The North American raccoon, Procyon lotor, is known for its facial mask, its striped tail, and its intelligence. They're quite common, not just in heavily wooded areas, but also in the suburbs, where they're known for raiding garbage cans.
With their arched backs, they have a rather peculiar, lumbering gait. They're nocturnal, and it's wise to steer clear of one that you see during the day. Being out in the day is not normal behavior, and some of them are infected with rabies.
In the summer of 1956, I was a 14-year-old camper at Camp Robinson Crusoe in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. In that age group, we lived in tents, and cooked our own meals on a wood-burning stove. We chopped wood for the stove, and pumped our water from a well. It was quite a memorable camping experience.
One morning, we woke to discover that our kitchen had been invaded by a raccoon. It had broken in through a window screen, and invaded our food, leaving its footprints in flour on the floor.
We repaired the screen and cleaned up, but a day or two later, it broke in again. Ordinary window screen was no match for it, and we were reluctant to spend time strengthening our defenses. Someone had a far simpler idea: every evening, we would leave a stale muffin or two in the hole in the screen. The raccoon would generally eat its way through the muffin and retire, sated, without entering the kitchen. This didn't always work, though; sometimes it wanted more, and broke in anyway.
We determined we would trap the raccoon, and obtained a really large size "Have-a-Hart" trap. We baited it with a peanut butter sandwich, and sat around waiting. Sure enough, after a few hours, there was an audible slam as the trap was sprung. We raced outside, and shone our flashlights on the trap. The doors were closed, all right, but the clever raccoon was still outside. We watched as he pulled the remains of the sandwich through the mesh of the side of the trap, and disappeared into the darkness. It appeared he was familiar with "Have-a-Hart" traps. Perhaps he had designed them.
Defeated, we didn't know what to do next. But Mother Nature has a way of making things work out.
A few mornings later, we entered a kitchen that reeked of skunk. The place was a mess, and the footprints in the flour and spilled milk told the story clearly. The raccoon had returned, but this time, it had met up with another nocturnal visitor, a skunk.
They had not gotten along with each other, and the footprints told the tale of a monumental battle (in the image, skunk tracks are on the left, and raccoon tracks on the right).
Some years later, the camp found a baby raccoon orphaned in the woods, and my sister Phyllis took it in. During the time she was caring for it, I had the occasion to drive her, with the raccoon, from New York to Boston. We stopped in a service area on the way, where I briefly took the raccoon out on a leash.
I noted a family in a car looking at us, apparently fascinated by the raccoon, which was up on my shoulder. However, the look on their faces then changed to one of disgust. They hastily backed their car out of the parking spot, and drove off. Only then did I realize that the raccoon had defecated on my shirt. Fortunately, I had a suitcase full of clothing in the back of the car. I was able to rinse off in the men's room, pack the soiled shirt into a baggie, and change into a clean one. Phyllis couldn't keep the raccoon after it became an adult, and it was ultimately given to a farm in Connecticut.
Raccoons are notorious for their interactions with people. Back when NBC's Tonight Show was being hosted by Jay Leno, it had a popular segment called "Headlines", in which he showed various amusing newspaper clippings, sometimes headlines, or frequently advertisements.
He once showed the announcement on the right. It obviously purported to be an advertisement seeking to find the owner of an animal that the finder has interpreted as being a lost cat.
I confess I find this hard to believe, and I suspect that the ad was put in as a joke. It would be pretty hard to mistake a wild raccoon for a cat. Besides, healthy raccoons are nocturnal, and the photograph looks as if it was taken at night, with a flash.
Sears Optical has run a television advertisement also based on the theme of someone mistaking a raccoon for a cat. The ad depicts a woman, who presumably needs glasses, letting a raccoon into her house.
As the story with which I opened this blog entry illustrates, that's not a good idea. The ad implies that the woman would not have made this error had she only gone to Sears Optical and purchased a good pair of eyeglasses.
Click on the picture to the left to see the advertisement on YouTube. It will open in a separate window (or tab, depending on your browser), which you can close when you're done with it.
Raccoons are notorious for causing trouble. Although they don't have opposable thumbs, they're pretty dexterous with their hands. They're very good at opening up garbage cans, even ones which seem to be carefully sealed. They're quite smart. We see them around here now and again, usually crossing the road at night.