Since 7th century A.D., Tanuki have been cast in Japanese folklore as sneaky but benevolent rascals. More recently, a “raccoon dog” starred in the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko and featured in Super Mario Brothers 3. Statues of tanuki — with wide-brim hats and giant testicles — are sprinkled throughout Japanese towns, welcoming visitors to restaurants and temples alike. But all is not well for the tanuki. The internet can make life hell when you’re adorable.
Domesticated tanuki have been tussling on YouTube for a decade, but the canids, kept as pets by some wealthy Japanese, recently attained another level of fame thanks to, of course, BuzzFeed. A month ago the critters were profiled by the site, after Japanese Twitter user @chibi_tori started tweeting out pictures of his adopted tanuki, which he calls Tanu. Americans learned that Tanu enjoyed eating vegetables and sitting in front of a little stove. This made some people smile and “Japanese raccoon dog” began to trend. Questions like “Does a raccoon dog (tanuki) make a good pet?” and “Where can I buy a tanuki?” sprouted on message boards. The new era of tanuki fame had begun.
Those are interesting questions, but the most compelling questions about the tanuki are about where it comes from.
The tanuki or raccoon dogs, or nyctereutes procyonoides, is part of the Canidae family, which includes wolves, foxes, coyotes, and the domestic dog. The species is native to Asia, but became widely established in Europe after Russian wildlife trappers thought it would be a good idea to release them in the Eastern Siberian range. They proliferated, which is why, in 2009, the Swedish government urged hunters to start shooting them on site. They are — to put it fairly mildly — resilient.
Their new status as the darlings of cuteness here in the U.S. is a bit ironic as the tanuki themselves were at the center of a previous cuteness craze. After the Nippon Animation Company released a 52-episode series in Japan about a rascally raccoon, approximately 1,500 raccoon dogs were imported into Japan as pets. Families pretty quickly realized that this was a bad idea and tanuki were released into the wild, where they did, in total, about $300,000 in agricultural damage before they were wiped out.
Whatever happens to tanuki, it seems to result in them getting killed. This isn’t a recent phenomenon.
While internet fame may be enough to satisfy humans, the tanuki actually get a really shitty go at it. In folklore, their giant scrotum is a sign that their presence will bring prosperity to businesses; in reality, during the 1800s, hunters killed them off for their scrotal skin, which was used “as a malleable sack for hammering gold into gold leaf.”
But perhaps the most heinous crime against tanuki was committed by the fur industry. For the past 10 years, the Human Society of the United States has profiled the culling of millions of tanuki every year for their fur. The HSUS has sued companies like Macy’s, Burlington Coat Factory, and Neiman Marcus for selling tanuki fur as faux fur and pressed the Federal Trade Commission to revise its practice of labeling the fur as “Asiatic Raccoon” and use “Raccoon Dog” instead.
In 2014, the HSUS lost this battle when the FTC decided that, while not a raccoon, the tanuki looked enough like one to keep the name “Asiatic Raccoon” on the tag. The Fur Information Council of America argued effectively that raccoon dogs were “completely dissimilar from a domestic dog and should not be confused with a dog or references as a dog.” Even though they are, you know, actually related to dogs and not raccoons.
Regardless of actual scientific origin, the question of whether tanuki are seen as raccoons or dogs is typically up to the selfishness of the human involved. Fur dealers see them as raccoons, and harvest their fur as such. Owners of tanuki, like @chibi_tori and June Lincoln, the subject of a Daily Mail profile, treat them as dogs. Lincoln’s tanuki, named Bandit, steals food and is “quite strong for a small dog.” He also resembles a raccoon to the extent that “people think she has a wild animal on a lead.”
The United States government, for one, sees Bandit as a wild animal: In 1982, the U.S. Department of the Interior listed the raccoon dog as a “injurious animal” under the Lacey Act in order to limit its importation. While “diminutive” creatures, they were also adaptable and posed a threat to American critters. “Their ability to live in many different climates and forage on a wide variety of foods put them at an advantage over native furbearers,” said then-director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Robert Jatzen. “Bobcats, lynxes, foxes, opossums, skunks, and raccoons might suffer if raccoon dogs take hold.”
In 1984, America’s last two raccoon dog fur farms shut down. Approximately 151 raccoon dogs were killed by lethal injection, an eradication that federal wildlife agency officials said meant the last of any privately owned raccoon dogs in North America.
Tanuki are now illegal to own as pets in every U.S. state (If you know the right city councilman, you may be able to swing one in Oregon, which allows an exotic pet permit if the animal “helps its owner with some disability”). The best way to see a tanuki stateside is to visit Loki and Thor at the Atlanta Zoo. If you do decide to make that trip, here’s some popular Japanese doggerel to recite to yourself on the plane:
“Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa / Kaze mo nai no ni / Bura Bura.”
Tan-tan, the Tanuki’s testicles ring / the wind has stopped blowing / but they still they swing-swing.