City Raccoons: Smarter than their rural counterparts.
October 10, 2014 6:45 AM   Subscribe

Jude Isabella has written a fascinating piece on the intelligence of city raccoons:
City raccoons also appear smarter than their rural counterparts. Suzanne MacDonald, a comparative psychologist who studies raccoon behavior at York University in Toronto, has compared the problem-solving skills of rural and city raccoons. The result? Urbanites trump their country cousins in both intelligence and ability. For the past few summers, she videotaped rural and urban racoons toying with containers baited with cat food. While both rural and city racoons readily approached familiar containers, they dealt differently with unfamiliar ones. Where rural raccoons took a long time to approach novel containers, city raccoons would attack them the moment she turned her back.
posted by steinwald (62 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
That may be so, but I think the rural raccoons are in better shape.

I've actually seen a raccoon in Toronto stop halfway up a tree because it was out of breath.



The urban raccoons are both smarter and in better shape than the mayor, though.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:49 AM on October 10, 2014 [32 favorites]


THESE RACCOONS RULE AND I LOVE THEM

THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS
posted by Greg Nog at 6:54 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


O HAI
posted by lalochezia at 6:55 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


Once again proving that city slickers are better than county bumpkins!

Does anyone else wonder if we should be more worried about "planet of the raccoons" than "planet of the apes"?
posted by greenhornet at 6:57 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm more concerned about a confederation of Raccoons, Otters, and terrestrial Octopodes seizing control of our vital seafood resources.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:59 AM on October 10, 2014 [7 favorites]


> "Does anyone else wonder if we should be more worried about 'planet of the raccoons' than 'planet of the apes'?"

This is pretty much the concept that inspired the sadly never-finished series that began with The Architect of Sleep.
posted by kyrademon at 7:06 AM on October 10, 2014


city raccoons are much smarter, it's true
it's cause there are so many smart things to do!
museums, libraries, to name but a few,
just look at a list of the raccoon's Who's Who!
raccoon cognoscenti and raccoon trendsetters,
those rural raccoons step aside for their betters!
but one fact remains, and there isn't a doubt
with rents going up, most raccoons are priced out
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:06 AM on October 10, 2014 [46 favorites]


Presumably the best latch would be some kind of dual clip situation where both need to be pressed simultaneously, and are far enough apart that little raccoon arms (or an arm and a leg) can't reach both at once, no? Plus that has the added terrifying entertainment value of teaching them teamwork.
posted by poffin boffin at 7:11 AM on October 10, 2014 [9 favorites]


I mention this in every terrifying animal intelligence thread, but the coyotes who live in downtown Chicago have learned to cross with the light to avoid being hit by cars.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:19 AM on October 10, 2014 [29 favorites]


Brought this recent JSTOR Daily article to mind:

Researchers are now asking whether individual predators that are particularly intrepid in cities—such as this Queens coyote, Chicago’s number 748, or the Bronx fisher—are genetically predisposed to such behavior. These animals could pass their adventurous personalities to their offspring, and so on, presumably inclining future generations to push the urban envelope further. Gehrt initiated a DNA study this year that will compare genetic markers of Chicago coyotes to those identified in the domestic dog genome that correlate with boldness, inquisitiveness, and other personality traits. “We know that certain alpha pairs have been more successful than others in terms of raising litters that become successful themselves,” says Gehrt. “If it’s genetic, then we are inadvertently selecting for a certain kind of coyote.”
posted by ryanshepard at 7:20 AM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


I've actually seen a raccoon in Toronto stop halfway up a tree because it was out of breath.

Yeah, the Seattle raccoons have the same problem. I startled one while jogging one morning, and it heaved itself about six inches up a tree trunk and gave me a tired "ugh, just please don't come any closer" look as it wheezed.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:21 AM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]


Puffin Baffin - with a cheap dual clip setup, if the clips are far enough apart that the raccoon can't depress both, they're far enough apart that depressing one will let the raccoon force through the gap. Or unlatch one and keep enough outward pressure to keep it unlatched while moving to #2.
posted by wotsac at 7:24 AM on October 10, 2014


I live in a rural area and I'm actually a little worried that urban raccoons may be skewing expectations by outperforming a large fraction of our children on statewide standardized tests.
posted by Wolfdog at 7:30 AM on October 10, 2014 [32 favorites]


There is an awesome Nature documentary about this called Raccoon Nation that you can watch online here! It is really fantastic!

In fact, one of the researchers they highlight is Stan Gehrt of the Chicago Coyotes study - he's a professor at the School of Environment and Natural Resources here at Ohio State, and runs the Terrestrial Wildlife Ecology lab where they have a BUNCH of really cool research going on, including the coyotes and raccoons.

The documentary also highlights Japan's serious invasive raccoon problem. Apparently in the 1970s there was a massively popular anime version of Sterling North's book Rascal, and a lot of people decided they wanted to raise baby raccoons and then realized that raccoons are terrible, terrible pets so they let them free in the woods where they've become a nuisance. There's an interview in the documentary with a very sweet looking older Japanese woman who is a biologist working on minimizing their effects, and she says, "Unfortunately, it is my job to kill as many raccoons as possible." Which is, indeed, unfortunate.

Sadly, I don't have a picture of Sewer Raccoon, a local guy who likes to hang out in storm drains and stare at you with his beady little reflective eyes as you pass. So instead, here's Dumpster Raccoon. <3
posted by ChuraChura at 7:36 AM on October 10, 2014 [13 favorites]


Have I missed something, or does that article make no attempt to control for habituation versus raw intelligence?
posted by The Confessor at 7:39 AM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


Can't help but be reminded of Bruce Sterling's short story Our Neural Chernobyl. Once they develop opposable thumbs we're all doomed.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 7:44 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


Sadly, I don't have a picture of Sewer Raccoon, a local guy who likes to hang out in storm drains and stare at you with his beady little reflective eyes as you pass.


You mean, like this guy?


#frombeneathyouitdevours #weallfloatdownhere
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:47 AM on October 10, 2014 [7 favorites]


they're far enough apart that depressing one will let the raccoon force through the gap

HAHA oh god, so the homeowner comes out to throw away the trash and has a bin full of stuck angry raccoon.
posted by poffin boffin at 7:49 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


Have I missed something, or does that article make no attempt to control for habituation versus raw intelligence?

The rural vs. urban study was done with a container unfamiliar to both rural and urban raccoons. Neither was habituated to it. I wonder though if the rural raccoons didn't just leave because they could go eat something else that is less work. City racoons know it's pretty much garbage or nothing, so they have no choice but to keep working on opening containers.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:55 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


I think part of the reason country raccoons might approach new containers more cautiously is that people in rural areas will often shoot or trap nuisance raccoons.

Also, why does spell check not recognize "raccoons"? Is the plural raccooni or something?
posted by geegollygosh at 8:03 AM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


The plural of racoon is gaze.

They're here, they're racoons, get used to it.
posted by maxsparber at 8:14 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


So... being less cautious equals being more intelligent? I'm not sure I agree with that one.
posted by freakazoid at 8:24 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


The plural of racoon is gaze.

Gaze is the collective noun for the species - racoons is the plural.
posted by fairmettle at 8:28 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


> So... being less cautious equals being more intelligent? I'm not sure I agree with that one.

My neighborhood is jamfull of very small houses, and it is also jamfull of whitetail deer. There are still enough small (lot-sized) patches of woods so that a group of three to five whitetail can have a bit of privacy when they bed down, but I'm told they are just fine in other neighborhoods sleeping in the alley behind the garage if there are no undeveloped lots left.

They are extremely well adapted to this sort of environment and are virtually fearless since there are no threats except accidentally getting hit by a car. Nobody can shoot at them, dogs must be restrained per the law and can't chase them, none of the smaller predators (e.g. cats, but also hawks and owls, of which we have many) is big enough to take on a deer.

I doubt whitetails are actually getting smarter just because of where some of them now live, but "doing a good job living in the environment most familiar to me" can certainly look like smarts.
posted by jfuller at 8:29 AM on October 10, 2014


By habituation, I refer in part to habituation to novelty in itself.

One has to be careful not to anthropomorphize when referring to the "thought processes" of animals, such as they are, but given the varying ways we already store our garbage it does not surprise me that raccoons with varying levels of habituation to consuming trash would display varying levels of comfort with a novel container.

To draw an analogy, I don't care if a busker is demonstrating cold fusion near the steps of Faneuil Hall; I'm still not going to stick around long enough for them to pass the hat.
posted by The Confessor at 8:29 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


They're here, they're racoons, get used to it.

Not if a certain fashion returns.
posted by sammyo at 8:31 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


the coyotes who live in downtown Chicago have learned to cross with the light to avoid being hit by cars.

Yes, but have they learned to press the button to get the pedestrian signals?
posted by jeather at 8:31 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Isn't this just saying urban raccoons are better at urban raccoon skills? Would the "smarter" urban raccoons be better at finding food in a rural area? This is like saying a hunter gatherer isn't as smart as a city person.
posted by Bee'sWing at 8:32 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


City racoons know it's pretty much garbage or nothing, so they have no choice but to keep working on opening containers.

I was awoken at 4 AM back in early Sept. by a family of raccoons noisily climbing around in the apple trees in the back yard of our city rowhouse. I've also seen them in fig and cherry trees in the neighborhood late at night. They're pretty resourceful.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:34 AM on October 10, 2014


Another wondering why a professional racoon scientist doesn't seem to consider that the best course of action - the most intelligent response - depends on your situation.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:34 AM on October 10, 2014


A fun article about urban coyotes is available:
Try to picture an urban future where truly everyone wants into the city: aging baby boomers, exurbanites, Millennials, wolves.
(I would read a novel with this premise.)
posted by jeather at 8:35 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


Another wondering why a professional racoon scientist doesn't seem to consider that the best course of action - the most intelligent response - depends on your situation.

Maybe she's a country racoon scientist?
posted by yoink at 8:45 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


this is just to say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the garbage

and which
you futilely tried
to keep
from my grasp.

Forgive me
I'm too smart
so persistent
and evolving.
posted by drlith at 8:50 AM on October 10, 2014 [29 favorites]


Yeah, I think habituation to novelty is a big part of this. When I lived out in the country, I almost never had any sort of wildlife approach my house, except possums. Raccoons and even squirrels were too wild, too afraid of people, I guess. Here in DC, though, I've had raccoons come in via my cat door, and squirrels give me that "come at me, bro" look.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:01 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I think habituation to novelty is a big part of this.

Gregory Bateson's concept of "deutero-learning" seems a useful one here.
posted by yoink at 9:06 AM on October 10, 2014


Have I missed something, or does that article make no attempt to control for habituation versus raw intelligence?

It seemed to me that the article was concerned only with the 'intelligence' of their behavior, not with any quality of the animals themselves. And frankly since they're basing "intelligent" off a skill that is far more important in cities it seems a little one sided.

Let's do another test and declare "intelligence" as the ability to avoid and escape a large predator population; we'll see how the brave and bold habit of striding into the middle of open spaces works out.

(Urban or rural the most frightening in that video is in the first few seconds when the raccoon tipping over the bin reveals his hardcore ninja training with a smooth back roll when it comes down.)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:29 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


the coyotes who live in downtown Chicago have learned to cross with the light to avoid being hit by cars.

What else would you expect from a Sooooper Geeenius?
posted by briank at 10:09 AM on October 10, 2014


Racoons can also be quite vicious. They will rip to shreds a dozen chickens in a coop just for sport.
posted by JackFlash at 10:21 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


They're also loud. I once sprinted out of my house, fumbling to get my phone out of my pocket to call the cops. I was responding to the cries of what I thought could only be a woman in severe distress. Turns out it was two juvenile raccoons fighting over my garbage.

When they noticed me, they immediately stopped and adopted an "everything's cool" posture. They scooted away from the bins as I approached, but they also made it clear that they were headed right back as soon as I left.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:30 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


Some years ago we had friends that lived in a "sporty" part of San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. When we visited we would park in the lot behind their building and leave their apartment window open so we could keep an ear cocked for the sounds of cars being vandalized, etc. One night while visiting we heard a loud commotion in the lot -- metal clanging, car alarms, dogs barking -- and rushed to the window expecting to find some standard form of Tenderloin mayhem. Instead, we saw the biggest fucking raccoon we'd ever seen, probably the size of a medium-sized dog. Even from this distance, you could tell by the way it scavenged dumpsters and strode through that parking lot that it owned the night, and was the very essence of Not Giving a Fuck. I don't know if it was any more clever than its country cousins, but it was a fuck-ton more menacing. Respect earned, respect given.
posted by mosk at 10:35 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


Country racooni* are mangy chicken-slaughtering buggers, but city racooni are royal mean SOBs that would soon gnaw off your leg as back away from the garbage can.

I've actually seen a raccoon in Toronto stop halfway up a tree because it was out of breath.

Yes, because the miserable vermin are absolutely obese from inhabiting restaurant dumpsters.

*forever will I use the plural racooni! Geegollygosh, that is the best plural evar.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:39 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


i like how anarchists in montreal have used the racoon as their mascot
posted by PinkMoose at 11:28 AM on October 10, 2014


From the toast: Meet Your Neighbor: The Raccoon!
posted by ChuraChura at 11:37 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


Bee'sWing: Isn't this just saying urban raccoons are better at urban raccoon skills? Would the "smarter" urban raccoons be better at finding food in a rural area? This is like saying a hunter gatherer isn't as smart as a city person.
Yes. And?
posted by IAmBroom at 11:40 AM on October 10, 2014


My favorite related quote is from a US Park Ranger, on the difficulties of building bear-proof garbage cans: "It turns out there is significant overlap in the IQs of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists."

(Also, somewhere out there there's a news story that quotes a ranger as saying, "These country moose can't hold their liquor", in-perfectly-reasonable-context.)
posted by IAmBroom at 11:43 AM on October 10, 2014 [14 favorites]


While working in a state park campground a number of years ago, I came to work one day to a notice on the campground entrance that said, "WARNING! Raccoon is not rabid. He just likes Doritos."

Eventually, after the ranger stopped laughing at my face, he explained that one of the campground raccooni had developed a love of Doritos and would rush into any campsite that had them and promptly steal the bag. In fact, DoritoBandit was so fond of the chip that he would even take them out of human hands with or without permission. Which justifiably freaked people out and made them think they were being attacked. He never scratched or bit, he just ran up to people and took their Doritos.

DB eventually learned the difference in the sound chip bags made and the smell, so he would no longer appear for a bag of Fritos or random generic chips. Only for the Doritos, although he seemed to not care for Cool Ranch. We made a point of warning anyone who camped there to eat Doritos with caution and if possible not out in the open. Most would just laugh and then be surprised when the little monster showed up and snatched their chip.

The next summer he didn't return. I can only assume he suffered a massive coronary from all the freaking Doritos he ate. Either that or he moved to the big city to work in publishing and buy his own Doritos.
posted by teleri025 at 11:55 AM on October 10, 2014 [16 favorites]


My last apartment was in Midtown Atlanta, and I had raccoons. There were also feral cats I was trying to trap-neuter-return and/or socialize. The raccoons would come right up on my porch and eat the cats' food. They were my favorite thing about that building.

Has anyone done a study on urban possums?
posted by Violet Hour at 11:58 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


In my horrifying experience, raccoons prefer cat food to rooting around for human food. Squirrels, however, like Ferrero Rochers best.
posted by jeather at 12:21 PM on October 10, 2014


From the Greek: raccooi
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:23 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I heard space raccoons use rockets.
posted by Pendragon at 12:46 PM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


You can tell it was a raccoon that got your cat food instead of a possum or other critter by checking the water bowl--raccoons will leave the water dish filthy.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:51 PM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


jfuller, there's a pretty good Nature special on whitetail deer, and the tidbit I remember was the mother deer teaching the fauns how to cross the road safely. It was pretty astounding. (Also, fun fact: deer are the most dangerous wild animal for people in the US, purely because of car crashes.)
posted by epersonae at 12:57 PM on October 10, 2014


I've actually seen a raccoon in Toronto stop halfway up a tree because it was out of breath.

Reminds me of RJ from Over The Hedge.

Between the raccoons, corvids and cephalopods humankind is doomed. And that assumes they don't somehow join forces. If that happens, we're double dog doomed.
posted by tommasz at 1:08 PM on October 10, 2014


I'm not sure building better and better raccoon-proof bins is very indicative of our intelligence. Pretty soon we'll include electronic keyfob-activated locks on the suckers, and the next thing you know the neighborhood raccooni are joyriding in my car.
posted by axiom at 1:52 PM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


*forever will I use the plural racooni! Geegollygosh, that is the best plural evar.

Personally, I'm partial to Racoonii because I have always loved that particular latinate plural.

Yes, I know. The singular is not Racoonius. But it should be.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:54 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Stan Gehrt of the Chicago Coyotes study

I know of this guy! Either I've written to him, or I meant to.

This study also confirms my hunch that city crows are smarter, as I read in an article which I'm still seeking that mentioned that formerly rural country crows who moved to the city never leave their new, more intellectually stimulating city lifestyles. Smart animals need to be mentally engaged. I wouldn't be at all be surprised if someone calls it unfair or cruel to trap and relocate city raccoons to the country. I might be one of the first to do so.

I love 'em, even though they kept me awake with their nest in my attic in the GTA. I always respect cleverness, curiosity, and the sheer determination to survive. No wonder I also love urban coyotes.
posted by quiet earth at 3:19 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


They're smart because they're street smart.
posted by bendy at 3:25 PM on October 10, 2014


City racoons know it's pretty much garbage or nothing, so they have no choice but to keep working on opening containers.

Actually, an enterprising raccoon can just get a job.
posted by homunculus at 4:01 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


We don't have racoons here yet, although apparently they're moving north as the climate becomes slightly warmer. I've heard they're entertaining.
posted by sneebler at 5:46 PM on October 10, 2014


Huh. I always thought the plural of 'raccoon' was 'toilet bears'.
posted by still bill at 6:13 AM on October 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Toronto raccoons are terrifying.
posted by SassHat at 2:25 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I love the adaptation of wildlife to human cities. I've noticed the uptick of animals invading the cities in my lifetime. I'm sure it's in large part due to a move away from the "murder all animals!" approach of the past to view it as kind of a gross attitude. Growing up, it wasn't uncommon for people in my neighborhood to just kill every and any animal that was perceived as inconvenient, from chipmunks to groundhogs to raccoons. Neighborhood hunting parties would gather over particularly problematic beasties. Usually involving some drinking to pass the time, of course. Usually it was just an excuse for bored urbanites to play hunter.

That was the late 70s, early 80s. I can't imagine a bunch of city folks being allowed to just murder small animals just because. And while there might be some trapping and relocation, most wildlife rescues and agencies now advise against even that, as you only create a vacuum that a new animal will fill. Fix the attractive feature instead, be it a food source or living space. And so for the past 2-3 decades, we've said it's ok for wildlife to come back. I just hope we continue to learn how to coexist.

It also makes me wonder how city raccoons are doing in terms of self domestication. Will raccoons replace dog as mans best friend? They've got hands, which has got to be much more suitable to 21st century lifestyles.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 2:42 PM on October 15, 2014


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