This article was published in the Ojai Valley News on March 19, 2003. It is reprinted here with their permission.
Skinniest Raccoon Ever: Reality or Ojai Legend?
by Earl Bates
A few Ojai residents say they have seen the elusive “skinny raccoon,” but many people are skeptical about its existence.
“I have talked with people who say there are none of them around here,” said Ojai resident and Ventura County park ranger Drew Mashburn.
The most certain place to find a likeness of the skinniest raccoon, also known as a ringtail cat, is in a field guide to the mammals of North America. The illustrations of the well-known animals like deer, bear and coyote have a real look about them, everyone knows those animals actually exist. But looking at an illustration of the ringtail suggests a fictitious creature, something like a cross between a Cheshire cat and a mongoose.
Sightings of this unlikely looking little mammal are scarce in the Ojai area, but they are very much worth looking out for. A ringtail sighting is proof that fantastic little wild creatures still haunt the backcountry just north of Ojai.
“The only ringtail I remember seeing,” said Mashburn, “was when I was parked on the road above Lake Matilija. I looked down and saw this thing bouncing through the brush.” Mashburn remembered thinking, “That is the skinniest raccoon I have ever seen, and then, all of a sudden, I realized it was a ringtail.”
Then Mashburn’s reasoning powers took hold of him as he thought, “No, it can’t be, there are no ringtails in Ventura County.” Mashburn did some research and found that ringtails were listed as possible residents in nearby territory. “I looked in some of my books and they claim ringtails can still be found in the Santa Barbara backcountry, and that’s like the far end of Matilija Canyon.” He is now certain that the skinniest raccoon he ever saw was actually a wild ringtail.
Ringtails are not as rare in the Ojai area as the history of their infrequent sightings would indicate. Although ringtails live in local habitats shared with humans and other creatures, their behavior characteristics keep them almost always out of sight.
One of the main reasons ringtails are seldom seen is because they are strictly nocturnal. They sleep during the day and emerge from hiding places, like holes in oak trees and under rock piles, to do their hunting at night.
Another reason ringtails are seldom seen is because they have learned to stay out of developed areas. They prefer to live out of town, especially along the rocky water course habitats of foothill canyons.
Ringtails are experts at stalking mice and rats, and they sometimes catch small birds. They also eat berries, including those from the manzanita plant.
Adult ringtails measure about 30 inches from nose to tip of tail. Their long busy tail, accounting for about half of their overall length, is banded with black-and-white rings. Their tail serves an important function in helping the ringtail keep its balance while scurrying along branches and across piles of rock in pursuit of prey.
In overall length, ringtails are nearly as long as, but much skinnier than, raccoons. Raccoons have much bulkier bodies but shorter tails. Ringtails weigh from 2 to 3 pounds, about one-fifth the weight of a typical raccoon.
Ringtails are remarkably agile creatures. They have been recognized for their great skill in catching rodents and for their ability to outmaneuver some of the animals that prey on them, including owls and bobcats. Early prospectors and settlers in California employed ringtails as mousers, which earned them the nickname, “miner’s cat.”
In the Mediterranean climate of Ojai’s backcountry, ringtail kittens are born in April and May in litters of three and four. They are fully grown at about six months of age.
Ojai area residents who would like to try and catch a glimpse of the mystical and elusive ringtail could try their luck on a walk through Rose Valley during the wee hours of the morning. Anyone interested in seeing more than an illustration in a field guide before venturing out on a late-night ringtail sighting expedition is welcome to stop in at the Ojai Ranger District Office at 1190 E. Ojai Ave. and ask to see their mummified version of the seldom-seen ringtail cat.