Suburban Wild: Racoons, the garbage gang

Barbara Julien writes monthly about the various species in Oak Bay.

Everyone has a smart-raccoon story, a tale of squaring off against the masked bandits that see our garbage cans the same way big-game hunters see the African forest: there for the plunder. It has been said that urban life makes humans dumber, but wildlife smarter. The theory is that while species like raccoons and bears become inventive by adapting to cities, humans living in masses tend to think alike and to lose their mental independence.

York University researchers Michael Pettit and Suzanne MacDonald have found that the urban environment makes raccoons aggressively attack problems such as locked composting bins. In Toronto, they learned that knocking them over made the clasps spring open, as they were designed to do for the automated arms of garbage trucks.

Because Procyon lotor (“dog-like washer”) is born blind and helpless, it must learn everything it needs to know from the examples of its mother and relatives. Animal behaviourist Frank De Waal describes the importance of imitation in learning: when learning through “embodied cognition”, individuals unconsciously body-map and copy the movements of others. We see that urban humans literally fall into lock-step with the crowd around them, everyone gazing at screens, take-out coffee in hand, forever repeating the same simple phrases. Young raccoons meanwhile, watching their relatives cope with window latches, rush hour traffic and chained-up garbage cans are learning to problem-solve in an environment of demands not faced by their woodland ancestors. So which species is smartening up and which is dumbing down? It’s an intriguing question.

Manual exterity obviously helps with practical problem solving. Like us, raccoons have nimble fingers. We marvel at how carefully the dog-like washer washes food, whether grubs and clams or dumpster pizzas. Also like humans, raccoons have migrated across continents. Originally from Europe, the ancestors of local BC raccoons came from the southern US and moved northward. The first urban ones were seen in Cincinnati in the 1920s. Now they seem as citified as ourselves.

A city is a laboratory where all sorts of spontaneous experiments go on, and not only those performed by humans. While we scratch our heads over housing shortages and unaffordable rents, raccoons are dealing with the same problem — securing a safe warm place to sleep — by colonizing basements, garden sheds and thick hedges. But the more dense, paved and built up the city becomes the harder this will be and the more their intelligence is challenged. Their brains will grow physically denser with neural connections, but will they grow fast enough?

According to the organization Population Matters, world wildlife populations have halved since 1970 while human population has doubled. At this rate of decline, wildlife species will have to evolve quickly indeed.

De Waal and other animal behaviourists emphasize the importance of mutual cooperation and altruism in the survival of species. The raccoon is certainly successful, yet as individuals they put their own interests ahead of others’ interests. That’s the strategy of a creature more keen on technical solutions than social “tend and befriend” ones, but it seems that with the paving and denuding of the planet, only those species that have befriended humanity, like dogs who descended from wolves, cats from tigers and backyard chickens from wild Asian jungle fowl, will survive. Local deer seem to be trying their best to become garden pets, but raccoons? Not so much. Although willing to inhabit our spaces, it seems Procyon lotor would be happy to wash her hands of humanity.

Even the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, apparently no wimp when it came to a fight, claimed to be afraid to take the garbage out on nights when the masked bandits were abroad. Despite the cuteness factor in the baby raccoon’s face, more than a few people around here feel the same.

Barbara Julien is a local writer and nature enthusiast who writes monthly about the various species making their home in Oak Bay.

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