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Tanuki: A Raccoon-Dog-Something Seizes the Internet

Jan 26, 2016 05:40 PM EST

A Japanese animal that resembles a raccoon, called a Tanuki, recently shot to fame on the Internet. The one in question, a domestic pet named Tanu, captured online surfers' attention during a recent snowstorm in Asia. The owner of the pointy-nosed, eye-ringed animal posted Twitter photos of it mugging over a bowl of uneaten food or yawning adorably, going on leashed walks, and leaning close to a little heater.

While Tanu is a pet, many Tanukis are wild animals, a basal species of canid just as a gray fox is one. Known by the scientific name Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus, they were historically distributed in the Far East, from northern Indochina to Russia's southeast corner, Mongolia, and including parts of Japan, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). They are now also in central and western Europe, where they are considered an invasive pest. (Scroll to read more...)

The Tanuki has been a prominent part of Japanese stories and mythology since ancient times. As a character, it is considered jolly, rascal-ish, a shapeshifter and master of disguise. But it's also considered a bit absent-minded and gullible. Twentieth-century versions carry matters a step forward, painting the Tanuki as having (no less than) pendulous testicles, according to this translator's website and several images. 

As far as Tanu goes, we cannot tell. Is he a shapeshifter? A master of disguise? The possessor of unusual equipment? All unclear. But he's certainly grabbed people's hearts, it seems.

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-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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