Cute or Evil: A Quest for Raccoon Truth
Raccoons own a stunning array of skills and a non-negotiable place in our local existence. Yet few know much about them.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
The checkout guy at Sand City’s Costco looked like he’d just been served a plate of poison-oak Parmesan. He stared at the customer in front of him, his face twisted into a portrait of undiluted disgust.
She didn’t notice.
VIDEO Look at motion-sensor footage of raccoons in action at the animal blog, www.mcweekly.com/animal
Between the woman and the check-out guy lay a massive bag of dog food branded for large dogs. Pictures of huskies appeared on its side.
The shopper behind her in line had just asked her what kind of canine she owns.
“Oh no,” she said, smiling an oh-don’t-be-silly smile. “I don’t have a dog. This is for the raccoons.”
It was that reply that had the previously peaceful clerk looking like he was close to creating a clean-up-on-register-two situation.
Both reactions are at least a little bit understandable. People like the clerk know the pudgy bandits have attacked and injured pets and even humans, seemingly unprovoked, in incidents that range from a gang-like jumping just up Highway 101 last winter to a Carmel ass-chomping event that still haunts a homemaker three years later (events that can peak right around now, when baby raccoons are learning to leave the den with protective mothers). Or that they plunder trash cans and tear through roofs, drywall and vents to make attics, joists and crawl spaces their own cozy disaster areas, complete with latrines rank enough to curl nose hairs. Their feces precipitated the local community’s saddest wildlife-related tragedy in a generation when a toddler named Casey Read was blinded and brain damaged after ingesting roundworm-infected raccoon scat in 1998.
Despite this disturbing stuff, their lofty mix of intelligence, resourcefulness and dexterity leaves wildlife biologists, academics and exterminators simply awestruck. Their unique charisma and untempered curiosity, meanwhile, endear them to far more admirers than many might imagine, or wildlife experts recommend.
In other words, raccoon lovers live among us. Within the Weekly offices alone lurk an editor who concedes she once made a habit of prepping peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for a raccoon she named Phil, and an account executive who bottle-fed a little kit “before he advanced to Gerber baby cereal.” She called hers Godzilla, and still reflects fondly on trips to the lake to catch crawdads and pluck blackberries – and motorcycle rides with Godzilla holding onto the handlebars – that lasted until he figured out how to unlatch his cage, open the neighbor’s screen door and decimate the contents of their kitchen cabinets. (He was moved to a national park.)
Reactions of raccoon contempt and collaboration, though, have something else in common besides an implicit intensity and tempting polarization: They prove both simplistic and incomplete. Raccoons, to paraphrase several coon-versed sources the Weekly spoke with, are misunderstood. But they’re more than that. They are also inexorable piece of our continent’s cultural fabric, a force of nature to put Chuck Norris on notice and a surprisingly handy mirror into our own selves.
Alisa DeZee screamed at Roxy. A hulking raccoon and her 55-pound yellow lab – whose nightly tinkle had been suddenly shortened – were tangled in a backyard twister of teeth and fur. She hoped Roxy would heed her call and run back into her Carmel home, leaving the raccoon to amble off into the brush.
No such luck. Roxy responded, but the raccoon charged after the pooch.
“It was kind of slow motion,” DeZee says. “I thought I would close the door as soon as she got through. I didn’t time it right.”
The two-headed momentum slapped the door open and sent her sprawling onto the floor. The fight tore into the living room. When DeZee turned to follow the action, the raccoon’s eyes found hers.
“It left the dog and came at me,” the stay-at-home-mom says. When she instinctively turned, the coon leapt and its incisors found backside flesh.
“It was like the cartoons, or Lucille Ball, when you’re spinning around like a propeller… with it chomped on – latched on. I had bite marks like you would get from plastic vampire teeth. It probably only lasted five seconds, but it felt like 45.”
Panicked punches dislodged the animal, and with the help of her husband and animal control they shooed it outside. For a time thereafter, post rabies shots and quarantine, neither she nor Roxy went outside after dark – and her family armed itself with brooms and rakes for every walk to and from the car.
She laughs about the event now, still wears that night’s sweats with bite holes in them and insists she’s “not drama girl.” The family has since moved to less raccoon-dense Carmel Valley.
But this winter all it took was a fleeting appearance of a raccoon in the window of a restaurant where they were dining in the Sierras for her to ask for the check. Her husband quickly got the car and a staffer to walked her to the vehicle.
Christopher Columbus used raccoon meat to sustain his sailors on a trip across the Atlantic. Archaeological evidence suggests Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame kept one as a pet. Disney fans will recall Pocahontas’ masked pal Meeko from the movie, though, as one expert points out, the actual Native American was “just as likely to have one for dinner.”
By the time Pocahontas sang “Colors of the Wind,” Disney was already a loyal fan of the raccoon. The introduction of its Davey Crockett memorabilia, starring the coonskin cap, marked history in entertainment marketing. Crockett product accounted for a tenth of all children’s clothing sales, memorabilia magic not even Harry Potter can conjure, and placed raccoons at the genesis of a particularly materialistic aspect of American-brand capitalism. That represented the first TV – or movie-generated merchandise push the market had seen. Today Disney wouldn’t be promoting a six-piece limited edition Winnie the Pooh set of plush duffel bags – for $299.50 – without the rabid success of the coonskin cap.
In short, love or loathe them, raccoons have claimed a place at the heart of American culture as brazenly as one claimed a bit of DeZee’s backside.
Early settlers had long ago gained crucial income from the sale of the furs in Europe, and at that time pelts worked as currency at trading posts and even courts. A Revolutionary War troupe in New Jersey, unable to afford suitable uniforms, were identifiable by their coonskin hats. George Washington is credited with introducing the U.S. to coonhound breeding.
Raccoons were also central to the first presidential promotional push, now another less-than-enviable American rite of passage, as 1840 Democratic Party presidential nominee William Henry Harrison, himself a well-off blue-blood, presented himself as a down-to-earth leader called “Old Coon.” It worked, and he took the victory easily, though he proved not quite as adaptable as his namesake, dying of pneumonia after only a month in office. Raccoon presence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue didn’t die with him, though: Calvin Coolidge kept a raccoon pet named Rebecca. Herbert Hoover cuddled one called Suzie.
But the most irresistible cultural credence was still to come, when raccoons appeared in lyrics by a band named the Beatles and a dude named Bob Dylan.
Sam Zeveloff, author of Racoons: A Natural History and the man who gathered many of these little crawdads of knowledge from the river of raccoon relevance, isn’t alone in proclaiming their sum significance.
“Instead of an eagle,” he says, “our national animal should absolutely be a raccoon.”
Though Zeveloff, department chair of zoology at Weber State University, wrote the book on raccoons, his favorite varmint-style story does not appear within its pages.
He laughs as much in amazement as amusement as he retells it.
A colleague of his at Weber in Ogden, Utah, had been out of town. When the professor returned home, he immediately feared a burglary. All his typically fastidiously stacked sheets of paper on the kitchen counter were, in a word, “everywhere.” As his anxiety mounted, he went into his bedroom, where he saw the top drawer of his night table was open.
“That further convinced him,” Zeveloff says, “that he was dealing with a skilled intruder.”
Other evidence revealed a specific sort of expertise. Telltale prints from hands muddied in a nearby water source tracked back to a window that was opened, but screened off. Something sharp had cut through the mesh and entered and exited through the resulting flap. The prints tracked to the nightstand and back, among other places.
“‘What is going on?’” the colleague recounted. “‘Who would’ve done something like that?’”
In the nightstand drawer, instead of something taken, he found something left behind: namely, “two turds.”
The Aztecs called the male raccoon “one who takes everything in his hands” (mapachitl). The females were known as “she who talks with gods” (see-oh-at-la-ma-kas-kay). A few Sioux tribes assigned names that meant “one who is sacred” or “one with magic” (wee-kah-sah).
Salinas’ James Schlittler knows that brand of wizardry, because he knows raccoons like they know the feel of their food (more on that in a minute). He and his father, the late, Bowie-knife-wearing, coonskin-cat-sporting Vietnam vet Ron Schlittler, founded Critter Getter 20 years ago.
“Raccoons still leave me scratching my head,” Schlittler says, “even for as long as I’ve dealt with them, during which I think I’ve seen all of physical feats, every once in a while, I end up saying, ‘How did they do that?’”
Recently a coon penetrated a local attic after its owners felled the tall tree next to the house and erected a series of slippery metal sheets in the creature’s path. James could see from prints that it somehow pulled a climbing maneuver to make Half Dome veterans envious, scaling a ¼-inch-protruding downspout all the way up to the overhang of the roof that separated it from its self-invited entrance to the den.
“The prints were everywhere, and then there a section where there were none,” Schlittler says. “It swung and flipped himself up onto the top of the roof. It must have done this somersault.”
Schlittler has started deployed technology to better understand the magic: Remote, motion-triggered cameras caught another miracle the other day.
A juvenile raccoon was trapped in a so-called “Have-a-heart” burly metal cage reinforced with dozens of thick raccoon-proof wires. The mama raccoon found a lone compromised wire and muscled it just high enough to swing open the gate for her kit.
“She must’ve tested all six sides of it, touching and feeling,” he says. “She found the one weak spot in the trap.”
When it comes to coon characteristics, that jail-break drama is telling.
It speaks to their profound problem-solving savvy. Animal behavioralist H. B. Davis was the first (and remains one of the few) to test them rigorously, and their success with a dozen complex locks, led him to compare their smarts to those of rhesus monkeys.
And when they learn something, writes Dorcas MacClintock in A Natural History of Raccoons, they remember it. They solve a latch type puzzle in 17 minutes on the first try, four minutes on the second, and in seconds on the third. Years later, they still get it quickly. Ask any local who has forgotten to lock a cat door for the first time in years how well they remember where the food is.
Second, while raccoons don’t appear in the dictionary next to dexterity, dexterity appears in any description of raccoons. Schlittler recently saw a mother simultaneously trigger a release lever with one hand, lift a trapdoor with another and stick her head through an opening to successfully foil a one-way door commonly used in evicting raccoons. Former SPCA Senior Wildlife Technician Dawn Robles says she’s seen a raccoon open a jar.
Strength is a third element. No small amount of oomph was required to torque the heavy-gauge wire. You could call mama raccoon’s strength bear-like, though the belief that raccoons are related is inaccurate (like pandas, they’re a closer cousin of the weasel).
But nothing’s stronger than their caretaking instinct.
“They are incredible parents,” says Clinton Curtis, SPCA’s humane wildlife technician. “The mother imparts so many skills.”
And provides some platinum-grade protection.
“They are pure tenacity,” Schlittler says. “The mom I saw [freeing the kit] was hell-bent. If she hadn’t yet found a way to get out by the time I showed up, she would’ve still been there.”
Schlittler’s also seen a mother lead a family in moving the cage of a trapped offspring to safer ground – but he’s also seen people mistake mama coons attacks as random acts of anger.
“It’s misconstrued as being without provocation,” he says. “But people need to be aware of the season. Mother raccoons, after giving birth to kids, need them to mature for 8 to 10 weeks. Right now she starts bringing them out, leap frogging from bush to bush.”
When she does, she remembers dogs she’s seen erupting at her along fencelines and windows.
“She makes a mental note about other four legged critters,” he says, “so when she’s out, the kids are the ingredient that will incite her. She doesn’t care if the dog doesn’t notice her, all she wants to do is protect her kids.”
Jeff Cann, California Department of Fish and Game’s wildlife biologist for Monterey and San Benito counties, recalls what one local resident told him with raccoon-like memory.
“‘We think we’ve created a monster,’” they said.
Misguided genius had struck the family’s holiday season. They wanted to craft a creative Christmas card, so they figured they’d peanut butter up some packages so the neighborhood coons could swing by and play with them long enough to snap some portraits.
“The pictures were probably pretty cool,” Cann says. “But they told me, ‘Now, when we walk out the door, there they are. And they aren’t taking no for an answer.”’
Raccoons get credit for being more cleanly than they actually are: Contrary to what many believe, including one local SPCA wildlife tech, they aren’t the only animal that washes its food. But there is an equally exclusive instinct behind the exercise.
The compulsive moistening of the dark skin on the interior hands – in addition to helping generate all the paw prints leading to and from pet doors across the county – softens and sensitizes its five nimble finger-like digits. Given that well over half of the sensory-perception part of a raccoon’s brain is dedicated to touch, which tops that of any other animal ever studied, suddenly a crayfish or a nut or a latch is much easier to understand, pull apart and/or eat.
The gifts don’t stop there. Raccoon whiskers function as tactile organs all their own. Their ears can detect earthworms. Their nose can sense acorns buried in two inches of dry sand. Their complex vocal communication includes no fewer than 13 types of calls. Their tails store fat in the fall, aid balance on branches and offer a brace when they sit up on their haunches.
In short, they are also inherently equipped to be opportunistic and flexible. But even with all those talents, they owe their ability to exist in diverse environments to their omnivore openness.
“Their diet accounts more than any other for their adaptability,” MacClintock writes. “When food is abundant raccoons are selective. When it is scarce they eat what is available.”
That means salamanders and snails, crabs and crickets, beetles and blackberries, minnows and meadowlarks, trash and more trash. They’ve even been known to clear out a hornet nest, munch down Hemlock needles and grub acorns that Native Americans had to leach tannins from to avoid kidney damage.
“A complete listing of the raccoon’s foods,” Zeveloff says, “would be long, tedious, and perhaps impossible.”
They are even artists and bizarrely wondrous lovers. Former SPCA tech Robles has painted with one at an exotic animal training program. German raccoon researcher Ulf Homann found that coon foreplay and copulation can run more than an hour and be repeated over several nights. The curved tip of the raccoon penis, or baculum, actually hooks over the female pelvic bone, according to A Natural History of Raccoons.
“Each slow thrust and faster withdrawal by the male causes her to utter a sharp rattling cry,” it reads.
They can leap safely from branches 30 feet up, and when they take a more typical tack down, they descend headfirst, with hind feet turned backwards. They are cunning enough to trick pursuing dogs into rivers and pools and hold their heads under the water.
That type of skill set means Chuck Norris and Jack Bauer are wearing raccoon underwear. It also helps make coons maybe the most adaptable animal on the continent, a fact born out by plenty of scientific evidence – at one point, Zeveloff notes, they were expanding so quickly into Canada natives didn’t have a name for them – and an army of anecdotal notes: Today they thrive not only in corn fields and cattle country but bone-dry deserts without so much as a pine tree for counties.
“Despite the sad biodiversity crisis with so many species becoming extinct, they’ll be there with the roaches at the end,” Zeveloff says. “They might have a better chance than us.”
Or maybe not, at least if we can’t learn what they are trying to teach us.
Last November a pair of eyes confronted Rachel Campos de Ivanov in the night. As she recognized they belonged to a raccoon, she fled, dragging her barking 20-pound dog behind her.
Suddenly more raccoons dropped from the branches: one, two, three, four.
Campos estimates she made it a third of a block before she stumbled.
Little Dougie successfully fought off four of them, but a fifth sunk its teeth into her leg.
It was the ninth attack Alameda had seen in six months.
The Critter Getter says every local raccoon confrontation he sees is dog-involved. But the most heart-wrenching raccoon run-in locally happened without so much as a whiskered whimper.
After 2-year-old Casey Read suffered blindness and severe brain damage after ingesting raccoon feces in the backyard of his Pacific Grove home, a subsequent San Jose State study found more than half of 191 raccoon latrines tested in P.G. and Carmel (in trees, woodpiles and attics, on roofs, decks and lawns) contained roundworm eggs. Nevertheless, infections remain exceedingly rare, which has led a number of physicians to ask how such a widespread occurrence of infected latrines can coexist with a dearth of infections.
What is more clear: Cases of rabies in raccoons are almost unheard of in California, where bats and skunks are much more common vectors. From 2010-11, the Monterey County Health Department has screened 124 different animals suspected of rabies on the Monterey Peninsula. Only six were raccoons, and all tested negative.
No cases of raccoon-related roundworm in humans have been reported since the “Baby Casey” tragedy.
Humans conduct hundreds of studies on exotic animals we have little contact with, like lions, penguins and deep-sea invertebrates. The Monterey Bay Aquarium soaks millions into its White Shark Project. The last serious studies of raccoon smarts, however, were a century ago. Even though their population eclipses any other wild animals on a continent with endless biology departments, there have only been two academic books on raccoons put together in decades. The California Department of Fish and Game has brochures on mountain lions and mule deers, black bears and coyotes, but none on raccoons.
Often it’s the things right in front of us that we have the hardest time appreciating.
Or maybe it’s a case of self-loathing. In raccoons we see problem-solving, resourcefulness and sticktoitiveness, but also a familiar nastiness, a recognizable naughtiness and a supreme willingness to exploit easy plunder.
“Raccoons in their own pragmatic way have been using us,” says nature writer Bil Gilbert. “Our environmental actions – planting woodlots in prairies not to mention cornfields, building lakes in dry lands, have benefited the adaptable raccoon.” They also share what he deems a very American trait: To do things for the sake of doing them.
More likely, our distaste is a case of self-protective psychology. Raccoons demonstrate how much more convenient it can be to demonize a group than to understand it, because understanding often means acknowledging our agency – and having to do something about it.
That understanding isn’t elusive. Raccoon motivations are simple, even if their tricks are complex: Motherhood, shelter, food. If raccoons are being bad neighbors, there’s probably a bad neighbor around furnishing big-dog-sized dog food, unguarded trash or unsecured crawl spaces. The veteran vector control officer who tracked the Alameda attack was quick to point out that bustling, island community, with 70,000 people on about 10 square miles, has plenty of food for the raccoons, just not enough territory, which led raccoons to act aggressively toward anything out there that looks like a predator.
To paraphrase two wildlife experts the Weekly spoke with, it’s a lot easier to remove the cat food than the raccoon.
So maybe the gifted forager is teaching us to conduct our own search, saying, if an animal is sitting right in front of us, digging in our garbage, crossing our streets and sharing our homes and we haven’t noticed how fascinating its abilities are or what we can do to manage it easily, what else are we missing?
The act of paying attention – and staying inquisitive – clicks with the lesson SPCA wildlife technician Jessica Shipman calls her favorite insight adopted from working with raccoons closely.
“They taught me you never know what’s gonna be a fun toy,” she says. “You can always learn to be curious about your surroundings.”