Walking home from the coffee shop after I posted the article about “Next Nature”, I encountered a small animal that suddenly became huge and threatening. That is, it seemed small and harmless at first when I thought it was a friendly dog, but when I realized it was a large raccoon it suddenly seemed huge and scary. It approached me very boldly, but it was not interested in me but in a point just behind me; a gap in the fence which gave it access to some dumpsters near a bus station.
My fear became curiosity in a fraction of a second: “Cool, an urban raccoon!” I thought. I noticed it had a stumpy tail; most of it had probably been lost in a fight or some type of accident. It was clearly a survivor. The stumpy tail made it appear even bigger and more bear-like as it shuffled off to the dumpster. It paused to look at me as it passed, and I noticed a glint of intelligence in its eyes.
I realized that I was encountering not only this raccoon but a record of all the humans this raccoon had ever encountered. This manifested in his behavior; his brazenness. He was obviously used to being given a wide berth. Rural raccoon are used to to encountering human beings who may be armed. They behave differently. In my experience, city people tend to be more sentimental, and also more cautious, when encountering wildlife.
Encountering an urban raccoon is different from seeing other urban animals such as pigeons or squirrels, though. It is more arresting; akin to seeing a rat. It is probably because raccoons are known to carry rabies and other diseases. There is also something arresting about their very intelligence. I remember encountering seven raccoons on the streets of Seattle one evening under an overpass painted with graffiti. It appeared to be a mother and her six rather mature children. They moved through the streets with the demeanor of an urban gang, moving as a unit and intimidating the human passers-by; dominating their surroundings.
Unlike other wild animals, raccoons don’t seem to have a particularly graceful way of moving. I once spotted a large raccoon on the roof of an abandoned house. He was making his way towards a large hole under the eaves. As he approached the eaves, he hung onto the gutter with both hands and felt for the hole with a probing foot. He looked like a fat human up there, climbing around awkwardly. His movements were not unconscious and automatic, but probing, tentative. This gave me the disturbing sensation of witnessing a break-in, rather than simply an animal on a roof.
I watched this big stumpy-tailed male with admiration and respect as he made his way across the parking lot of the bus depot. I find I suffer from “compassion fatigue” at times when watching Animal Planet’s stories of endangered species, like pandas that refuse to reproduce, or animals that flee from humans into a continually shrinking habitat until they have no place left to go. It’s the same sad story over and over again, and it leaves me feeling helpless.
Raccoons like this one seem to be taking an offensive, rather than defensive, posture towards encroaching civilization: They move into cities on their own terms, eking out a niche and making it theirs. Defying cars, exterminators, and other enemies,the urban raccoons are here to stay.