for National Geographic News
According to widespread news reports, a pack of rampaging raccoons has killed at least ten cats in Washington State's capital city of Olympia (see a map of Washington State).
The masked marauders are also reported to have attacked a small dog and to have forced a pet owner to get rabies shots.
Local resident Lisann Rolle told the Associated Press (AP) that she was bitten when she tried to pull three raccoons off her cat. She says that she now carries an iron pipe when she ventures out at night.
Another resident, Tony Benjamins, told AP, "We used to love the raccoons. They'd have their babies this time of year, and they were so cute. Even though we lived in the city, it was neat to have wildlife around.
"But this year, things changed. They went nuts."
Many parts of the story haven't been confirmed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, says Bob Sallinger, urban conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon.
Even so, this particular neighborhood seems to have a serious raccoon problem, Sallinger says. The way the incidents are being reported, however, may be giving raccoons in general a bum rap.
"More often than not, when we talk about wildlife-related cat disappearances, we're talking coyotes," he said. (Related news: "Are Coyotes Becoming More Aggressive?" [June 2005].)
"When you take into account cars, poison, coyotes, et cetera, the average life expectancy of outdoor cats is two years."
In addition, Sallinger notes, if people see an aggressive raccoon, they tend to jump to conclusions.
It's not common for raccoons to stalk household pets, Sallinger says. More typical is the experience of Vera Jagendorf, a friend of this reporter, who lives on the suburban fringes of Portland.
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