Once, in Hong Kong, I ducked away from the urban scrum for a stroll through the leafy little downtown zoo. As I marveled at surreal pangolins and statuesque Siberian cranes, I saw the locals crowding up before an exhibit they considered exotic. They pointed, chattered, and mugged in delight at the bandit masks, striped tails, and mendicant antics of the critters inside. You guessed it. The sign said “American Raccoon,” as if there were any other kind.
Charisma doesn’t go so far in your native land, at least not if you’re as ubiquitous and resourceful an urban forager as ahrah-koon-em, to use the raccoon’s original proto-Algonquin name (can’t get more American than that.) Everyone with a yard in Seattle seems to be fretting over whether raccoons will nab the family cat or leave potentially (though very rarely) fatal roundworm-infested stools in the garden. Or they’re smarting over some particularly brazen bit of raccoon banditry — a cat door breached, a kitchen raided, a chimney descended, a supposedly impregnable garbage can popped like a picked safe. Once I left the basement door open and found a tidy scat pile, purple with berry pulp, beside the washing machine. A neighbor who keeps chickens in backyard coop worries whether it will withstand a raccoon attack.
“Problem” raccoons regularly top the list of complaint calls to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which will not remove them for you. Garden forums and neighborhood blogs buzz over whether and how to do that. Answer, almost always: Don’t bother. If you don’t batten down the attic or bring in the pet dish, others will just waddle in to take their place. But if you insist on removing them, be ready to see the job through. Raccoons are an unprotected species, and state law forbids relocating them, so even if you trap them live, you’re supposed to kill them. When exterminators advertise “humane raccoon removal,” that’s what they mean.
My friend Glen Sims surely felt tempted after raccoons got in his pond. He’d stretched bird netting to keep the herons off some pricey koi he was fish-sitting. The raccoons, annoyed perhaps at having to tear through all that netting, meticulously caught, gutted, and nibbled at every single koi, though one or two would have made a meal.
One morning, Jackie Roberts, the proprietor of the Pink Door restaurant, saw the new sod on her yard rolled up like sardine-tin lids. She blamed voles, and even set out traps for them. But voles can't do such heavy lifting. Raccoons could probably roll drunks if they wanted to; state wildlife biologist Russell Link says they certainly can roll sod, to get at the tasty worms underneath.
Evidently they teach that trick in raccoon school. Years later I found the newly laid sod in our block’s unpaved alley likewise rolled up. Forewarned, I weighted it down with a lattice of scrap pipe. The raccoons tugged at the pipe for a few nights, then moved on to easier pickings. I felt as though I’d outsmarted a used-car or a three-card-monte dealer. Who you calling soft touch?
But then, one recent sunny morning, I looked up over the keyboard on which I’m typing this and saw something shaking in the pie-cherry tree in back. A patch of gray — a squirrel? A cat? And then, a striped tail and black mask. Another branch shook, and another. I stepped into the yard for a closer look. Four fat half-grown raccoon cubs (“kits” may be the more accepted term, but they resemble bears more than foxes) were feasting on the fruit.
Raccoons may waste koi, but they treat sour cherries with respect. Unlike birds, who leave trees full of half-pecked fruit, the four worked with industrial thoroughness, even while hanging upside down. They grasped the boughs, never breaking a twig, picked off each fruit, and chewed it down to a polished seed. For us it’s all about aesthetics: A raccoon in a cherry tree is adorable (especially if no one ever goes under the tree, so roundworm’s not a worry), but a raccoon in a dumpster is just a big rat. For the raccoon it’s a meal, either way.
They had nearly cleaned out a swath at the middle of the tree; one trundled down to the lower boughs. Hey, that’s where I pick cherries! I stepped up closer, waved in the universal “Get back up there” gesture, and barked at the cub to do just that: “There’s plenty for you on top.” The cherry thief stopped, stared, unhurriedly climbed back up, and resumed chowing on the cherries beyond my reach. I have known dogs — never mind cats — who did not take direction so well.
The foursome came back twice and cleaned out the top of the tree. On their fourth visit they hit the bottom fruit, which was by now fermenting. I didn’t begrudge them their cherry cordial party. They’d waited their turn.
Who says we can’t all get along?