Can you imagine an animal so adaptable, it can not only survive, but also thrive in both the forest and major urban areas? With hands like a human and fingers so dexterous, they can undo clasps, gates, boxes and bags?
You probably have figured out I am referring to the raccoon – an animal I believe is one of the most incredible creatures on the planet.
They are often seen merely as meddlesome critters, but it is interesting to me that most people find them so annoying and invasive – because they are one of the few species that over the years never fail to outsmart us.
Being one of the most highly adapted animals in North America, if not the world, raccoons definitely warrant further investigation, and a chance to be appreciated for the marvels that they are – even though they might drive us crazy with their shenanigans.
I am not saying raccoons can’t be meddlesome. If there ever was a mischievous creature, it was the raccoon. Their opportunistic nature often finds them in areas we think they shouldn’t be in – but if you were trying to survive, wouldn’t you get a little creative in where you lived and what you ate?
Once we accept that we cannot control them, but try to think the way they do and realize what they are capable of, it will make our lives much easier.
Think they cannot open that latch? Go ahead and give it a try. Something tells me those little fingers will find a way if the reward is good enough.
Like them or not, raccoons have long been a focus of human fascination, either because they are considered cute (a trait I thoroughly agree with), intelligent, mysterious or fiercely clever and resourceful. Many native American groups feature raccoons as characters in their legends, myths and creation stories, often serving as “trickster” characters. Raccoons are also favored as mascots in the U.S., as evident with Roni the Raccoon, the mascot of the 1980 Winter Olympics, Ranger Rick of the nature magazine, and T-Rac, the mascot of the Tennessee Titans.
Whether you love them or hate them, raccoons hold a place in our collective American heart, and those who study them describe an animal that is remarkable in a multitude of avenues, both physically and behaviorally.
Like any other species that has a chance of being successful in populous areas, raccoons must be extremely adaptable and opportunistic. If they were limited on where they could live, what they could eat and where they raise their young, they would not thrive in the numbers they do, especially in heavily urbanized areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto (the latter two being among the raccoon capitals of the world).
Although they seem like common animals, raccoons are remarkably built and can often handle whatever humans or nature throws at them, a trait we humans find frustrating when they come a-knocking, looking for food, shelter or a bit of mischief in our yards.
One of the most distinctive and finely tuned features of the raccoon is its paws. If you have ever seen a raccoon print, you will notice its front paws are eerily human-like with five long fingers on each paw and a thumb that sticks out slightly to the side. The hind feet also have five toes, but the overall shape of the foot is more elongated and less human-like. These long feet allow for stability for the animal to stand, which they are often seen doing in order to utilize their powerful, highly sensitive front paws.
Raccoons are often visualized with their front paws in water, rubbing them together, leading to the common misconception that they have to wash their food. Actually, getting their paws wet allows their foot pads to become up to five times more sensitive, essentially allowing them to see what is under the water only by touch.
Imagine the keen sense of smell utilized by dogs, and then imagine it in the feet of these peculiar little critters. This skill is necessary for their survival in more natural settings, where they find most of their food by foraging in the soil of shallow rivers and streams, where they cannot see what is below the surface. Conveniently, this also frees up their eyes to keep a watch out for predators or other possible food sources. This behavior is ideal in finding aquatic food sources such as fish, clams and other crustaceans.
On the land in more natural settings, raccoons often consume berries, nuts, seeds and grains, and enjoy protein sources such as worms and other insects. In urban areas, however, raccoons have been known to eat nearly everything that humans do – from popcorn to licorice, a diet that nature surely did not intend but somehow allows for survival.
Sheds, dumpsters, cellars and grain storage bins are favorites of these urban dwellers, which have to find food wherever they can in order to survive. As many readers know, they are often quite successful at it.
Keep in mind that the range of places that raccoons can live is great, but they do need a source of fresh water and shelter in order to survive. You do not often find them where water access is completely limited, or in large, open areas where they cannot protect themselves or their young.
Raccoons are efficient reproducers, with their babies going through an approximately 9-week gestation period, with about four to six “kits” in each litter. Interestingly, as with most other highly intelligent mammal species, the young stay with their mother for a prolonged period, around one year. This is commonly seen in other highly adapted species, such as various primates (including humans). This allows ample time for the mother to teach the babies a variety of lessons they need for survival, which for urban raccoons includes how to open latches and even cross streets.
Urban raccoons have been observed moving at their fastest speeds while they are hightailing it across a road. This does not mean they are immune to getting hit, but they have a surprisingly successful rate of street crossings in populous areas.
Another specially adapted part of the raccoon’s anatomy is the skull. Raccoons typically have 40 teeth in their mouth, with six upper and six lower incisors, two upper and two lower canines, eight upper and eight lower premolars, and four upper and four lower molars, although the number of premolars can vary in different individuals. Their teeth are quite sharp and are used for tearing and crushing, allowing them to consume a large variety of foods. When found, their skulls are commonly confused with those of badgers, otters and foxes.
Like most mammals, raccoons demonstrate sexual dimorphism: Females are typically 25 percent to 30 percent smaller than males within their population, with adults usually weighing 11 to 18 pounds. The largest raccoon specimens have been observed in the northwestern U.S., and smallest specimens found in the Southeast. They have been observed as far south as Panama and as far north as Alaska and portions of Canada.
While native to the American continent, raccoons have been introduced into other portions of the world and in many cases have caused great disturbances to both built and natural environments. For an example, check out the consequences of the popular late-1970s Japanese television program, “Rascal the Raccoon.” By portraying raccoons as cute, fun little critters, the creators unwittingly created a boom for the importation of raccoons as pets, which had disastrous results: Thousands of raccoons that had become aggressive and unmanageable were released into the wild, causing damage to the native animal populations as well as to centuries-old temples, which have been partially destroyed by the pillaging little bandits.
Many people have tried to take in young raccoons as pets because when they are young, they are more docile and are adorable. As they grow, however, their nature as wild animals becomes readily apparent. As they mature and their hormone levels change, it becomes dangerous for both humans and for the animals to keep them in captivity. It is important to bear in mind that no matter how small or “cute” a young raccoon can be, they can be incredibly dangerous, using their claws and teeth to protect themselves.
If you find an injured or abandoned raccoon, do not take it upon yourself to rescue it. Contact Animal Control or a nearby county or state park, where experts are equipped to handle the situation. These animals should be rehabilitated and kept as close to their wild behaviors as possible and released. Individuals that are non-releasable might sometimes become demonstrative animals at parks, where they serve as teaching aids for the public. Ideally, however, as with any animal, we want to keep them wild. They might be adaptable, but no wild animal is wired to live a life in captivity.
It’s funny that in evolutionary terms, the harder we try to outsmart these critters, the more intelligent and flexible they become. It makes you wonder if raccoons of the future will be able to keep up with us. If history repeats itself, something tells me they will find a way.
Sarah Brewer Thompson was born and raised in Agua Dulce, where she learned to love and appreciate nature and history. She is a master’s student at California State University, Northridge, and a docent at Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park. Her areas of interest are local history, archaeology and animal studies.
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