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Meet the friendliest raccoons in the Northwest, who are actually a serious problem

This story originally aired on Feb. 17, 2018.

If you visit Tacoma's Point Defiance Park most any afternoon, you'll see raccoons lounging about the trails by day, often next to signs warning visitors to not feed them. 

If you drive slowly enough through the park's roads, they might rush out of the misty old-growth forest to greet you, tiny paws outstretched for food. If you're on a bike, they might scurry after you for a stretch.

They've even learned to wait on the driver's side of the one-way road through the park, because they know every car has a driver and some drivers have snacks. 

Generations of Tacoma residents have made a tradition of sharing bread, chips, and other carb-heavy fare with the intelligent and resourceful mammals. 

The result is a population of raccoons that have shed their fear of humans — and many other natural behaviors as well. 

They're pushy, charming, clever, and an attraction that has drawn visitors to the park for years.

And it's a disaster. 

An artificially inflated population means the raccoons are vulnerable to die-offs from disease, like an outbreak of canine distemper that ravaged Point Defiance Park's raccoons in 2012. And their friendliness means they're more likely to spread illnesses to humans and their pets. 

KNKX reporter Will James spent an afternoon with Mary Krauszer, the first ranger assigned to Point Defiance Park. One of her missions is to return these raccoons to their wild state. 

And that means training humans to love them from a distance. 

"A lot of people who I talk to think that they're doing something nice for the raccoons," Krauszer said. "And maybe they have memories of, you know, their grandma bringing them to Point Defiance when they were little and they would feed the raccoons, so they're bringing their kids to feed the raccoons and show them how cute they are." 

"I think for a lot of people it's very sentimental," she added. "So I try to, you know, also from that emotional standpoint." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.