Practically all the half million raccoons which infest the forests and parks of Central Europe are believed to descend from just four animals released in the woods near the German city of Kassel in the Nazi period.
Raccoons have never had a good press in Europe. Not only are they North American interlopers, there is also a persistent story that they were introduced to provide hunting pleasure for Marshal Hermann Goering, the head of Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
But a recent examination of the files, 75 years later, shows that the Nazi part of the story, which appears in many textbooks, is untrue.
Goering did not even know about the raccoons’ release, and the authorities in Berlin tried to stop their acclimatization.
But it was too late. Rangers at Lake Eder in Germany had already freed two breeding pairs on April 12, 1934. Not without difficulty either: the cautious animals would not initially come out from their box, despite being offered some eggs and dead squirrels.
But the hills around Kassel were to provide the freed raccoons with the perfect environment: lots of woods, rivers and food. The mammals grow up to 70cm in length and usually feed at night.
It is estimated a couple of dozen breeding pairs were established by 1945. Another 25 years on, there were 20,000. And the cute critters with the burglar-style black markings round the eyes kept on multiplying.
Kassel remains the capital city of raccoon expansionism in Europe.
“Round here, just about everyone’s garden has a raccoon living in it in summer-time,” said biologist Frank-Uwe Michler in the city. Genetic studies show that raccoons in Hamburg and Bavaria also descend from the same two Lake Eder pairs.
SKINS AND MEAT
Horst Marohn, of the state of Hesse forestry authority, says, “All the books claim that Goering personally ordered this rather foolhardy disturbance of our fauna.” But Marohn and senior ranger Eberhard Leicht checked the official files and found a different story.
As supervisor of hunting in the Voehl and Lake Eder areas, Leicht is the modern successor of the rangers who not only freed the raccoons but documented the whole matter in correspondence.
“It wasn’t just someone opening a cage to see what happened. It all had to be officially reviewed, even back then,” Leicht said. The proposal had apparently come from fur merchants, who suggested the animals would provide both skins and meat.
However Kassel had a particularly bureaucratic government, since it was part of the state of Prussia, and everything had to be approved in the capital, Berlin, by the office of Prussia’s master of the hunt.
Two of the Third Reich’s most senior animal-biology officials promptly objected.
One was Carl Hagenbeck, a zoologist whose family conducted one of Germany’s most famous zoos in Hamburg.Hagenbeck said he knew of a raccoon that had escaped in the city and constantly gobbled up city-dwelling pets including ducks and guinea pigs.
The other was Lutz Heck who ran the Berlin Zoo and who said releasing raccoons was not a good idea. The office of the Prussian master of the hunt vacillated for months before sending a veto to Kassel.
“But by that time, it was too late,” said Leicht. “A predecessor of mine, Baron Wilhelm Sittich von Berlepsch, had let the raccoons out.” The females were gestating and the foresters apparently thought it was best for the young to be born in the wild.