Despite their name, raccoon dogs are neither a raccoon or a dog but it’s easy to see where they got their name from. They have facial markings like that of a raccoon and are the same sort of shape and size as dog. Their scientific name – nyctereutes procyonoides – breaks down into something like ‘night wandering proto dog’ which I think is more beautiful than raccoon dog, but probably a bit too long… Anyway, there are five subspecies of raccoon dogs, including a Japanese species call tanuki and whilst you might have heard of the tanuki, there’s a reasonable change you’ve never heard of the raccoon dog. Unless you are involved in the fur trade…
They have long been used in the fur industry and between 1927 and 1957, somewhere between 4,000 to 10,000 of them were introduced to the European and Asian USSR to try and establish a valuable new fur animal in the wild. Today they are widespread across northern and western Europe where they live in forests and other areas of dense vegetation which provide cover.
I don’t really want to talk about the fur trade in the post as that’s such a huge and problematic issue, but briefly, their pelts are used to make necklets, collars and fur coats as well as being used for bristles for calligraphy brushes in Japan. Their bones have been used medicinally and as a supposed aphrodisiac…
Despite being used in the fur industry and hunted, they are excellent survivors. They are very adaptable, tolerant of human presence and have a high reproduction rate. They are also opportunistic omnivores who forage and hunt and are also able to swim and dive for food. They eat insects, small rodents, birds and eggs, fish, molluscs, crabs and sea urchins. They also eat plants including roots, leaves, berries and seeds. In winter, food can be limited and they will eat out of our rubbish. As another example of their survivability, they are able to eat toads that have toxic skin secretions as they produce a large amount of saliva which dilutes the toxins. If the raccoon dog has come to you, you will survive the thing you are facing. You have the resources to cope with the difficulties and you will come through the other side. You are tough and adaptable.
When it comes to mating, females are courted by several males although there is little fighting amongst them. Before they have sex, they pair will bond and they will remain together until their young have become independent. Towards the later stages of pregnancy, the male will bring the female food and will continue to play a significant role in raising the pups. He will stand guard over them as the female hunts and the pups will learn to hunt by watching their parents. This is a time to work together and having the help of a partner – romantic or otherwise – will help you get through this difficult time.
In terms of symbolic importance or mythology, the main source is Japan where the tanuki have been associated with magical folklore and luck since ancient times. They are mischievous shapeshifters, masters of disguise and play the role of the trickster. They are cheeky and hedonistic but are also thought to be gullible and absent minded. They create illusions, changing their own appearance but also changing the appearance of objects, for example making leaves look like money.
“They can make people see entirely different landscapes, causing them to get lost even in familiar territory. They can produce will o’ the wisp fire, like kitsune. They use this fire to prank people, naturally. Before artificial light, this was a good way to fool a farmer into thinking he was having a whole conversation with a fellow smoking a pipe in the dark. And they think it’s a hoot to make fisherman’s nets feel heavy with fish and watch as they pull up empty nets.”
Tanuki statues can be found throughout Japan and are thought to bring financial luck. They are depicted with large testicles which signify good luck with money. The testicles are also very versatile… In stories they have become makeshift raincoats, weapons and drums amongst other things… Whilst this is somewhat out there, it does tie into the idea of the raccoon dog as adaptable and a survivor. Use what you have creatively, pull on the resources you have and you too can be as successful as the raccoon dog!