Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

Peaceful raccoons?

It’s unusual I startle during a night walk. This time, there was something I’d never seen before, let alone a yard or two from me: a raccoon standing on its hind legs, with one paw against the thick trunk of a decades-old tree, peering like a stray tourist in need of help but hesitant to attempt the language. (Was it on its hind legs? These moments are notoriously misrememberable.)

I don’t suppose it actually needed help of any kind, or it wouldn’t have been confident enough to appear there. I’d seen raccoons on this campus before, usually raising my wariness when recalling their reputation for mischief or aggression.

Would that be unwarranted stereotyping of an entire species? Buzzing mosquitos reliably make attempts at your blood, and crocodiles appear on shores once they’ve decided to spring and chomp – perhaps it’s reasonable to assume raccoons interested only in scrounging and fleeing. But past encounters hadn’t borne that out. This one was part of a family, I thought, who frequent the area and were familiar with the human presence.

Some time ago, I approached a parent raccoon with at least two youths on a narrow path. Well prepared to back away, I was astonished when they climbed procedurally to one side, perching and watching from bordering foliage until I’d passed. Most recently, I passed a pair on a small lawn with one tree, scampering around together, taking no real notice of me. If judging only by their behaviour, I might have guessed they were a pair of pet dogs.

I’m no David Attenborough with his thorough experiential knowledge of the natural world, but I share his inclination to view animals not as “animals.” Or rather, to view humans as much as “animals” as any other species. We’re all stereotypable by the behaviour our instincts and needs draw out, but even that is a commonality between humans and non-humans. And it suggests there are others.