Get That Rascal!
How A Cartoon Instigated An Army Invasion of Raccoons in Japan
For generations, tales of mysterious creatures invading Japan have captured the imaginations of Japanese citizens of all ages. But, until the 1970s, these tales were simply part of a longstanding tradition of folklore based on myth and legend, not reality. Then, along came Rascal.
The story of Rascal can be traced back to a young boy named Sterling North from the American state of Wisconsin. The young Sterling adopted an orphaned baby raccoon and named him Rascal.
For the next year, the boy and the raccoon were inseparable and spent every waking moment together. They fished nearby lakes and streams, explored the wooded countryside, and went for bike rides with Rascal riding in a basket attached to the handlebars. But, as their year together came to an end, Sterling began to realize that the raccoon was a wild animal at heart, and was not meant to be a pet.
And so, the furry little woodland critter that was once as tame as a housecat had become more and more mischievous as he aged. As Rascal grew older, he began to draw the attention of female raccoons along with the aggression of other males. When Sterling’s neighbours could no longer tolerate Rascal’s intrusions into their chicken coops, fields and barns, Sterling came to the sad conclusion that he would soon have to release his best friend into the wild.
A life trapped in a cage (which would have been the only safe way to keep Rascal as a pet) was no life for a raccoon. So, Sterling built a canoe and used it to row across a nearby lake at the edge of a beautiful forest. At the edge of the woods, he said goodbye to his best friend and returned home with a heavy heart, but knowing that he had done the right thing.
Then in 1963, Sterling North used his story to form the basis of his award-winning memoir, Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era. Subsequently in 1969, Disney created a feature film based on North’s book, fittingly titled Rascal. Finally, a 52-episode anime series called Araiguma Rasukaru, based on North’s book, aired in Japan throughout 1977.
Believe it or not, this children’s series catalysed the invasion and proliferation of the North American raccoon throughout most of Japan just a few decades after it aired. For the overwhelming majority of Japan’s history, North American raccoons were strangers to the island. All of that changed when Araiguma Rasukaru aired and turned the Japanese nation on to raccoons’ inherently charming personalities and amusing, often quirky, behaviour.
Suddenly, every Japanese child wanted their own pet raccoon, like the boy hero of Araiguma Rasukaru. At the height of their popularity, Japan imported more than 1,500 North American raccoons each year. The Japanese government eventually made it illegal to import them or keep them as pets, but by then it was too late.
The trouble truly started when many Japanese children who had kept pet raccoons imitated the beloved cartoon and released their own pet racoons into the wild. Other raccoons simply escaped, given their untamed nature, while still others were released by their owners (or their owner’s parents) out of sheer frustration at the difficulties that go along with trying to keep a raccoon as a pet.
Raccoons have since proliferated in Japan, where they have no natural predators. They invade cattle farms, infiltrate fish farms, damage crops and cause more than thirty million yen worth of agricultural damage each year on the island of Hokkaido alone. They have also rapidly adapted to city life, where they nest in air vents beneath floorboards, raid human garbage, and destroy Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
Raccoons have also had a huge impact on the ecology of Japan, preying on native mammals like the gray red-backed vole, along with snakes, frogs, dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, bees, cicadas, and shrimp and other shellfish. They compete both for food and for territory with the native raccoon dog (tanuki) and the red fox, and push native owls out of nesting spots in hollow trees.
Following the passing of a law protecting native Japanese ecosystems in 2004, local governments began culling this invasive species. The killing wasn’t exclusive to the Japanese government. The formerly beloved pets were quickly killed by their owners, and people around the country soon commenced a witch hunt on the famous raccoon.
A species once beloved by a country’s children quickly became the victim of mass culls around the country. There is no good solution to the problem of invasive raccoons in Japan. Left uncontrolled, they will continue to cause problems. But the alternative—mass culls—doesn’t enjoy public support, and most research indicates that culls aren’t actually all that effective anyway.