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29 january 2022

We have arrived at a modus vivendi with our local raccoon population for quite a few years now. We don't heckle or harm them, and they sort of stay out of our house (which is open to the world via cat doors). For a while they'd come in and help themselves to cat kibble, or pecans: you'd see a pile of shells on the floor in the morning and wonder if you'd had a sleepwalk snack, then realize it was a raccoon. Once a raccoon came inside, grabbed a mesh bag full of pecans, slung it over his back, and carried it out into the yard, where he carefully shelled the nuts and ate them.

You'd think that cats and raccoons would be enemies, but both (in our house anyway) seem highly attuned to members of their own species, and to humans, but not to care about each other. Somewhere I have a photo of a couple of raccoons eating from cat dishes while three cats stand happily by watching them.

We gave the raccoons names: Stuart, Sheldon, Hugo, Herschel. One abandoned pair of kits we named Claudio and Claudia, and there's a video of them playing in a bird bath as if it were a kiddie pool. Eventually, though, we trapped all the named raccoons and deported them to a park on the other side of an Interstate. Here is Herschel, looking forlorn as he gets ready to depart.

As Daniel Heath Justice notes in his excellent Raccoon, for the Reaktion Animal series, raccoons do not make good pets, even though kit raccoons seem very tractable and affectionate. So while we've never had a problem raccoon, we have never been tempted to make closer friends than respectful distance would allow. Populations around here have dwindled of late (maybe an outbreak of distemper? though they will surely grow again), and for now a tray of human urine set outside the cat door at night seems to keep them out of the house proper. And is a lot of fun to prepare.

Raccoons are North American beasts, though in recent decades their adaptability to human habitats and their propensity to sneak into cargo and out of captivity has widened their range around the temperate, urbanized world. Justice groups raccoons with crows and coyotes as species that have become less endangered as human encroachment on their old habitats has increased. Raccoons were at a parlous point a century ago, when collegiate fads led to their slaughter for full-length coats. Free from exploitation now, raccoons have become free to exploit our garbage cans, compost piles, and catfood bowls.

Coon hunting was long a subsistence practice associated with backwoods folk and then, increasingly in the U.S., with African-Americans, leading to the racist-slur link between raccoons and black people worldwide. Justice's chapter on the slur is interestingly framed. Though he pulls no punches in describing racist imagery, he does not include any, illustrating his discussion instead with political cartoons that display white politicians as "coons" or as besters of "coons" in the hunt, in non-racialized contexts. The overtly racist imagery can be Googled but it seems best left unprinted anymore. I'm not sure about this practice, but I agree it's a fine line. One does not want to paper over the past, but one does not want to parade it in edgelordy fashion in a book that is meant to entertain and inform.

Raccoons in literature seem most prominent in Wilson Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows (1961) and Sterling North's Rascal (1963). Rocket Raccoon in the Marvel films is the current most-identifiable pop-culture raccoon. Rocket has a good name and is a strong character, but it strikes me that he might as well be a badger or a weasel or a big lizard for all that's specific about him.

Raccoons don't feature much in song or poetry. The Beatles' Rocky Raccoon is just a name. Justice prints a few lines from a raccoon poem by A.R. Ammons that is kind of off-the-shelf, one of Ammons' endless supply of things that happened in his back yard. Raccoons, more than a lot of species, are animals that one still meets more in real life than in fiction or verse, and more all the time, it seems. At least in North America; Toronto is now apparently the raccoon capital of the world in terms of population density, and the city seems to have adapted itself to its procyonid overlords by adopting them as mascots and emblems. If you can't defeat raccoons, you should move quickly to appreciating them.

Justice, Daniel Heath. Raccoon. London: Reaktion, 2021.