Wild Ideas: The tactile masked bandit

The North American Raccoon forages for food in its favorite habitat, along a stream. Photo by Michael Gabler.

He was always reaching down, or up for something — such clever little hands.
–from “Rascal,” by Sterling North

Sterling North, in his 1963 Newbery-award-winning book “Rascal,” humorously details his adventures with his eponymous pet raccoon in Wisconsin in 1918. When North was 11, he raided a raccoon nest in a tree cavity, where raccoons usually have their young (kits). The kit North captured became his favorite companion, sharing adventures and sleeping in his bed.

The North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor) is smart, curious, bold, omnivorous, and opportunistic — like a small bear in a mask. Our relationship with them has been a conflicted one. We’ve been captivated by the raccoon’s antics, confounded by some of its behavior and annoyed at its skillful thievery. Not only have we captured and kept them as pets, we’ve hunted them for their fur and meat, and for sport, and we’ve waged war against them because they eat our food, invade our homes, and share our susceptibility to rabies.

There are several subspecies of P. lotor, which ranges throughout North America. The Eastern Raccoon, P. lotor lotor, is native to Virginia. While raccoons prefer forest with a nearby stream for their habitat, they will adapt to their surroundings and can live pretty much anywhere, including our homes.

The raccoon’s long fingers and dexterity gave it its common name, derived from the Algonquian word arakun, which means “scratches with his hand.” The dexterity and sensitivity of the forepaws makes raccoons excellent climbers and enables them to explore, retrieve, and consume a wide variety of food — from frogs and crayfish to mice, insects, fruit, nuts, berries eggs, and pizza and other human delicacies, the world is their smorgasbord.

The masked bandit of Virginia’s forests. Photo by Darkone.

Raccoons often dunk their food in water, a behavior that led to the lotor (“washer”) part of their scientific name. But are they really washing their food?

The general consensus among raccoon experts is “no,” says Michael L. Fies, furbearer project leader at the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). “Dousing” would be more accurate, he says. “Raccoons primarily exhibit this behavior when they are already close to water, rather than carrying food to water.”

Why the dousing? “I don’t think anybody knows for sure,” says Fies, but he tends to agree with the hypothesis that the dousing “is simply a fixed motor pattern that imitates the dunking motion they use when searching for aquatic foods.”

Raccoons often rely solely on their sense of touch to explore and find crayfish and other favored foods under rocks in stream beds. “They get so used to that motion,” says Fies, “that they repeat it when eating certain items near water, even when they are not actively foraging.” These items can be shiny nonedible objects, which also attract raccoons. Why they’re drawn to objects that have no apparent value beyond aesthetics is a mystery and a trait shared by crows and other corvids, and by humans.

The attraction to shiny objects and the tactile nature of the raccoon’s forepaws are well documented in “Rascal.” According to the author, the raccoon would regularly use his forepaws to explore North’s face, seeming to read it like a blind person reads Braille. North also tells of Rascal’s carefully examining, dousing, and stashing pebbles, coins, and other shiny things.

A female raccoon climbing a tree. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson.

Raccoons’ curiosity can lead to their exploring human habitat, usually leaving it in disarray. Rappahannock resident Amo Merritt, a permitted wildlife rehabilitator, has raised many a litter of rescued raccoons. One warm winter she decided to release a litter instead of waiting until spring. “Rather than find their own home, they moved into our barn and the boxes of Christmas decorations,” she says. “Soon the barn was festively decorated with Christmas lights, garland and other decorations.”

The personality of raccoons makes them Merritt’s “critters of choice.” She likens them to children, enjoying attention and affection but also needing to make their own way as they mature. North found the same to be true, so when Rascal was a year old and showed interest in finding a mate, the boy took him to the shore of a nearby lake. When they heard a female’s mating call, he left his pal to meet his destiny in the back woods of Wisconsin.

As with other wildlife, raccoons are best left in the wild. In Virginia, it is illegal to capture or keep wild raccoons without a permit. They can be fierce defenders of themselves and their young as well as being susceptible to rabies. When they’re ill, they can be aggressive or disoriented or appear unusually friendly, so when one showed up during the day at the open door of my very small office in the middle of town a couple of years ago, it gave me pause. Fortunately, the raccoon responded to my stern command to leave the premises.

Raccoons’ attraction to our food and to bird feed often leads to conflicts with humans. Rascal’s plundering North’s neighborhood for corn and other prized foods let to some neighbors threatening to shoot him.

On its Web site at www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/nuisance/#raccoons, VDGIF lists ways to discourage raccoons from becoming pests, including locking up trash cans, bringing in bird feeders at night, and securing buildings entryways. If you have a problem with a raccoon on your property, Vies suggests contacting a nuisance wildlife trapper, also listed on the department’s Web site.

While few of us can now enjoy the close relationship with this marvelous species that North had, we can still appreciate its unique charm from a respectable distance.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”