As visitors to Iceland will no doubt soon realise, Iceland’s fauna is not particularly diverse. Several attempts have been made to remedy this fact by importing exotic (at least by Icelandic standards) animals to Iceland, but these trials have not been too successful.
In the spring of 1932, an enterprising bookbinder named Ársæll Árnason came from Germany bearing a cargo of seven raccoons—to the best of our knowledge the first time raccoons touched Icelandic soil.
Ársæll had previously been involved in shipping several young muskoxen to Iceland, all of whom died soon after their arrival in Iceland, a story regular Grapevine readers may be familiar with from one of our past columns.
While Ársæll had seen the benefits of muskoxen—including their plentiful meat and warm wool—he saw no special use for racoons in Iceland. He simply adored the creatures, describing them in Icelandic magazine articles from the time as “wonderful” and the most “fun” animals he could imagine.
The first few months, the racoons lived in a cage outside Ársæll’s home in central Reykjavík. There, a litter of raccoon cubs was soon born, becoming Iceland’s first native-born raccoons. The cubs drank milk from a bottle like babies and slept with Ársæll’s children at night.
The coons could not stay in Reykjavík forever, so the group was split up. A few went to a fur farm in South Iceland, where one of them managed to escape, surviving for months in the Icelandic wilderness before a local farmer shot a “strange creature” that had attacked his hens. Ársæll was distraught over his passing.
Three raccoons were sent to Ársæll’s sister Guðbjörg Árnadóttir in Vestmannaeyjar. They soon became a popular attraction with the islands’ children, who enjoyed feeding them various foods—raccoons are notorious omnivores—and setting them free from their cages, sending Guðbjörg to chase after them on their leaps to freedom. The raccoons were sociable creatures and especially enjoyed going downtown.
Eventually Guðbjörg tired of the constant chase and had the coons put down.
Iceland remained raccoon-free for the next forty years until December 1975 when the Hafnafjörður Aquarium bought raccoons from the Copenhagen Zoo.
The Icelandic media announced proudly that the Aquarium, where in the seventies and eighties Icelanders could see a number of exotic animals (most of them, unfortunately, badly treated), now hosted two Danish raccoons. What they didn’t mention was that the coons that came from Copenhagen were actually three. But one of them didn’t care for a future in the Aquarium and escaped en route.
A few weeks later, newspaper Dagblaðið ran a gruesome photo of a mangled animal corpse on its front page. “Strange animal threatens fishmeal factory worker,” read the headline. The creature had hissed at an electrician at the Hafnafjörður factory, who responded by shooting it on the spot.
According to the article, specialists at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History had not managed to identify the creature, and speculated if this might be a wild dog, “tall fox” or even a skoffín, the fearsome cat-fox-hybrid of Icelandic folklore.
Of course not — this was the third raccoon, which had managed to survive in the wild around Hafnafjörður for weeks before meeting this grisly end in the fishmeal factory.
In October 1998, employees of a Reykjavík hot tub store were taken aback by the sight of a furry creature hiding in a shipment of massage tubs from Toronto.
It was, of course, yet another raccoon. In Toronto, the poor animal had likely rambled into a shipping container bound for Iceland, and had been travelling for almost a month. The raccoon had in its desperation started nibbling on the wooden shipping pallets. He appeared dazed from hunger and thirst.
The employees called the police, and a policeman responded quickly by shooting the miserable creature.