I meet my subject at dusk. He emerges from the gloom of the woods, a chubby specimen, with a bushy ringed tail and that trademark black mask. Over the course of an hour, I ask questions, and he gives answers. We communicate through a series of chatters, chuckles, and purrs. Using my vast knowledge of raccoonese, I have translated our conversation into English.
Xplor: Why wear a mask? What are you hiding?
Raccoon: Really? You’re going to start off with that? First, it’s not a mask. It’s black fur around my eyes. And second, I’m not hiding anything. The fur works like the dark strips that baseball players wear under their eyes. It cuts down glare from sunlight or moonlight, which helps me see better.
X: Interesting. I didn’t know that about raccoons.
R: Bud, I could fill a book with things people don’t know about raccoons.
X: Such as?
R: Raccoons are astonishingly adaptable. Back in the day, when your ancestors were blundering West in covered wagons, my ancestors lived in forests, mostly in the southeastern United States. Now, raccoons have spread all the way across the country, up into Canada, and down into Central America. We’re everywhere.
X: Not everywhere. I live in the city. There aren’t raccoons in my neighborhood.
R: I bet you have a furry neighbor or two you don’t know about. Biologists think nearly every city block is likely to have a raccoon living on it. In some places, there may be 100 times more raccoons living in the city than in the nearby countryside. People don’t see us because we come out at night.
X: What do you do during the day?
R: I sleep. I curl up in a hollow tree or in an empty woodchuck burrow. City raccoons sleep in abandoned buildings, chimneys, attics — wherever.
X: Raccoons must be good climbers.
R: You got that right. We can climb anything: trees, chimneys, skyscrapers. I got a cousin, lives up in St. Paul, Minnesota. Last summer he got this crazy idea to climb the tallest building in the ’hood. Up he goes, 25 stories, all the way to the top. Made national news.
X: What happened at the top?
R: He got his furry bottom busted by animal control. See, he was super hungry. He’d just climbed a 25-story building, you know? So the first thing he smells on the roof is the delicious aroma of cat food. Followed his nose right into a cage. He chowed down on Mr. Whiskers while animal control drove him outside city limits to turn him loose.
X: Raccoons like cat food?
R: Oh, yeah. We’re omnivores. That means we’ll eat just about anything. Cat food, dog food, human food, crayfish, fish fish, mussels, frogs, turtles, turtle eggs, bird eggs, insect eggs, insects, mice, birds, birdseed, persimmons, grapes, blackberries, corn, acorns, pecans… I’m innocent I tell ya.
X: OK. I get it. You eat lots of things.
X: You eat rats, too?
R: No. Rats, now I’m hungry. Follow me. I follow my subject through the woods to a gurgling stream. The flowing water glitters in the moonlight. In no time, the raccoon catches a small frog and proceeds to eat it — crunch, crunch — dunking the hapless creature in the stream between bites.
X: Why do you wash your food?
R: Wash my food? Bwahahaha! You think an animal that snarfs down three-day-old pizza from a trash can worries about germs?
X: Then what are you doing?
R: I’m feeling around for my next snack. Raccoons have sensitive paws. Four to five times more sensitive than other mammals as a matter of fact. And a large part of my noggin is set up to figure out what I’m touching. You want to know my superpower? I can “see” something just by feeling it.
X: That’s amazing. Do you have any other superpowers?
R: What? The skyscraper climbing, ability to eat everything, and super-sensitive digits aren’t enough? OK, here’s one: Raccoons are crazy clever.
X: How so?
R: Studies in the 1900s ranked us equal to monkeys and well ahead of cats and dogs in brainpower. Translation: If there’s food somewhere, we’ll think up a way to get it. We can open camping coolers, unzip tents, crawl through pet doors, pry off trash can lids …
X: Let’s shift gears a bit. Tell me about your family.
R: I live alone most of the year. Mama raccoons do all the baby raising. Kits — that’s what we call baby raccoons — are born in April or May, and each mama usually has three or four of the little bandits.
X: How long do kits stay with their mother?
R: Long enough. Mama raccoons have to teach their kits how to climb trees, how to find food, and how to escape from predators like bobcats, coyotes, and owls. It’s a ton of work. By fall the kits are usually smart enough to fend for themselves, but some stick with mom until the following spring.
X: Why are raccoons nicknamed “trash pandas”?
R: If dumpster diving were an Olympic sport, I’d be on the cover of a cereal box. You humans throw away so much food! Nothing better than dumpster doughnuts, am I right?
X: That explains the first part of your nickname. What about the panda part?
R: Some people think raccoons are related to giant pandas.
X: Are you?
R: All mammals are related, nature boy. But raccoons are more closely related to weasels and river otters than bears and pandas. Personally, I don’t like being called trash panda. It’s rude. Call me raccoon or, if you want to sound like a smarty pants, use my scientific name: Procyon lotor.
X: How do you spell that?
R: How should I know? I’m a raccoon.
Keep Raccoons Wild
Just because raccoons can live nearly anywhere doesn’t mean we want them everywhere. Follow these tips to keep raccoons out of trouble.
- Feed your pets indoors.
- Keep tight-fitting lids on outdoor trash cans.
- Do not keep raccoons as pets. Baby raccoons are adorable, but grown-up raccoons become cranky and dangerous.
- If you see an injured raccoon or an abandoned kit, don’t try to rescue it. Call animal control.
- Help your parents put a cap on your house’s chimney and seal up any openings that may allow raccoons to enter your attic or crawl space.