Thursday, August 25, 2011

Masked bandits join forces

In Sweden, they're bracing for an invasion of masked criminals - and it's going to be worse than they were anticipating.

Raccoon dogs have spread from their native lands in East Asia into Europe, and although they're rather adorable, the result isn't pretty.

The raccoon dog (Nyctereuctes procyonoides) is not related to raccoons, but is a canine distantly related to domestic dogs. It's named in English for its resemblance to the familiar North American masked animal.

They're particularly prominent in the folklore of Japan, where they are called tanuki. Just looking at their role in traditional tales, one might be unnerved about the prospect of having them immigrate.

They have a reputation as tricksters, but this sometimes goes farther than practical jokes. They can change shape, and can disguise leaves as money to get sake and food from unsuspecting humans. They are known for making bizarre use of their scrotum, which they can enlarge into a huge sheet to use in various ways, such as as a blanket or a boat. They disturb the peace in the evenings by drumming loudly on their belly and balls. But in one region they're also famous for recurring wars, and there is at least one traditional tale where they kill an old woman.

Fairy tales, sure - but the reality is turning out to be even more destructive. In Finland, they're reportedly wiping out wetlands birds and frogs - and they manage to do so despite the fact that 100,000 are shot per year.

They've established themselves in Denmark as well, and now neighboring Sweden is next. The waters separating the two countries are not enough to deter the tanuki, which are good swimmers. It's feared that they're bringing rabies and tapeworm along with their prodigious appetites.

But, you might say, they could be relieved that at least they're not raccoons, right? We don't need folklore to know that raccoons commit violent assaults on humans and dogs, invade homes, and even take advantage of bad economic times to take over property.

Ah, but not so fast. When Sweden installed cameras along the border to monitor for the presence of raccoon dogs, they found large numbers of raccoons as well.

Raccoons are not native to Europe, so where did this invasive species come from? Many are descended from four raccoons set free in Germany in the 1930s by Herman Göring.

So: shapeshifting canines and Nazi raccoons. Sweden, we wish you luck.

Traditional well-endowed tanuki statue by Flickr user anjuli ayer.

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