Rise of the raccoons

By Dannie Piezas, Urban Wildlife Coordinator

When I first began working with SPES in 2016, one of my favourite things was the near-weekly visits of the Stanley Park Pavilion raccoon family—a mother and two kits. They would come up to my window, sometimes sitting flush against the glass to be protected from the rain, often grooming one another, frequently pooping on the roof slats, and (behind the safety of grimy panes) occasionally acknowledging us who cooed at them shamelessly.

In the winter of 2017-2018, the Pavilion underwent renovations which included removing raccoon access points to the rooftop, which meant we didn’t see them up there for a time. However, earlier this spring… well, see for yourselves!

Due to our successes with the Co-existing with Coyotes program, SPES often receives phone calls about troublesome raccoons that get comfy in people’s properties, causing damage and concern for children’s or pets’ safety. It isn’t only Metro Vancouver that is scratching its head over rascally raccoons, however. Toronto is frequently cited as the world’s raccoon capital, often with footnotes on their local population’s obesity or their alarming ability to outsmart new green bin engineering! They have comfortably settled across the Americas: from Panama up to all of Canada’s southern provinces (and have even been introduced to Japan, Germany and Russia!), and adapted to a wide variety of habitat types, including mountainous highlands, coastal marshes, and—of course—the city. Let’s see why these bandit-like mammals have become such a success and a nuisance to some.

  1. Intelligence & adaptability
  • Anyone can admit that raccoons are a crafty bunch—but not many realise just how intelligent they can be. As early as 1907, studies found that raccoon smarts bested cats and dogs and were closer to the mental abilities of rhesus macaque monkeys. Complex puzzles, symbol differentiation, and problem-solving ability… they’d qualify for lab-testing alongside rats if not for their tendency to be a little too adaptive and tenacious.
  • Their long-term memory and learning speed is particularly impressive, which contribute to an evolving intelligence able to tackle all sorts of new obstacles we present in the form of new “raccoon-proof” trash bin designs, or to find new sources of food. Besides individual intelligence, their learnings are also inherited across generations, as seen in this video of a raccoon mother teaching her offspring how to climb a tree!
  • Furthermore, animal behaviour studies have found them to have a neophilic disposition, which means they are quite eager to investigate new things in their habitat (as opposed to neophobia, the fear of new things). In the face of human expansion, development, and technologies… not a bad attitude to have.

2. Omnivore status

  • Raccoons will eat anything—ask any Stanley Park regular. From slugs to bugs to fruits to our Cob House popcorn… they are not picky eaters. Their diet range and high opportunistic ability greatly factors in to their permeating across habitat types and thriving alongside humans.

3. Dexterity & skill

  • Raccoons can get around. They are fast runners (up to 25 km/hour!), agile climbers, and perfectly good swimmers. If there was an Iron Man event in the animal world, these guys would likely be the contenders. Not convinced? Have a video of a young raccoon scaling a building in Toronto!
  • They have a heightened sense of touch, with four to five times more sensory nerves in their paws and nearly 75% of their brains specialised for tactile processing—more than any other animal that has been studied. It is somewhat like “seeing” with their hands, and this skill comes in handy when examining things underwater or in the dark. These dexterous fingers are also the cause of upturned gardens and damaged receptacles in these animals’ pursuit of nice grub.
  • Being naturally nocturnal, they also have very developed hearing, with a broad auditory range that can let them hear the movement of earthworms underground.

Raccoons will continue to get a bad rap, especially as they won’t be leaving human environments anytime soon. But we can certainly begin to get along with such a smart animal by “teaching” them that humans are not a source of food.

Feeding raccoons—directly or indirectly—is certainly a no-no, and reducing any potential attractants from pet food, bird feeders, and compost are necessary measures to take. Here in Stanley Park, raccoon “hotspots” have unfortunately formed around Lost Lagoon and the Aquarium due to regular feeders who forget that this is prohibited within any Vancouver park, with a hefty fine attached! Wildlife feeding poses risks to peoples, pets, and the wild animals which then get habituated and adopt aggressive behaviours. We also caution against disease transfer; contrary to popular belief, BC raccoons are not a rabies vector, but their stool can carry a parasitic roundworm that does transmit to people or animals upon contact.

The BC SPCA, WildSafeBC, and the BC Government have excellent resources to help people address raccoons that have moved in to their neighbourhoods, and we continue to encourage people in the Park to never feed our raccoons… no matter how cute they are!