When Winkie Goodwin opened the front door of her Columbia home one night in January, she was startled to see a furry animal climbing down from a chair on her front porch.
But this was not the family house cat. Its ringed tail and masked face identified the animal as a raccoon.
“He kind of looked at me, then ran off but not necessarily real fast,’’ said Goodwin, who lives in Columbia’s Hollywood-Rose Hill neighborhood, near the University of South Carolina campus.
Goodwin’s experience is one of many raccoon encounters lately in Columbia, one of the state’s most densely populated cities.
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From Forest Acres to Cayce to neighborhoods near USC, people are seeing raccoons wandering through yards, crawling into garbage cans, peeping out of storm drains and climbing fences.
Biologists say it should not be a surprise that raccoons, long a fixture in the countryside, have adapted to urban life. But some wildlife company managers say they are getting more calls about nuisance raccoons — possibly because the warm winter weather is causing the animals to appear more during the day.
Nathan Ginter, a wildlife removal specialist in Columbia, said his business is booming because of calls about raccoons. Many of the calls are from people who see a raccoon outside a home or business and want it removed, he said.
“This year alone, we have probably received 10 times the amount of emergency-based calls for raccons during the daylight hours,’’ said Ginter, who is with Wild Thingz Wildlife Removal Co. in Columbia.
Ginter said the increase in raccoon activity might relate to warmer weather this winter as the animal’s breeding season approaches.
February temperatures in Columbia are running about five degrees higher than normal, with temperatures on some days having topped 70 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
Comic and destructive
Some locals are concerned the raccoons, which can grow to three-feet long and 23 pounds, could have rabies or other diseases.
Animal removal specialist Ginter speculates some of the raccoons that people have seen could be diseased.
If a raccoon seems to be particularly tame, it could be a tip-off that it has rabies, state health officials say.
Last October, a rabid raccoon bit a person in downtown Beaufort. State health officials would not update the person’s condition but said no person in South Carolina has contracted rabies since 2011. This past week, another Beaufort County resident potentially was exposed to rabies by a raccoon that tested positive for the disease, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
While experts say people should be wary of raccoons, they should not jump to the conclusion that an animal has rabies if they see one. The raccoons, normally most active at night, also might be roaming around, looking for food or mates during warmer times this winter, they say.
“As always, avoid wild animals acting tame and tame animals acting wild,’’ DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick said in an email.
Found throughout much of North America, raccoons often thrive near creek bottoms and in soggy wetland areas, particularly along the coast. But they can be found in a variety of places.
Raccoons have lived in cities for years, often without anyone knowing it, said Columbia animal services director Marli Drum and S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist Jay Butfiloski. The animals like urban areas because there are plenty of places to nest and an abundance of food, much of it in garbage cans.
“A lot of people take great joy in watching them come through their yards,’’ Butfiloski said. “They can be quite comical at times, so long as they are not tearing something up.’’
But raccoons can be destructive if they get inside houses, chewing up insulation and leaving piles of droppings in attics. They sometimes get in through openings in roofs, chimneys or crawl spaces.
Removal specialist Ginter said he remembers one home that sustained nearly $20,000 in damage from raccoons that got into an attic.
‘It just stares ... and waits for me to go inside’
Katy Linich, a student at the University of South Carolina, said she knows about one raccoon that regularly makes a mess at her home in Forest Acres.
The animal is so bold it routinely eats out of her garbage can, then leaves trash in the yard after it is done with dinner, Linich said. She adds she has tried to keep the garbage can lid on tightly, but the animal has succeeded in opening the top.
“A couple of times when I’ve gotten home, this raccoon just crawls out of the trash can while I’m getting out of my car’’’ Linich said. “It just stares at me. It stands there and waits for me to go inside, then it goes back into the trash can.’’
Raccoons are adept at getting into trash cans because, unlike most urban animals, they have hands they can use to open things easily.
Well-known Columbia naturalist Rudy Mancke said he had a friend in college who came home one day to find that his pet raccoon had opened its cage and turned on every faucet in the house, causing a minor flood.
“That was unbelievable,’’ Mancke. “He caught it finally, took it a good ways away and released it, and four or five days later it was back at his house.’’
Columbia resident Goodwin said she is not worried about having raccoons in her neighborhood. But, she added, people should be cautious when they see one.
“We we just need to be respectful,’’ she said.