Raccoons, Procyon lotor, confused scientists for a really long time.
The first written record of the species – at least as far as the West was concerned – came as a result of Christopher Columbus's expedition into the Americas. Native Americans obviously knew of the raccoon, and it's likely that the word raccoon entered into the English language in the Virginia Colony, from a Powhatan word that sounded like arathkone or arafkone, or arakune, by some accounts. The critter with the adorable mask over its eyes was thought to be related to dogs, cats, badgers, or bears, depending on what taxonomist you were talking to.
Carl Linnaeus classified the raccoon as a type of bear, calling it Ursus cauda elongata, which roughly meant "long-tailed bear," and later Ursus lotor, meaning, "washing bear." While the species would eventually gain it's own genus Procyon, the lotor stuck, thanks to the curious behavior in which they seem to dunk their food in water and them scrub it with their front paws. It should be stated, though, that when raccoons were given the genus Procyon, that's because it translates as "doglike." Or it could be that the name Procyon derives from raccoons' nocturnal behavior; Procyon is the brightest star in the constellation Canis minor. Either way, raccoons are not dogs. The truth is that the species is probably more closely related to bears, as Linnaeus originally thought, than to anything else.
A Celebrated History
They were even thought of fairly positively in modern American history. Despite the fact that neither Davy Crockett, nor the actor who played him, probably ever wore a raccoon skin hat, the association between Crockett and raccoons drove a sharp increase in raccoon fur sales through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, before leveling off in the 80s, and dropping dramatically in the 1990s.
Raccoons were also once celebrated as a delicacy in the US. Given the almost rodent-like revulsion that raccoons can sometimes engender today, you might be surprised to find out that raccoons were not thought of as simple peasant food. The first edition of the Joy of Cooking, published in 1931, contained a recipe for raccoon. In some places, raccoon meat is still enjoyed today!
Calvin Coolidge was even once sent a live raccoon as a gift from a constituent, intended to feature on the First Family's Thanksgiving dinner table. The President rather liked the critter, so he spared the raccoon from the butcher's knife. Coolidge and his wife Grace named her Rebecca and took her on walks (attached to a leash) through the White House gardens.
Above: Grace Coolidge and Rebecca. (Source)
Raccoons were indeed valued as pets, despite the fact that they're not easily trained, and since they're not domesticated, aren't suitable as pets in the first place. Often, people would take in an orphaned juvenile as a pet, only to realize that the raccoon would become aggressive during the mating season as it matured. Most folks would ultimately release the sexually mature raccoon back into the wild. That's fine in places where raccoons are native, but it resulted in lots of problems elsewhere.
Raccoons are notoriously understudied in the animal intelligence world, at least compared to primates, dogs, dolphins, birds, elephants, and, well, most other animals. What research does exist is mainly limited to taxonomic considerations, ecological studies, investigations of disease transmission, and descriptions of their mating and parenting behaviors. However, one important series of behavioral studies was conducted in the early 1900s on their intelligence and cognitive abilities. The results were published in 1907s in The American Journal of Psychology by ethologist H.B. Davis.
In particular, Davis studied the abilities of 12 raccoons over the course of three years. They were either wild raccoons who were trapped, or the offspring of those trapped raccoons who were born in captivity. What he was especially interested in is whether they could learn to pick locks. In each experiment, he baited a box with a piece of food, and the raccoons had to figure out how to manipulate the device to open the door, so they could retrieve the snack. And Davis didn't go easy on them. He locked the door with a button, a gate hook, or a bolt. Sometimes he used a latch that had to be moved sideways, and other times he used a latch that had to be rotated towards the animal. Sometimes a lever would function only if the animal pulled on it, and other times, the raccoon needed to press down on the lever
And not only that! Sometimes he used multiple locks on the same device to make things even harder, like two buttons, or two buttons and a gate hook, or a push bar, a bolt, a button, and a lift-latch, and so on. Sometimes the raccoons could operate the locks in whatever order they wanted to open the door. Other times, the raccoons had to operate the locks in a predetermined order if they wanted to get their reward.
Left: Davis's raccoons, and an example of two of his lockboxes. Click to enlarge.
The raccoons eventually learned how to operate 11 of the 13 lock types that Davis tried. Most of them mastered each lock type in fewer than ten trials, and had no problem learning to reverse their actions (such as if the latch had to be shifted left instead of right), or to memorize the order in which multiple locks had to be operated upon. After waiting more than a year between experiments with no practice, the raccoons immediately remembered how to operate individual locks, and only required a quick refresher to remember how to deal with the combinations. Subsequent experiments suggested that raccoons could remember the solutions to these sorts of problem solving tasks for more than three years.
When Davis compared the performance of his raccoons to similar experiments conducted by other researchers with rhesus monkeys, he concluded that their learning ability was at least on par with the primates. In fact, he suspected that the raccoons might have learned a bit faster: "Indeed, the monkeys would seem to be a little less clever at the start."
Davis equivocated on whether that meant that raccoons were more intelligent than monkeys. "The raccoon is less open to distraction than the monkey; and this might be considered by some as evidence of a lower level of intelligence on the ground that the coon works mechanically, but the opposite position might just as well be taken on the ground that [the data] shows greater power of concentrated attention when is evidence of higher intelligence. My own position is one of uncertainty, since I have never had an opportunity to make general observations of the monkey's activities." Still, he concluded, "the two animals stand fairly close together in the matter of learning to undo locking devices."
Live Peacefully With Your Raccoon Friends
If raccoons were once accepted as a fundamental part of the American wildlife landscape, or even thought of in entirely positive terms, when did things change?
It may be that urban development caused the raccoon to evolve in our minds from adorable woodland critter to nuisance pest. Raccoons are remarkably adaptable, and have taken to city life quite readily.
The truth is the average homeowner doesn't really suffer much damage at the hands of raccoons, only annoyance and irritation. Like most wildlife, raccoons will stay away from humans. That is, unless they become accustomed to accepting handouts of food, or if homeowners become careless in disposing of their garbage. The best thing to do is not to give your neighborhood raccoons a chance to learn that you're a reliable source of food in the first place.
Trashcans and backyard pet food dispensers can easily be modified to become raccoon-proof, as well they should: raccoons can develop gout if they eat too much cat food. And with the exception of sweet corn, their damage to agricultural crops is usually minimal – at least in parts of the world, like the US, where they're native.
If you have pets, the best is really to feed them indoors. If your pets stay outside at night, keep them in a raccoon-proof enclosure. If cornered or threatened, raccoons can do some serious damage to a dog or cat.
Homeowners can also work to prevent raccoons from using their chimneys or attics as denning sites. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife explains how: "Close any potential entries with ¼-inch mesh hardware cloth, boards, or metal flashing. Make all connections flush and secure to keep mice, rats, and other mammals out. Make sure you don't trap an animal inside when you seal off a potential entry." Trimming trees to maximize the space between the branches and the roofline is important too.
If a raccoon does establish a den somewhere you find undesirable, the truth is she and her cubs will be gone in 8-10 weeks. But if you don't want to wait for nature to run its course, you can evict your unwanted tenants with loud noises and bright lights. You can also try sprinkling some coyote urine to drive them away – but before you seal the opening, be sure the mother has removed all her cubs, which she has to do one at a time. Baby raccoons can't climb their way out of the chimney or attic on their own, and if the mother abandons one or more of her cubs there – or if the raccoons in your neighborhood are simply too habituated to humans to be driven away by noise and light – the best thing to do is to call a wildlife control agency.