Encounters with “Next Nature”

Picture: DarkOne (CC)

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.



13 Comments on "Encounters with “Next Nature”"

  1. I have always had a respect for raccoons. When I was younger they would boldly climb up onto our back deck, and get into the garbage that we stored there. Our neighbor made live traps that we set to catch them. I encountered several of them close up, some as large as small dogs. Every once in awhile I would hear them fight in the nearby woods. It’s a frightening sound.

    • Ted Heistman | Dec 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm |

      They seem to have a lot of vocalizations. I don’t think these vocalizations have ever been studied in depth.

    • Matt Staggs | Dec 29, 2012 at 8:43 pm |

      They’re basically little Grizzly bears. While they tame okay if you get them as kittens, the adults are nothing nice. We’re all taught from an early age to leave them alone.

      • Calypso_1 | Dec 29, 2012 at 10:59 pm |

        They’re also pretty good BBQ. Especially when cooked up with a spade and iron grating by an old grave digger.

  2. swagkingcole | Dec 29, 2012 at 2:38 pm |

    I could swear this was written by my grandfather.

  3. I used a live trap to catch a coon in my barn. They have a deep growl that doesn’t seem like an animal that small should make. My dog–a medium-build black lab mix–is scared of them. But then again, she’s also scared of mice.

    • Ted Heistman | Dec 29, 2012 at 3:46 pm |

      Yeah they get pissy. You probably just caught the dumb ones. In Japan there was a craze of having pet raccoons because of a popular cartoon show. So thousands of raccoons were imported as pets. When they turned out to be difficult pets many were released into the “wild” (actually temples with ancient gardens) So then they began to wreak havoc, as invasive species are wont to do. A huge trapping campaign followed.

      Scientists now speculate that they are actually increasing the mean raccoon IQ in Japan, due to eliminating from the gene pool only the animals dumb enough to be trapped, allowing the more intelligent survivors to gain a reproductive advantage.

  4. Monkey See Monkey Do | Dec 30, 2012 at 2:40 am |

    As soon as we start to seriously consider the treatment of animals on their own merits rather than what they can do for us, the mass extinctions will slow down. Part of that solution is to begin re-engineering societies to make them more hospitable for various forms of non-threatening wildlife. (While still maintaining large sanctuaries for predatory beasts). The way I see it is many of the non-threatening wildlife have just as much right to be in urban areas as we do (obviously with populations regulated).

    • There are people working on that, architects, actually. I saw them on Next nature, I should post a story on them.

    • Matt Staggs | Dec 31, 2012 at 8:09 pm |

      Public green spaces would be wonderful for human beings, too.

      • Monkey See Monkey Do | Jan 1, 2013 at 3:22 am |

        Yes very true, poorer communities have virtually none. There’s a liquor store and fast food joint on just about every corner though.

  5. Bruteloop | Dec 30, 2012 at 6:07 am |

    Many, many years ago I was meditating naked at night in the grounds of a place I was staying in in Palm Springs (don’t ask). A raccoon scuttle on over and placed both forepaws on my legs and stayed, looking right at me. This went on for quite a while. Obviously I remained stock still, uncomfortably aware of its’ needle sharp teeth and their proximity to a treasured part of my anatomy. It sat awhile, looking up at me occasionally and then wandered off. Made my night.

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