Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Two competing concepts can be true at the same time. Alaskans love nature as it is. Alaskans also love to enhance nature with trails, roads, bridges, towns, lodges and every other sort of manufactured incursion. In the same way, Alaska wildlife offered yesteryear trappers and fur farmers a plethora of fuzzy options, from foxes to minks. Yet, many Alaskan fur farmers imported some non-native alternatives, including skunks and chinchillas.
Raccoons, also not indigenous to Alaska, were one of the more surprising fur stocks shipped north. The context and culprit(s) are unknown, but the first raccoons in Alaska may have been released on the Brothers Islands in 1913. Six years later, their descendants were still alive on the Inside Passage islands. And as those raccoons were found for at least some time on the islands, so are they found on the fringes of Alaska and national history.
In the world of 1913 Alaska, importing raccoons was a radical choice given the supply and prices of furs. World War I changed the calculus. Among the more minor downstream consequences of the war was a dramatic increase in domestic fur prices. Shifting priorities and manpower led to shortages during the war. With a relatively unaltered demand, the market response was predictable. As Sarah Crawford Isto noted in her 2012 book, “The Fur Farms of Alaska: Two Centuries of History and a Forgotten Stampede,” the same Alaska blue fox pelt that sold for $47 in 1914 was going for $130 in 1920 (roughly $1,400 and $2,000, respectively, in 2022 dollars).
In Alaska specifically, the success of a fur farm near Cordova illuminates the profit potential in furs at the time. In a 1920 visit to Cordova, Joe and Caroline Ibach of Middleton Island unloaded a bounty of fox pelts worth $17,000 (roughly $261,000 in 2022). This windfall was a marked increase over their previous year’s also successful trip to the market with $10,000 in furs (roughly $180,000 in 2022 dollars).
For those individuals enviously eyeing the market, furs seemed like a stable commodity with lower barriers to entry than many other fortune hunter paths. Fur farms unsurprisingly proliferated throughout Alaska in the subsequent two decades.
The Alaska fur farming stampede coincided with the booming popularity of raccoons in American popular culture. The most famous raccoon of this era was Rebecca, a treasured White House guest of the Calvin Coolidge administration. In 1926, some Mississippians sent Rebecca to the president with the intent of her being part of that year’s Thanksgiving meal. Instead, she became their beloved pet, wandering the White House, frequently causing mischief, and living in a tree house on the grounds. As a tangent to a tangent, Rebecca was not the first White House raccoon. President Teddy Roosevelt and his family owned enough pets to form a petting zoo, including at least one ring-tailed bandit. And as a tangent to the tangent’s tangent, an opossum took up residence in Rebecca’s treehouse once Coolidge left office. President Herbert Hoover, Coolidge’s successor, adopted the opossum and named him Billy.
However, the coats were the real raccoon fad of the 1920s. Racoon coats, which require 27 to 30 raccoon pelts, were extremely popular with men during the decade, especially younger men. They were conspicuously present on college campuses. The 1928 song “Doin’ the Raccoon” included the following lyrics:
From every college campus comes the cheer: oy-yoy!
The season for the raccoon coat is here, my boy!
Rough guys, tough guys, men of dignity,
Join the raccoon coat fraternity,
Soon, to do the raccoon!
The thriving raccoon fur market prompted Alaska fur farmers to bring more raccoons into the territory, to cash in on the fashion trend. In 1919, C. E. Zimmerman, who also trained his blue foxes to perform tricks, introduced raccoons to the Brothers Islands, the same location as the earlier raccoon imports.
Around 1930, Perry Cole repeatedly claimed he would add raccoons to the Angora goat, Arctic fox, blue fox and muskrat stock at his Cole Black Fox and Farm near Kasilof. In March 1930, C. P. Snyder passed through Anchorage with five raccoons bound for his new fur farm near Manley Hot Springs. In 1934, the Alaska Game Commission discovered the presence of loose raccoons around Petersburg, the escapees of an unidentified fur farm. During the 1930s, A. W. Bennett also had raccoons on his Long Island fur farm.
Around 1938, Louis Scott, who had a mink farm on El Capitan Island, west of Prince of Wales Island, released five female and three male black raccoons. In 1940, Joseph Daymond imported two raccoons from a breeding farm in Albany, Indiana, intent on releasing them on the Coronados Islands south of Craig.
Unfortunately for fur farmers, raccoons seem almost designed to be escape artists. They are intelligent, adaptable, dexterous, and excellent climbers. In addition, they are voracious omnivores, able to survive off a very wide variety of foods. These skills — and appetites — are why raccoons have survived and even thrived despite the encroachment of humans on their natural habitats. These skills, and most especially their appetites, are also why raccoons are a significant threat as an invasive species. If introduced in sufficient numbers, raccoons could potentially carve massive swaths through ecosystems unprepared for their presence.
Louis Scott, like possibly all his raccoon-importing, fur-farming brethren, quickly regretted his choice. In a 1947 letter to Victor Scheffer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Scott lamented, “I have Black Raccoons in my chicken house, in my feed room and in my hair. If I leave any fish or seal meat down on the float at night the little bums pack it off by the arm loads ... they cram themselves full of red berries, salmon berries, salal berries etc. How they keep busting a gut is more than I can see.” By 1947, 32 raccoons had been trapped on the adjacent El Capitan and Singa Islands, either the original imports by Scott or their descendants. Area residents also spotted escaped raccoons, from Scott’s stock or elsewhere, on Warren Island west of El Capitan Island.
The Great Depression changed the market again, and the number of fur farms rapidly declined. By the time America entered World War II in 1941, there were only 40% as many fur farms in Alaska as there had been at the industry’s peak. The last known raccoon introduction into Alaska took place in 1950, on Japonski Island off of Sitka.
As with some other fur farming stock, the raccoon market shrunk and shifted. While the raccoon fur industry survived, the market was no longer as robust as it had been decades before, despite a 1950s revival in raccoon coats. In the wake of this change, raccoons were increasingly offered as pets, if still relatively rarely. The first advertisements in Alaska for pet raccoons not coincidentally came in the 1950s. In 1954, Anchorage’s Melody Lane Pet Shop offered a raccoon for $10 (about $110 in 2022).
From the 1950s through the 1970s, raccoons remained an exotic pet option in Alaska, present here but not common. Future Fairbanks club owner and North Star Borough Assemblyman Pete Aiken owned two raccoons amongst a menagerie that ran the gamut of a regular tortoise to two alligators. During a 1960 fire that consumed his Chena Hot Springs Road home, he set the raccoons free rather than let them die in the blaze.
In 1979, a man took his pet raccoon shopping with him at Anchorage’s Sears Mall, an unexpected occurrence. The raccoon scratched a Sears employee, a more expected outcome. Raccoon and raccoon owner fled the scene, thus avoiding rabies testing and a potentially more dire end for the pet.
Despite the example of Rebecca in the White House, raccoons tend to make for poor pets. In the main, they are mercurial, antisocial, high maintenance, and frequently aggressive, especially as they mature. Yes, some pet raccoons are lovely and sweet, but that is not the most likely outcome from adopting one. Many raccoons were dumped into the wild once they became too much of a burden to their owners. When the Alaska Children’s Zoo, now the Alaska Zoo, opened in 1969, many of the star attractions had been burdensome or unwanted pets dumped into founder Sammye Seawell’s care, including Annabelle the elephant and Danny the raccoon.
In 1979, the rules regarding pet raccoons drastically changed. Raccoon owners previously had to obtain a permit. As of that year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game expanded its exotic pet ban to include skunks and raccoons, among other animals. Permits were still allowed for banned animals already in Alaska as of January 1, 1980.
Reports of wild raccoons dwindled over the latter half of the 20th century. A former El Capitan Island resident claimed raccoons were still there when she moved away in 2001, but it has been decades since any other documented sighting. There may or may not be a raccoon running around in Alaska today, but the dreams of a substantial raccoon presence are long past.
“Alaskan Briefs.” Petersburg Press, July 4, 1941, 1, 2, 6.
“Alaskan Briefs.” Petersburg Press, November 15, 1940, 3.
Bower, Ward T. Alaska Fisheries and Fur Industries in 1919. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1920.
“Cat Saves Aiken Life from Blaze.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, October 3, 1960, 1.
“Fur Farmers of Kusilof District Have Good Year.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 1, 1929, 3.
“Important Report on Game Made by Alaska Game Commission.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 16, 1935, 7.
Isto, Sarah Crawford. The Fur Farms of Alaska: Two Centuries of History and a Forgotten Stampede. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Fairbanks Press, 2012.
“Officials Seek Raccoon Owner.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 15, 1979, 2.
“Oldtimer Brings Fur Stock North; Will Start Farm.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 28, 1930, 4.
Paul, Thomas W. “Game Transplants in Alaska.” Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation Technical Bulletin #4 2nd Edition, September 2009.
“Raccoons Transplanted in Alaska.” Journal of Wildlife Management 11, no. 4 (1947): 350-351.
“State Limits Wild Animals as Pets.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 29, 1979, 2.