It was early December 1981 when state Conservation Officer Lee Alderson found a dead animal along a road a few miles north of Cloquet, a critter no one had ever seen in Minnesota before.
The animal had apparently been struck by a car. At first blush it looked like a raccoon, including the masked face. But it was a bit different, with skinnier legs and no stripe on the tail, and had some traits of a fox or dog.
It took a while before Department of Natural Resources biologists figured out exactly what it was — an Asian raccoon dog, also called a Finn-raccoon or tanuki — and they weren’t happy about the discovery.
Prized in Russia for their thick pelts, the critter is native to Siberia, Manchuria, Japan and other areas of Asia, but also has been transported and released all over, spreading in the wild across most of Europe, causing big problems for native species. Imagine an all-new mammal in the Northland — with an insatiable appetite, that can breed like rabbits — suddenly multiplying.
Raccoon dogs feed on eggs from bird nests, fish, rodents and small birds and animals as well as crops and nuts like acorns. And while they may look like svelte raccoons, they aren’t closely related. They are a canine, of the dog family, and will eat just about anything they can, much like a bear. Moreover, they are a human health threat because an unusually high number of the species carry rabies.
“At first nobody knew how it got here or where it came from. We also didn’t know how many more were out there," said Bill Berg, a now-retired DNR wildlife biologist who worked on the case 38 years ago. “This is one more of those things that, had we not got a handle on it, would have been an absolute disaster for Minnesota wildlife."
Alderson snooped around, as good cops do, and found a local fur farmer who indeed had purchased several raccoon dogs from a breeder in Wisconsin. Unbeknownst to any state officials, the fur farmer had imported some of the raccoon dogs to raise for their pelts and to sell breeding stock to other fur farmers.
The male raccoon dog had escaped from the fur farm several months before it was found, after a storm damaged the farmer’s pens. Wildlife experts say it likely would have survived in the north woods just fine. Had more of the critters escaped, northern Minnesota's ecosystem may have been altered forever.
“He made it through one pretty severe winter on his own already. He was in good shape when he got hit," said Ed Boggess, retired chief of Fish and Wildlife for the Minnesota DNR.
Moreover, raccoon dogs multiply fast, with large litters each year. They reach sexual maturity at just 9-11 months and can have anywhere from five to 10 pups, although some litters have been as large as 19. In Latvia, where 100 raccoon dogs were released into the wild in 1948, their numbers exploded to over 10,000 by 1963, out of control and beyond eradicating.
“It was spreading in Europe already … And (where) it was originally from is about the same latitude as Minnesota," Boggess said. “We had to assume it would have thrived here, so (we) knew we had to do something and do it pretty fast."
Boggess started his job as manager of the DNR’s furbearer program in April 1982, just as the raccoon dog crisis was heating up. For whatever reason, the story never found its way to the public eye and there have never been any Minnesota media reports on the issue. (There is no written record of most details remaining in Minnesota DNR files, only the memory of the wildlife managers involved. Some details on the Minnesota situation were recorded on paper by the Illinois DNR to help fill in the blanks.)
If not for some fast action by wildlife agencies, raccoon dogs otherwise may have joined the growing list of foreign invaders that are doing harm here — everything from zebra mussels and emerald ash borer to Asian carp. Raccoon dogs likely would have competed directly with real raccoons, gray and red fox and other native critters. They were feared to be especially hard on nesting waterfowl because raccoon dogs spend much of their time near water.
“This is one more of those things that, had we not got a handle on it, would have been an absolute disaster for Minnesota wildlife.”
At about the same time Minnesota was dealing with the issue, Canadian wildlife officials moved in 1981 to ban importation and possession of raccoon dogs there, tracking down several fur farmers in Ontario and paying them more than $115,000 to hand over animals they already had on hand.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also moved to classify raccoon dogs as federally injurious animals, making them illegal to import or possess. That rule took effect Jan. 17, 1983. On April 12, 1983, Minnesota DNR Commissioner Joe Alexander also signed a state commissioners order making them illegal to import and possess in Minnesota.
But no one knew how many of the animals were already here, either in pens or on the loose. In Illinois, state wildlife officials tracked down multiple breeders and paid $78,000 for 151 raccoon dogs that were immediately destroyed.
In Minnesota, Boggess, Berg and other wildlife officials eventually determined that there was only one fur farmer, located on Jackson Road in Solway Township, just north of Cloquet, who was raising raccoon dogs. In 1983, Boggess rounded up $15,000 from the DNR wildlife budget and offered to pay the owner to take control of 17 raccoon dogs on his property.
The owner agreed.
“We got the rules, federal and state, in place to stop any more from coming in ... But our fear was we’d have more escape that were already here. We had to deal with those, too," Boggess said.
Most of the raccoon dogs on the Cloquet fur farm were euthanized and a few were given to zoos in Apple Valley and Duluth, but only after they had been surgically sterilized, just in case they managed another escape.
“This is one of those potential ecological calamities for north woods wildlife that was narrowly averted," Boggess said. “And that no one (outside the DNR) ever realized had been prevented."
About raccoon dogs
Length: 18-28 inches
Weight: 8-15 pounds
Habitat: Dense forests, close to water
Species: Despite their masked appearance, raccoon dogs aren't related to raccoons. They belong to the canidae family, alongside wolves and foxes. There are five subspecies of raccoon dogs that are native to eastern Asia but which have been moved and released and are now feral across Europe as well.
Hibernation: They are mostly nocturnal and, like bears, spend part of the winter hibernating — the only member of the dog family to do so.
Masked bandits: In May 2019, a pair of raccoon dogs were reported to be “terrorizing” a village in the United Kingdom after they escaped from a nearby enclosure. Several stories came out of Nottinghamshire of a goat and pony attacked and a dog walker spooked. The invading raccoon dogs were eventually chased off by people wielding big pieces of wood.