How raccoons became the ultimate urban survivors – National Geographic


In the early 1900s, American scientists in the burgeoning field of animal psychology had a grand plan: Bring raccoons, a plentiful North American mammal known for its cleverness, into the lab for experiments on animal intelligence.

They quickly gave up when the dexterous animals with primate-like paws kept breaking out of their cages. The scientists essentially said, “We’re throwing up our hands and going back to rats and pigeons,” chuckles Sarah Benson-Amram, a behavioral ecologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. That’s why, she says, “we’re now only scratching the surface of raccoon cognition.”

At least 20 raccoons gather on any given night in this area near North Lake, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. People regularly feed the raccoons dog food, sour cream, chips, and other snacks, an illegal practice.

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Found in most U.S. cities, the masked omnivores are infamous for breaking into trash cans, homes, and other human-made structures. So far, Benson-Amram’s research suggests raccoons’ smarts are contributing to the species’ expansion into suburban and urban areas throughout the North American continent. (Read how wild animals are adapting to city life in surprising ways.)

She and her colleagues have performed various experiments in which they present wild and captive raccoons with demanding tasks, such as learning to push multiple levers to receive a treat. In almost every instance, the animals have defied the team’s expectations—often by coming up with a solution that the scientists hadn’t even imagined.

“They’re endlessly fascinating—every study we do, I’m struck by their curiosity and their willingness to explore things,” Benson-Amram says.

Though raccoons are beloved pop icons to many—it’s easy to find “trash panda” merchandise online—others consider the animals nuisances, especially when they’re rummaging through the garbage.

At Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue in California, a pair of rescued raccoons have learned to open a variety of latches on a puzzle box to access food treats. The box serves as an enrichment activity for the captive animals.

For that reason, Benson-Amram and colleagues recently launched the University of British Columbia’s Urban Wildlife Project, in which they’ll place 30 GPS collars on raccoons and 10 collars on coyotes throughout Vancouver to study how the animals adapt to and use urban environments. The team will also deploy remote cameras throughout the city to observe the creatures and how they interact with people.

The goal, she says, is to “hopefully lead to a greater co-existence between humans and wildlife.”

City slinkers

Beyond their intelligence, raccoons possess many qualities suited to city life, from their nocturnal nature, which …….


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