City Slickers: How Shanghai Is Outfoxing Its Raccoon Dog Problem
Using only their body heat, a team of Chinese animal researchers in suburban Shanghai melt an ice popsicle made of tiger urine to test an unusual hypothesis: Can the scent of a predator deter raccoon dogs from venturing into urban neighborhoods?
Late one night, Wang and his team sprayed the melted tiger urine and smeared tiger feces along paths frequented by raccoon dogs near a residential community. Initially, it seemed successful: Sensing the scent, one raccoon dog hurriedly retreated.
But just half an hour later, the same creature returned, marked itself with the tiger’s scent, and nonchalantly strutted away. Native to East Asia and named for its distinctive raccoon-like facial markings, this nocturnal omnivore is more closely related to dogs than raccoons.
“Raccoon dogs are a little cute, a little cunning, and very smart, with a particularly strong ability to adapt. They even seem to think when we interact with them,” says Wang Fang, a researcher at Fudan University’s School of Life Sciences, whose team has been studying these animals in Shanghai’s urban landscape.
In 2019, raccoon dogs were limited to around 40 local communities. But in 2023, over 300 communities have reported sightings, creating new challenges for city officials and local communities who must navigate living alongside these wild animals.
Wang’s team, in collaboration with local residents, research bodies, and government agencies, has been leading efforts to study and manage this change. Their research has shown a decrease in the raccoon dog population in urban areas, suggesting that their management strategies — often involving community education programs and better property management — are gradually working.
However, their studies also highlight the main reasons for the population increase: people improperly feeding the animals and poor garbage management. But through continued engagement, the team hopes to develop effective strategies that can serve as a blueprint for other cities grappling with similar urban wildlife challenges.
On Nov. 26, to mark the city’s Wildlife Conservation Awareness Month, Wang’s team presented the second raccoon dog census at Shanghai Zoo after four years of research.
Wang estimates that Shanghai is home to approximately 3,000 to 5,000 raccoon dogs. He also notes that their numbers in the city are on the rise, with their movement areas also expanding.
The survey data revealed a 60.2% reduction in the density of raccoon dogs in the city’s neighborhoods, dropping from 1.08 to 0.43 per hectare compared to last year. This ranged from a low of 0.07 to a high of 1.66 per hectare. And the encounter rate with raccoon dogs decreased from 2.8 encounters per kilometer to just 1.15.
The scope of this year’s research expanded to encompass 90 communities across Songjiang, Qingpu, and Minhang districts, where raccoon dogs are most prevalent in Shanghai. The census also involved 302 citizen volunteers visiting sampled communities, following planned routes to spot raccoon dogs, and gathering information from local residents.
According to Wang, the numbers indicate a positive development for both raccoon dogs and residents. “The decline could mean fewer conflicts, a better living environment for the raccoon dogs with a reduced risk of aggression and disease, and less chance of interactions with people,” he explains.
However, despite the decrease in both density and encounter rates, Wang says the situation is still far from ideal. He points out that the numbers of raccoon dogs in urban areas remain three to five times higher than those in wild habitats, indicating significant work still lies ahead for his team to achieve their goals.
A density lower than 1 raccoon dog per hectare in urban areas significantly reduces complaints from residents, according to the research. “Last year, there were six communities with a density higher than this,” he says. “This year, there are still three. So further efforts are needed.”
Research also showed that improper feeding practices and garbage management significantly contribute to the drastic increase in numbers, more so than environmental factors such as vegetation, water resources, and lighting.
While leaving cat food outside can boost raccoon dog encounters by 88.6%, poor garbage management can lead to a 101% increase in their numbers.
Lynn, a resident of Songjiang District who requested to be referred to only by her English name, citing privacy concerns, says that her community is home to 20 to 30 raccoon dogs. While the animals don’t generally disrupt her daily life, she says they sometimes clash with stray cats, leading to noisy nighttime disturbances.
Several months ago, she installed a stray cat feeding machine for remote feeding. “Initially, a few cats visited regularly, but soon raccoon dogs started dominating the machine, using it more frequently and even guarding it at night,” she says, forcing Lynn to return the machine to avoid attracting more raccoon dogs to the area.
Wang’s research shows that in communities where both improper feeding and poor garbage management are prevalent, the encounter rate with raccoon dogs can triple.
“Institutional management and strategies of the communities have the greatest impact (on raccoon dog distribution),” says Wang.
When Wang and his team began their research in 2019, urban biodiversity studies weren’t a priority, and raccoon dogs weren’t listed as a protected species, complicating funding efforts.
Partnering with the Shan Shui Conservation Center, the Fudan University team launched a “Citizen Scientists in the City” campaign, which helped raise funds for equipment like infrared cameras and GPS collars, and helped recruit 200 volunteer citizen scientists.
Feng Yidi, a scientific consultant at Shan Shui, told Sixth Tone that their initial research was rudimentary. “We only knew that there were raccoon dogs in some communities in Shanghai, but we didn’t know where, or about their distribution range, quantity, density, or behavior,” says Feng.
This initial data collection coincided with a noticeable increase in raccoon dog sightings, leading to more frequent interactions with residents and bringing attention to these previously elusive creatures.
Part of Wang’s interest in researching raccoon dogs is their remarkable flexibility in diet and habitat. “They can eat anything and live anywhere — a trait common among many urban wild animals,” he tells Sixth Tone.
His research found that urban raccoon dogs have an exploration radius of about 8 kilometers, reflecting their innate curiosity and strong survival instincts. Unlike their wild counterparts, which are strictly nocturnal, urban raccoon dogs are active both day and night, provided they feel safe.
“The boundary of their activity is often the wall or fence of a community, so it becomes a real resident of the community,” says Wang.
His research also indicates that urban raccoon dogs interact socially among themselves, in stark contrast to their wild brethren, who live in pairs or small groups.
“They are becoming less aggressive, the food sources are coming into closer proximity to humans, and their activity rhythms are also adapting,” says Wang. “They are basically turning themselves into little dogs.”
Across China, the raccoon dog is just one example of how wild animals are reemerging in urban environments. According to Wang, traces of small Indian civets, leopard cats, and badgers are slowly on the uptick, while wild boars are appearing in cities like Nanjing and Hangzhou.
But while the discovery of wild animals in urban spaces is encouraging, Wang stresses the need to avoid potential conflicts brought by this inevitable trend. “These are wild animals. They are not as simple and beautiful as in fairy tales, nor are they scary as some people think,” he says.
A city adapts
In 2020, a community in Songjiang District reported sighting around 60 raccoon dogs. Many residents filed complaints, asking the local forestry station for these animals to be removed from their living areas.
The following year, raccoon dogs hit the headlines after a resident in Songjiang claimed one of them bit his pet dog.
Amid the rising public ire, Shanghai authorities, Shan Shui, and Wang’s research team began collaborating on exploring scientific methods to manage the issue.
Apart from experimenting with tiger urine and feces, they also tried other methods, including moving raccoon dogs into the mountains, as well as using chemicals, ultrasonic waves, and light. All to little avail.
Wang says the current urban environment is very attractive to wild animals like raccoon dogs. “Our urban environment is getting better and better, with more green belts in urban parks and a higher proportion of green spaces,” he says.
It meant a new approach was required.
The team shifted towards enhancing public awareness and engagement. They implemented educational programs to inform residents about raccoon dog behavior and the importance of maintaining natural habitats within urban settings.
Yu Shanghai, a popular community in Songjiang district for raccoon dogs, saw a decrease in raccoon dogs this year. Xu Hui, a top management official at Yu Shanghai, told Sixth Tone that the community worked with Shan Shui to hold education programs that help residents increase their understanding of raccoon dogs.
Officials also posted warning signs reminding people not to feed wildlife and stressed the importance of improving garbage management.
According to Wang, the raccoon dog population tends to decrease after they have been in a community for two or three years. “It may have something to do with community management, residents, and the raccoon dogs themselves,” he says.
To further aid the public, Shanghai authorities and experts launched in August the city’s first customized wildlife guidelines, underscoring four key principles: “Don’t fear, don’t touch, don’t feed, and don’t harm.”
“What we ultimately want is that residents can really live in harmony with wild animals, especially urban wild animals like raccoon dogs, in the community,” says Feng. Zhou Mengshuang, a wildlife photographer volunteering with Shan Shui since 2019, observed a shift in how residents perceive raccoon dogs.
He says that while residents initially wanted them removed, attitudes have since changed. “I met many residents this year who were well-informed about raccoon dogs, with some even expressing concern that I might be there to capture them,” he says.
Wang hopes his team’s research on raccoon dogs can help set an example for the management of urban wild animals in other cities. He says: “Ultimately, we hope we can create a city with data and surveys, where we not only accept conflicts, but also mitigate them, and ultimately achieve coexistence.”
(Header image: Raccoon dogs in Shanghai. Zhou Mengshuang for Sixth Tone)