On Thursday, a team of international researchers announced the discovery of a genetic link that may get us closer to finally understanding the origins of the COVID pandemic. There’s a very good chance, an analysis found, that it came from animals in a Wuhan wet market. Specifically, that it probably came from a raccoon dog.
If you are like the majority of Slate staffers (at least, according to a very scientific Slack poll), one of your first questions was … a what?
The raccoon dog lives up to its name. It looks exactly like a raccoon mashed up with a dog. It’s pretty dang cute. Which is good, because the poor raccoon dog has had some bad PR of late, and a generally rough time when it comes to interacting with human society.
The raccoon dog is neither raccoon nor, really, dog. It’s more closely related to a fox. It’s originally from East Asia. There are two raccoon dog species: Nyctereutes procyonoides, the common raccoon dog (the species that was in the Wuhan market) and Nyctereutes p. viverrinus, the Japanese raccoon dog. You might just be familiar with raccoon dogs if you’ve played Mario Kart—in some Mario games, there’s a “Tanooki Mario” you can play who’s similar to, but not the same as, raccoon Mario, another option. (Tanuki is the Japanese term for the animal.) Or maybe you’ve seen them in the lesser-known Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko, about folkloric tanuki.
With an average weight of around 16 pounds, they’re really too small to be of any real danger, physically. They have other ways of causing trouble: in 2019 a pair of raccoon dogs kept as pets escaped their enclosure and “terrorized” an English village by reportedly harassing small livestock. According to an expert the Atlantic interviewed about the incident, raccoon dogs are “intelligent” and “really inquisitive” but usually not particularly aggressive.
In Europe, the raccoon dog is known mostly for being a threat to local ecosystems. Fur traders brought the animals into eastern Europe in the 1920s. Having the raccoon-like trait of eating just about everything and adapting well to a variety of environments, they began to spread everywhere they found damp forests. People furthered their spread by selling them as exotic pets. (This is now banned in some countries.) Raccoon dog populations are fairly out of control in Scandinavia, and Sweden even went on a campaign to eradicate them. A European Union report on invasive species “of concern” declared it “one of the most successful alien carnivores in Europe.”
In Asia, though, the animals have a much more positive connotation. Notably, in Japan, the tanuki have for centuries had mythical associations. In folklore, tanuki are fun-loving tricksters who could shape-shift and are often associated with good financial luck. They are often depicted with giant scrotums that they can expand and shape into useful objects such as umbrellas and fishing nets.
Here are some more fun facts about the raccoon dog before we get to the sad facts: They are monogamous, and the males will guard their young when the females forage. They have curved claws for climbing, which distinguishes them from most other canids (that’s wolves, coyotes, foxes, etc.). They’re the only canids that hibernate. Well, really, they go into a state of “torpor,” which is kind of hibernation-lite.
There’s a reason raccoon dogs may well have been involved in the start of the pandemic. Raccoon dogs have long been hunted and bred for their fur, which is likely why they were being sold in the Wuhan market. According to the Humane Society of the United States, millions are killed in China every year for their fur. The U.S. buys a huge portion of the product. And to supply that market, many sellers raise them in crowded facilities and sell them in small cages, sometimes stacked with those of other animals. It’s a prime environment for getting sick.
The new research doesn’t definitively show that raccoon dogs passed COVID along to humans. But it’s long been known that raccoon dogs can carry tapeworms, rabies, parasitic worms, and other pathogens—including, crucially, coronaviruses. The raccoon dogs may be the source of the pandemic, but we can’t exactly say it’s their fault.