Elusive Coatimundi A Rim Regular

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It was the kind of true-life adventure that would make a National Geographic photographer drool with envy.

There we were. Me, armed with nothing but a camera. My prey, armed with razor-sharp claws, hypodermic-needle teeth, a bad attitude and a growl that sounded like a ... cute little guinea-pig snort?

OK. So maybe my Friday encounter with a coatimundi smack dab in the middle of Payson, as the beastie scrambled from treetops to rooftops right behind Big O Tires wasn't so adventurous after all.

As it turns out, the species' claws are for digging, mostly, and not for ripping apart human flesh. Its teeth were created to facilitate the eating of bugs rather than people.

As for the coatimundi's guinea-pig snort ... well, I have a question. Why on earth would any Supreme Being create an animal that tries to scare off threatening coatimundi-eating wannabes with a goofy, cartoon-animal sound like that?

Still, at the time, I was certain that I was experiencing a rare, exotic encounter with an exotic creature rare to Rim country.

Wrong again. The International Species Information Service lists 262 types of coatimundis worldwide, with 40 living happily in the U.S. And Arizona just so happens to be one of their favorite stomping grounds.

"Coatimundi are quite common right below the Rim," says Bill Van Pelt, manager of the Arizona Game and Fish Department's non-game mammals program. "They are extremely common south of Tucson. Down there, old timers call them 'Mexican monkeys,' because they climb trees and have a long, monkey-like tail."

In other words, hardly a man-eater, eh?

"Like any wild animal, if it's cornered, it could definitely claw and bite you. But what they normally use their claws for is digging to catch grubs, scorpions and other insects. That's why their claws are so long, because they're diggers."

However, if a coati got into a fight with, say, a golden retriever which the Payson visitor almost did as it tried to escape the yard of a private home the coati would win. Easily.

"One of the things that a coatimundi will do is to turn on its back and extend its claws straight up. Dogs usually attack by jumping on top of their prey ... and, in this case, on top of the claws."

Rim country residents can expect to start seeing more coatimundi as time marches on, Van Pelt said, because "they have been expanding their range, up from Argentina through the Mexican tropics, since the turn of the (19th) century with urbanization, change of climate and change of habitat."

The coatimundi is a member of the raccoon family which makes sense, since it gives the appearance of a raccoon that has been stretched like silly putty. Their head and body length can range from 16 to 26.5 inches, with the tail adding an additional 12.5 to 27 inches, and they can weigh between 7 and 12 pounds.

Their muzzles are long and pointed, and the tip is very mobile, their forelegs are short, their hind legs are long, and their tapering tails are longer than the head and body.

One Internet Web site reported that coatis are most likely to ramble into urban areas during their spring mating season, but Van Pelt doubts that's the reason Payson's traveling coatimundi came through town.

"Coatimundi's live in matriarchal societies," he explained. "When you see a group of them, they are likely all young females. When you see an individual coati, that's probably a male and they are known for long exploration-type travels. I would bet that this was a male, hunting for those packs of females."

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