Blue Ridge Naturalist: Foxes, Skunks, Coyotes, & Raccoons, Oh My!


And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. [Genesis 1:24-1:25]

But man does not necessarily agree. In fact, he finds many of God’s creations to be so pestiferous, especially if they go after his livestock, that he has coined a word to describe them: “vermin.”

Even our state wildlife department refers to some kinds of mammals as “nuisance and problem wildlife,” even though part of its mission statement reads that this agency exists “to provide educational outreach programs and materials that foster an awareness of and appreciation for Virginia’s fish and wildlife resources [and] their habitats.”

Indeed, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) should not be employing words, such as “nuisance” and “problem wildlife” that carry the connotation that certain animals exist solely to vex mankind. On the contrary, God created every living organism on Earth to support mankind’s very existence!

You can know this statement is true by simply examining the order in which God brought about his creations.Everything came before mankind, which makes sense.

So why does man insult his Creator by implying that some of the Lord’s creations are anything but “good”? Usually this attitude is the result of a lack of knowledge regarding the functions of wildlife in the natural world.

For example, consider the red and the gray fox, as well as the eastern coyote. These mammals will take chickens and/or their eggs, and lambs if they can get to them.

Predators exist for the express purpose of limiting the populations of other kinds of animals. By doing so, they make possible the perpetuation of all species of life (including plants) on Earth by not allowing one particular kind to overwhelm the limited resources of the environment.

Predators were not given the ability to comprehend that man’s farm animals are off-limits to them. Man is the one who was endowed with the ability to think about how to coexist with the other critters that share this planet.

Additionally, he was given the proper anatomy to be able to physically act upon whatever actions his thought processes tell him he must perform—humans have opposable thumbs.

Opposable thumbs allow people to grasp objects so they can build the structures necessary to keep out predators and keep in their vulnerable animals. In other words, chickens and their eggs, and sheep giving birth, need to be inside structures that protect them from predation.

Although the Common Raccoon is often thought of as a “pest”, a family of raccoons is fun to watch.“Mom” peeks out from a wildlife box (about 30 feet from the author’s kitchen door) that has often been used by screech owls. The sow’s two kits were playing on top. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)
Although the Common Raccoon is often thought of as a “pest”, a family of raccoons is fun to watch.“Mom” peeks out from a wildlife box (about 30 feet from the author’s kitchen door) that has often been used by screech owls. The sow’s two kits were playing on top. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)

The problem is that even though people have the brains and the thumbs to keep farm animals safe, their initiative to take action falls far short of the motivation of predators to go after livestock. Thus they often take the easy route of just killing off predators, something DGIF currently and wrong-headedly encourages with coyotes.

Instead, DGIF should educate farmers about the necessity of predators in the environment. For example, it’s precisely because we lack large predators that we have overpopulations of White-tailed Deer and Canada Geese.

If farmers own too many animals to protect by way of structures, an alternative is to employ large guard dogs or llamas to protect their livestock. In fact, llamas are a common sight now in Highland County, Virginia, where I hear there are more sheep than people!

And it should go without saying that babies, young children, cats, and small dogs should never be left alone where predators—including the human kind—roam.

The striped skunk (found in the eastern half of Virginia) and the common raccoon are often considered “nuisance and problem wildlife.” Because skunks and raccoons feed upon ground-nesting birds and their eggs in the wild, they will also feed upon chickens and their eggs if the farmer hasn’t taken the proper precautions to keep his fowl safe.

But in addition to their role of limiting the numbers of birds in the wild, skunks and raccoons also fulfill other important roles in nature, such as preying upon insects or their larvae, such as grubs, which are the immature forms of beetles.

The function of a grub is to feed upon dead plant roots that need to be recycled so they don’t take up precious space that another plant could use. But if the number of grubs becomes too high, the grubs will run out of dead roots and by necessity start feeding upon the roots of living plants in order to survive. This kind of feeding could be harmful to live plants.

By digging up grubs in the soil, skunks and raccoons limit their numbers so that the immature beetles don’t run out of their preferred food. Thus the mammals help the plants to remain healthy so they can perpetuate themselves.

Yet instead of accepting the free assistance of skunks and raccoons, people usually complain about their digging, even though the dug-out soil is easy to push back into the holes the animals made. When folks refuse to let these mammals do their job, they cause the grubs to increase in number and thus become problematic for their plants. Then people spend time and money to apply pesticides that are quite harmful to the environment, unlike the skunks and raccoons whose “harm” is only aesthetic and temporary in nature.

Even organic pesticides, such as Bt and Milky Spore Disease, are detrimental to the proper functioning of the environment. In addition to killing the nonnative grubs of Japanese beetles that are a big concern for folks, these pesticides also kill native scarab beetles that are closely related to Japanese beetles.

The purpose of pesticides is to kill as many animals as possible, but it’s never appropriate to wipe out native animals of any sort—they are here for a reason! This statement is true even if you believe all species are the result of evolution instead of God. No matter the origin of life, every wild critter fulfills several functions.

It’s important to recognize this truism, especially if you do believe in God. Otherwise, you insult your Maker by implying that you know better than He does about how the environment should function, and you show disrespect by destroying his creatures instead of coexisting with them when you should.

“Should” refers to situations in which the animals are not really causing harm, such as when skunks and raccoons make holes in the lawn or garden, or when you are responsible for creating an attractive nuisance, such as by allowing easy access to chickens and lambs to animals that are very hungry.

Yes, sometimes there may be collateral damage, such as a plant being dug up that you didn’t want harmed. But you should keep in mind that you could have lost more plants than the one if the skunk/raccoon hadn’t done its job and limited the number of grubs in that location for you.

To paraphrase the ancient Greek philosopher, Zeno, the goal of life should be to live in agreement with nature.


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