“This is kind of the interesting thing about the coronavirus, is that now people are beginning to see animals that they didn’t see before,” said Stan Gehrt, a professor at Ohio State University, who has tracked raccoons for more than 20 years.
“We put radio collars on them and we follow them as they move around the city,” he told correspondent Faith Salie. “I’ve watched my study animals disappear as they were riding on top of the garbage truck!”
Suzanne MacDonald, who teaches psychology and biology at York University in Toronto, said, “I have people email me and say that raccoons are evil geniuses out to destroy them. They’re not. Raccoons are not evil geniuses. They are not even geniuses. They are lovely little critters trying to make a living.”
MacDonald said that raccoons’ uniquely sensitive front paws – some might even call them “creepy hands” – are part of their success as a species. “If you see a raccoon in a river, where they evolved, they put their hands under the water and they ‘feel’ food.”
It’s why raccoons are commonly thought to wash their food. “They don’t really wash their food, even though their scientific name actually is the ‘bear who washes with their hands,'” said MacDonald. “The ends of their paws are more sensitive under water, that they can actually get a good image of what they’re feeling. And they can kind of see it with their fingers, and then they can eat it.”
Raccoons are constantly reaching out and grabbing things, because unlike many animals, they’re intensely curious, said Gehrt: “For many other wild animals, when there’s a strange object out there, they have a healthy fear of that. But raccoons are actually attracted to new, novel objects, shiny objects, things that are not normal in the landscape.”
This attraction to the new and shiny is what Gehrt calls “neophilia.”
Salie asked, “So, because of their intelligence and their willingness to try new things, really, we’re just an opposable thumb away from raccoons being our overlords?”
“That’s something that we think about every now and then,” Gehrt replied. “It’s like, ‘If they had an opposable thumb, they might be competition for us.'”
MacDonald exploited the fact that raccoons don’t have opposable thumbs when she volunteered to help the city of Toronto create a raccoon-proof compost bin.
Salie asked, “Was it disheartening to see raccoons get into your raccoon-proof compost bin?”
“Actually, it wasn’t disheartening at all. I thought it was fantastic, and I was so cheering for them to do it!” laughed MacDonald. “Because, you know, it kind of shows that they can overcome everything.”
If city raccoons are more wily than their country cousins, MacDonald says we can thank ourselves: “Over generations of time, we are actually creating the perfect urban raccoon, your perfect urban warrior, because we are making it harder and harder and harder for them to get into our trash bins and get into our houses and get into those things we don’t want them to get into. And those animals that do that, end up surviving. And they are the smart ones. So, it is kind of our problem that we’ve created!”
The lesson of this raccoon “tail”? The love-hate relationship between people and raccoons isn’t going anywhere, because our crafty, curious neighbors are going everywhere.
So, it’s worth asking: What can we learn by watching raccoons?
MacDonald said, “I think you can learn persistence, and that’s what I’ve learned from them. It’s, like, if you just don’t give up, eventually you’ll get into that trash can. It’s just, you just gotta keep working at it!”