Dark, and I’m driving a Seattle neighborhood side street so perfectly domesticated — trim lawns, well-tended shade gardens, recycling bins lined up like green guardians. Darting through my headlights, a hunchbacked animal scoots across the street, toppling those tidy bins. Almost-human black eyes stare right at me as a raccoon chomps and chows down on a burrito. Then two more tiny hunchbacks scramble across the street and study their mother’s garbage feast: limp French Fries, peaches, a half-eaten Starbucks bento box. Their striped bandit faces are so curious, so endearing, so brand new, I think: “Oh, let them be. We’ve all gotta eat.”
Idling, so as not to spook the kits, I watch the mother raccoon defy gravity and climb straight up the side of a tall garage. Not a tree, but a spacious flat for three. One of the kits quickly follows her; yet the runt of her litter keeps slipping off the slick gutter pipe and sliding back down. With his five tiny fingers, but no thumb, the grounded kit’s hands and feet still can’t get a toe-hold on the pipe. The kit calls out in terror, a high-pitched trill. The mother raccoon encourages her kit up the steep climb. After all, raccoons can safely fall as much as 35 to 40 feet and stick the landing. Finally, the kit wraps his ringed tail around the pipe and inches up to the roof. The two kits survey all below them, their expressions proud, possessive. This is their home, too.
“Urban wildlife,” that’s what scientists call raccoons that are now thriving in our cities. Raccoons are fascinating scientists as they move into our urban areas in record numbers. They stay close to their many dens — usually only traveling in a three-block radius. Raccoon mothers are affectionate and devoted to their kits; females often den together in what is aptly called a nursery.
Raccoon mothers, busy single moms, also share the chore of kit-sitting their babies in a scene reminiscent of what you might find at any human playground. To watch raccoon mothers and kits is to observe maternal devotion and patience — kits hungrily nurse, then tug and pounce on their mother as she impossibly tries to nap. While the rest of the world sleeps, raccoons roll and wrestle, jump and race around each other like furry gymnasts. Backyard planters, gardening tools, even a scooter can tempt a raccoon to invent new games for nocturnal fun. My collaborator, wildlife photographer Robin Lindsey, discovered a raccoon kit at dawn thumping around a soccer ball in the backyard.
After only 12 weeks, raccoon kits begin to wander away from their mothers and yearlings are fully independent by 8 to 14 months. The rest of their short 2- to 3-year lives is spent foraging, mating and, if female, raising the kits. Because a raccoon’s front feet are nimble and manipulative as human hands — and they are so inquisitive — raccoon brains are developing more complexities to meet the challenges and secret pleasures of city nightlife. So they are a lot like humans, who have evolved by exploring, hunting, problem-solving, play, and manual dexterity. Researchers who study raccoons have documented that a raccoon “can remember solutions to tasks for up to three years.” Some scientists theorize that the raccoon’s dark mask around those intense eyes is actually an evolutionary gift that deflects glare, giving this creature enviable night vision.
Even though wild animals have a natural fear of humans, so many — coyotes, foxes, even cougars — are now adapting to our habitat. Biologist and psychologist Suzanne MacDonald,who studies urban raccoons has said: “We forget that we are the biggest cause of evolution on the planet right now… Humans in cities are changing the animals.” MacDonald studies the adaptive and survival skills of rural vs. urban raccoons; she’s discovered that city-dwelling raccoons outperform their rural cousins by 80 percent. New research reveals that raccoons actually prefer urban living.
Some people wrongheadedly feed raccoons, which deprives them of the dignity of making their own living. Some people fear raccoons as rabid, but only one person in the U.S. has ever died from a raccoon transmitting that dreaded disease. Some of us mistakenly call raccoons “nuisance animals,” but to dismiss raccoons is to lose what is most wild about our cities. Why not consider these sometimes rowdy, nightlife-loving, and keenly intelligent raccoons as a sign of a healthy urban wildlife habitat that we can all learn to enjoy like good neighbors?