At night the trash can lids rattle, and the next morning there is rubbish scattered all over the street. When looking for food, raccoons are not exactly considerate and picky, but they are more skilled and adaptable.

This is now a problem given the massive spread of animals in Germany. Because the omnivores with the characteristic Zorro mask not only disturb the night’s sleep in residential areas, but according to experts they also threaten the existence of some local animal species.

“Raccoons always eat what there is most of,” says wildlife biologist Norbert Peter from the University of Frankfurt. Together with other experts, he is investigating the hunting behavior of raccoons in selected nature reserves as part of the collaborative project Zowiac (zoonotic and wildlife ecological effects of invasive carnivores). In spring, for example, these are amphibians that are on their way to their spawning grounds to lay their eggs there. The raccoon specifically selects them as a food resource. “This can have an impact on endangered species.”

An estimated two million raccoons in Germany

According to Peter, the crepuscular and nocturnal raccoon now has an estimated two million individuals nationwide, and the trend is rising. The release of two pairs of raccoons on April 12, 1934 at the Edersee in northern Hesse is considered to be the most important event in Europe for the spread of the predator, which originally came from North America. In 1945, after a bomb hit a fur farm near Strausberg in Brandenburg during the Second World War, some animals fled. Since then, without any natural enemies, they have been able to spread almost unhindered. Since 2016 they have been listed on the so-called Union list, which contains invasive species in the EU.

“Raccoons can now be found in almost all of Germany,” says Torsten Reinwald, press spokesman and deputy managing director of the German Hunting Association (DJV). The animals are particularly widespread in northern Hesse, southern Lower Saxony and Brandenburg. They can be hunted all year round in almost all federal states, taking into account mother animal protection. According to DJV statistics, 202,821 raccoons were officially killed nationwide in the 2022/23 hunting year, compared to 9,064 in the 2000/01 season.

The animals, which belong to the small bear family, are extremely adaptable and intelligent and can climb and swim very well, explains Reinwald. “This means they can occupy many ecological niches and challenge other species’ habitat or eat them.” In Thuringia, for example, raccoons now occupy half of all potential nesting sites for eagle owls and would drive the birds away. In Brandenburg, a large number of the strictly protected European pond turtles have been mutilated. “The raccoons eat their limbs and plunder their clutches.” They also patrolled toad fences and ate the amphibians from the buckets.

Poisonous skin from toads is peeled off

In order to shed more light on the hunting behavior of raccoons, wildlife biologist Peter and his team collected data in nature reserves in Hesse as well as in Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt. The scientists discovered that raccoons are also predators of strictly protected common toads, yellow-bellied toads and their spawn. Their toxic skin doesn’t stop them. “The raccoons skin them before they eat them. This is shown by many of the victims’ finds,” reports Peter.

Raccoons would have a negative impact on amphibian populations, especially in isolated spawning waters. “We see predation pressure on protected amphibians and reptiles in certain areas, which is sometimes threatening the existence of these species,” says Peter. According to him, the researchers often found grass snake remains in the stomach contents of the raccoons. Through genetic evidence, a specimen of the highly endangered Aesculapian snake that was eaten while laying eggs could also be identified in the Rheingau-Taunus-Kreis study area.

“The raccoon is a cute and cuddly little animal, but you shouldn’t forget that it is a predator,” says Julian Heiermann from the German Nature Conservation Association (Nabu). Many amphibian species already have massive problems with reproduction, for example due to the application of pesticides and fertilizers, the fragmentation of habitats by traffic routes, as well as the advancing climate change and the associated droughts in which spawning waters repeatedly dry out. “And then there’s a predator like the raccoon on top of that.”

Hunting is controversial as an effective means

So how do you deal with these cute pests? “We can’t get rid of the raccoon,” says Reinwald. “But with hunting we can significantly reduce the population. There is no more effective measure.” Hunting is essential, but this is not allowed in Berlin, for example. “Almost 40 percent of animals are caught in live traps.” He demands that politicians must commit to hunting as a species protection tool.

Nabu, however, is critical of hunting or catching raccoons. Increased trapping is not an effective way to alleviate the problem, says Heiermann. “Theoretically, it would be possible to contain the population this way. In practice, it’s too time-consuming. You can’t set up that many traps to reduce the raccoon population over a large area.” In addition, appropriate measures have been unsuccessful in the past: “The raccoon has been hunted for ages, but it has continued to spread happily.” Sterilization and castration of animals is not a solution, nor is medication-based contraception. “These are nice ideas, but they are too complex to be practical.”

Nabu doesn’t have a model solution either. “From our point of view, the question is how we can help the local populations. To do this, we have to strengthen their habitat. Then they can reproduce better again and better compensate for losses.” The animals needed protected and diverse habitats in order to feed, hide and reproduce. “Amphibians, for example, need more bodies of water and more natural bank areas with hiding places. The raccoon will still visit them, but it will no longer be as easy for him to grab them.”