a community member who finds raccoons to be a nuisance? 

Raccoons are known to coexist alongside humans in suburban and urban settings, so human-wildlife conflict is bound to occur. The best way to avoid a negative encounter with a wild raccoon is to take preventative measures to discourage their presence on your property. Raccoons often den in cavities, so any tight space, like a chimney or crawl space, make prime den sites for this animal. Make sure to seal up any entrances on buildings and homes; this will prevent them from damaging the interior infrastructure. If you find a latrine site on your property, promptly remove the scat and clean the area, and any tools you used, with boiling water. Make sure to use latex gloves when removing the feces, and throw away the gloves afterwards. Spray bleach on solid surfaces near the latrine site, because the smell will likely deter them from the area. Most of the time raccoons travel to multiple sites in search of food, but there are certain factors that make certain sites more advantageous than others. Don’t leave food outside, especially at night. Bird feeders and pet food are quick and easy sources of food for raccoons, and they will routinely visit the backyards of homeowners that leave these food sources out at night. My last suggestion is to learn to respect and coexist alongside your wild neighbors. It’s an exhilarating feeling to see wild animals so close to home, and by changing our habits we can enjoy our raccoon-human encounters when they do occur.

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  1. What do you think is the most important thing people should realize about conserving biodiversity in general?

As I previously mentioned, raccoons are known to live alongside humans, but this is not a universal quality found in all wild animals. Many native species are vulnerable to the impacts of human-induced changes to the landscape, and we need to recognize our impact on local ecosystems. By changing our consumptive habits, and educating young children to be responsible stewards of nature, I hope we can reverse some of the negative effects humans have caused on local species populations.

  1. How can we find out more?

If you are interested in learning more about what UWRP researchers do on a typical day, check out our interview with Wyoming Public Radio! You can also keep in touch with us on our Facebook page and our lab’s website.

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Photos by: Rachel Fanelli/UWRP

 

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