The future belongs to raccoons

Climate change and human failures mean big things for the legendary troublemakers, says author Daniel Heath Justice
Photo: Moritz Kindler
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Raccoons — you either love them, or hate them.

I personally adore these mischievous creatures that have become a mainstay of city life, so much so that I have a large painting of one in my room. But there is also no shortage of aversion and violence towards them, including the raccoon stabbing self-documented by a Toronto Star columnist in 2019.

Dr. Daniel Heath Justice has noticed this polarization too.

The raccoon painting in the author's room — a great find at HomeSense.
Alex Nguyen

A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Justice is the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture at the University of British Columbia. He is also an animal cultural history scholar.

“There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground and that always really interests me,” he said. “What is it about these animals that provokes such strong responses?”

Justice set out to answer this question himself in Raccoon, the upcoming 100th volume of the Animal series from Reaktion Books, which has covered a wide range of creatures from bed bugs to bisons to beavers. This project was also spurred by his previous Reaktion book on badgers, which unearthed many intersections between the two furry animals.

Climate change is also making more areas accessible to raccoons. We’re actually probably on the cusp of a much bigger raccoon explosion than we have now.

“Badgers are all over the world, but raccoons are indigenous to the Americas,” he said.

“Because of my work in Indigenous Studies, I really wanted to focus on an animal that has its central significance here. But, of course, raccoons have been introduced all over the world so it also turned out to be a global study.”

With three months until his book’s release on June 14, Justice chatted with Ricochet about raccoons’ booming urban presence, their changing cultural representations and the lessons that we could glean from these critters.

Ricochet: What is one thing that stood out from your research on raccoons?

Daniel Heath Justice: There are more raccoons alive today than at any point in their evolutionary history. They’re actually doing quite well as a species as a result of human interaction, which is quite different from a lot of other animals who actually don’t do well because of human deforestation and the impacts of human activity.

Climate change is also making more areas accessible to raccoons. We’re actually probably on the cusp of a much bigger raccoon explosion than we have now.

I know raccoons are quite adaptive to city life, but I didn’t realize that they are actually thriving because of urbanization.

They seem to be developing much more intellectual flexibility and evolving to survive quite well in cities. It also helps that we’ve destroyed a lot of their predators. But there’s also that flip side: the more they depend on humans for food, the more they’re subject to pretty significant impacts if human food availability changes. And more processed food, more sugar-rich food also means they have the same kind of health problems that we do.

In lots of Indigenous traditions, raccoons are seen as trickster figures that are between the worlds.

There’s also a potential for risk, and distemper is the big disease. More concentrated populations means distemper can just blaze through a city population. It really just shuts down their systems from the inside. It is a pretty horrific disease, and it’ll kill them very quickly.

Raccoons currently have that “masked bandit” reputation. But how were they originally seen, especially with them being indigenous to North America?

In lots of Indigenous traditions, raccoons are seen as trickster figures that are between the worlds, so they are animals but they also have these features that are very human-like. They’ve had that reputation as tricksters and as troublemakers — not necessarily as bandits. That mask thing is more of a colonizer idea. But whether they were tricksters or whether they were these ceremonial figures that stood between worlds, they were always quite significant.

When Europeans started to encounter them, they didn’t quite know what to do with them. They didn’t know what kind of animals these were, so a lot of the early European writings that mentioned them always tried to place them with the familiar animals of Europe.

While raccoons are indigenous to North America, people have brought them to other parts of the world, including the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. With climate change, more parts of the Earth will become hospitable to them, and their populations are expected to expand.
Joshua J. Cotten

It wasn’t really until the 1800s that they started to take on a more distinctive American stereotype. They were unique to the Americas, so early American colonists took raccoons and skin caps as one of their symbols for down-to-earth Americanism. Over time, that started to become less of a significant symbol because the eagles and bears took over. Around the time leading up to the Civil War, they also started to be associated with African Americans and the racist idea of the “coon”. So by the end of the 19th century, they had gone from an honoured position to a really diminished and demeaned position under white supremacy.

By the 20th century, their population had been impacted by trapping and selling of fur. Then because of the expansion of industrial agriculture and increased urbanization, the raccoon population started to grow again. But they are still seen as bandits or robbers or rogues — something obnoxious and almost intentionally destructive, as opposed to the really honoured boundary breachers that they were.

Do you see a similar shift in Indigenous cultures?

No. In our traditions, raccoons still hold whatever position they did before. Some nations really have a strong regard for them and some are a little bit more suspicious. Generally, we haven’t adopted widespread condemnation of raccoons in ways that the general public often has. I haven’t seen in any written research or any conversations with other Indigenous folks a sense that raccoons have become anything less than who they were for us before.

Back to the negative view that the general public has about raccoons, I have also seen not just a dislike but also violence towards them. What are your thoughts on this?

Any time an animal is seen as vermin, you can just destroy it without feeling any particular guilt or shame around that — and unfortunately, raccoons are often seen as vermin just from doing the things they are evolutionarily inclined to do. They are adaptive omnivores. They’re one of the few animals that is neophilic, which means they’re drawn to novelty, and they pay a price for that curiosity. Their determination to be in the places that we’ve claimed as our own is something that should be admired rather than admonished.

Right, especially since we have continuously expanded into wildlife territories.

Exactly. The fact that they have adapted is a real testament to them, but they have had to adapt because we have taken their territories and because we have persecuted predator species that would have kept their populations in check. It’s our fault, but it’s easier to blame them than to take responsibility and change our behaviours.

It’s a pretty amazing success story, when you think about all the animals whose populations have really suffered catastrophic decline because of us. Raccoons have found ways to not just survive us, but use us to survive even better.

With that in mind, how can humans and raccoons coexist?

I don’t give specific guidance on that, but I do argue not just for more tolerance, but more admiration for them and more thoughtful engagements with nature because they are part of a larger ecology. As we move further and further into wildlife territories, we cannot blame the animals for looking to our world for sustenance because we’re making it harder for them to find it on their own.

So it’s also capturing a larger conversation about how to live with nature itself.

It’s a pretty amazing success story, when you think about all the animals whose populations have really suffered catastrophic decline because of us. Raccoons have found ways to not just survive us, but use us to survive even better. That’s pretty remarkable. They’re adapting to this ever wildly changing world — maybe there’s something we can learn from them about how we might also adapt.

What do you learn from them?

There’s so much to find admirable there. But one of the things is that neophilia. Being able to imagine ways to continue on through creativity, through humility, through better relationships, that’s a really important lesson that a lot of us can learn from.

As Indigenous people, we hold onto traditions but we also adapt as we need to so we can carry those traditions into the future. There’s something I find really powerful in the capacity of raccoons to do that and it’s no secret we’ve always recognized these animals as profound and powerful beings. Those lessons we’ve known for a long time — maybe it’s time for other people to learn some of those lessons too.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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