It’s Not About the Raccoon

There’s an irony to all the love for Minnesota’s famous furry climber.

A raccoon climbs the side of a building
Social Media / Reuters

As an inveterate raccoon junky, I ought to have been more excited about #MPRraccoon, the desperate, courageous youngster whose dramatic 25-story climb up a St. Paul, Minnesota, skyscraper transfixed the internet earlier this week.

After all, one of my all-time favorite books is Rascal, Sterling North’s 1963 tale of his bandit-masked boyhood companion. I can riff about raccoons in indigenous mythologies—their nimble-fingered intelligence, and also their uncanny ability to sense when fruits are ripe, inspired many tales—and the strange history by which they nearly became model organisms in cognition. I bookmark stories about raccoons appearing to mourn friends and teaching their kids to climb. Seeing one is invariably a treat.

Yet #MPRraccoon left me with mixed feelings. Not the climb itself, with window-ledge pauses affording millions of people a glimpse into her eyes, followed by her safe release in a leafy nearby suburb. Nor did I mind that the virality at times obscured the raccoon herself, with people playfully superimposing narratives—George Mallory’s because-it’s-there climb up Mount Everest, the perseverance of Western democracy—that had little to do with her actual experience. That’s just human nature, or at least an inevitability of meme culture, and those were only minor voices in a chorus of genuine concern. The internet’s relief at her rescue could have warmed a snowman’s heart.

Rather, I kept thinking about another story that made the news recently, of two raccoons, and also a possum, drowned by a Florida high-school teacher in front of his agriculture class. Their crime: eating food that didn’t belong to them. A student captured the drowning on video, and the sight of a caged raccoon paralyzed with fright being lowered into a water-filled garbage bin rippled through animal-welfare circles and caused some public dismay. The teacher ended up resigning, but was not charged with violating animal-cruelty laws. Some animal advocates have pushed for charges to be filed, arguing that the raccoons were not killed humanely—but what, really, would be the point?

Humane deaths are still deaths, and the fact remains that people routinely take the lives of raccoons for frivolous, entirely legal reasons: in retribution for causing minor inconveniences, or for the value of their skin, or simply for fun. As the conservationist David Steen pointed out after #MPRraccoon’s saga, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency killed more than 10,000 farmer-bothering raccoons last year. That’s likely but a small fraction of the number killed by municipalities and private pest-controllers and hunters, who don’t need to keep stats.

Certainly, those deaths don’t completely capture North America’s relationship to raccoons. Anyone suffering from #MPRraccoon withdrawal ought to spend some time in The Dodo’s archive of raccoon rescues and inter-species friendships. For every act of cruelty there’s an act of care—and in that respect, raccoons are a perfect symbol of our culture’s inconsistency toward animals. We’re capable of extraordinary compassion and also extraordinary callousness.

“That is why stories like this are so valuable,” said Tracy Timmins, a York University human-animal studies scholar who specializes in urban wildlife, when I asked her about #MPRraccoon. “They inspire people’s natural empathy for animals as individuals. They provide an opportunity to have conversations about how contradictory our feelings, beliefs, and actions are.”

That raccoon didn’t just scale a skyscraper. She climbed over the wall that divides the animals we care about from those we don’t. Barbara King, the author of Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat, hopes the episode will encourage people to “really look at other animals living their own stories who are in peril”: cetaceans swimming in plastic-choked seas, monkeys used in medical research, farmed animals separated from their families. “If only that raccoon would help sharpen our vision,” says King, “to see the intelligent lives all around us.”

As someone whose heart falls all too frequently when passing a raccoon motionless by a roadside, I hope people will at least see raccoons more clearly. In America, they’re among the few species who’ve become less popular during the last several decades; it’s as if people blame them for thriving alongside us. Perhaps these latest episodes will help people be more appreciative and tolerant, to recognize raccoons—even if they’re trying to open a trash can or sneak into an attic—as individuals making their way in the world.

And there’s much people can do to make that world more hospitable. If everyone who cared about #MPRraccoon, say, wanted no-kill pest control regulations in their community, or opposed trapping raccoons for fur or killing them for fun, or urged autonomous-vehicle designers to include small animals in collision-detection systems, life would be better for millions of raccoons—not just one who happened to go viral.