Cute Invasion: Reading the Urban Raccoon as Media

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By: Dylan Forest /

In New York City’s Central Park, a seemingly novel form of human/animal interaction is developing between humans and raccoons. As reported on in various news sources, these interactions consist of humans hand-feeding and touching urban-dwelling raccoons. This behavior, particularly the close physical proximity involved, is largely cast in news sources as foolish and dangerous behavior by humans who do not understand how to properly interact with wild animals. In this portrayal of the human-raccoon interface, it is frowned upon to approach or feed “wildlife,” as it is “risky for people and creatures alike”1. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek New York Daily News article about the raccoon feeding behavior opens with “This is why we can’t have nice things. Or wild ones. We don’t know how to deal with them”2.

What is actually going on here? Have urban humans completely lost touch with appropriate ways of engaging with wild animals?

Or, perhaps, is something more complicated going on?

An important piece of this story is that raccoons inhabit a special place in human-constructed environments, in that they are synanthropic, meaning they thrive in areas of human activity. The association between humans and raccoons only appears to be growing, with raccoons populations booming over the past eighty years in cities and suburbs. Research has even shown that urban raccoons may be developing higher intelligence and better problem-solving skills in comparison to its forest-dwelling cousins3. The truth is that raccoons are living among us, they don’t appear to be going anywhere, and they are especially good at adapting to human activities and obstacles to get what they want.

https://twitter.com/hbottemiller/status/832625044140474368/photo/1


 

New York City is no exception. Raccoons live abundantly in the city, and the human reaction to their presence is often one of horror. Here’s a video clip from a news segment about raccoons in the New York neighborhood of Harlem. Notice that living among raccoons is conceived of as a “battle with nature,” and that raccoons are understood to mistakenly “think” they live in the city.

 

Video source: CBS NewYork. Raccoons run rampant in West Harlem (2014, December 18). Retrieved April 01, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NOSM7Oax08


 

I want to draw attention here to the construction of raccoons as not belonging in the city, and relatedly, to their presence as a “battle with nature.” This implies that raccoons are a part of nature, which is inherently separate from the world of humans. I’ll return to this point.

In the next clip, people who live in a neighborhood with particularly tricky raccoon neighbors react again with horror at sharing space, and food, with raccoons. Notice that the people interviewed want these raccoons gone, and that they are considered totally inappropriate inhabitants of the city, which is conceived, again, as a space that is only for human use.

 


CBS NewYork. Raccoons on the prowl in Harlem (2016, July 21). Retrieved April 01, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7T2vmXy_LxM


 

I want to draw attention here to the overall tone of this report, to the shocking concept of raccoons being in the city, and their construction as invaders, being specifically called “bandits.”

The portion of the video where the reporter traces the path of the raccoon seems similar to how a robbery by a human might be reported on. There’s a sense of fear and outrage over the raccoon being present here, in this space which is supposed to be specifically, and only, for human use, and for the use of domesticated animals the human deems appropriate, like the cat.

Of course, most of us probably don’t want raccoons breaking into our windows and stealing out of our pantries, but the sense of outrage here, especially in light of the city’s statement about raccoons not posing a health risk, seems a bit out of proportion. Additionally, the resident who wants the city to do something clearly feels that not only is the situation less than ideal, it is not something that should happen in a city.

What I find especially interesting about this reaction is that it is telling of attitudes and understandings which are about more than just the raccoon himself. There is clearly a tension here that is about more than stolen cat food; some deeply held belief is upset by the raccoon’s presence.

But not everyone in the city feels this way about raccoons. Near the end of 2016, a large number of news sources came out with stories on a new way humans were interacting with raccoons in Central Park. Here’s a clip of one of those stories.

 


CBSNewYork. Raccoons in Central Park (2016, November 15). Retrieved April 01, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di0jiMUJMs8&t


 

Here, Juan Jimenez, a fan of the Central Park raccoons, voices his opinion, which stands in stark opposition to those of the previously shown Harlem residents.

It’s worth noting here that this way of interacting with and feeding the raccoons is strongly frowned upon by the city, and by most news sources I read. The behavior is usually cast as stupid and dangerous, with rabies risk cited as the main reason, as well as risk to the raccoons themselves.

The concern that’s generally voiced is that the raccoons will injure someone and be killed in order to test for rabies, or that the raccoons will lose the ability to find food for themselves without human assistance. For example, one headline from the New York Daily News about people who feed the raccoons exclaimed “Stop This Child and Her Idiot Parents Before They Get a Central Park Raccoon Killed4.”  

Obviously we have some vast differences here in terms of how the raccoons are perceived and what is considered to be an appropriate way to interact with them. On one hand, raccoons are beautiful objects of affection, co-inhabitants of the city, and not to be avoided, and on the other, raccoons are wild, encroaching dangerously in human spaces, and not to be interacted with, except by idiots.

This tension is what I want to explore here.

 


 

I’m going to pull in a couple academic sources in order to better frame how to look at that tension. The first is Donna Haraway’s book When Species Meet5. One of the foundational concepts in When Species Meet is the idea that interactions between humans and other animals are not only common, they are the norm. Haraway argues that these multispecies relationships are actually a large part of what constitutes both humans and other animals. She says that “we are in a knot of species coshaping one another,” and “species of all kinds, living and not, are consequent on a subject- and object- shaping dance of encounters.” Restated, Haraway means that humans and other species are always wrapped up with one another in different sorts of encounters, and that these encounters and relations between species make both humans and other animals what they are. It’s actually a fairly simple concept, and to some people might seem like an unremarkable idea, but it directly challenges the fully entrenched Western concept of a stark divide between humans and other animals. In light of Haraway’s idea of humans and other animals as inextricably intertwined, we see that the idea of a purely human city, void of other beings, is based on a false concept of humans existing independently of other species. If we agree with what Haraway argues, that sort of division isn’t even possible and doesn’t exist.  

In aiming to better understand the New York City raccoon, and in conversation with Haraway, I also find the book Zoopolis, by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka6, to be immensely helpful. In it, among other things, the authors develop a theory of how humans might more ethically conceive of their relationships to liminal animals, which they define as “non-domesticated species who have adapted to life amongst humans.” The urban raccoon certainly fits this definition. Donaldson and Kymlicka note that in the Western popular imagination, animals are either domesticated and chosen to live among us, or wild and existing off in the wilderness, independent of human activity. They argue that this wild/domestic binary renders liminal animals invisible and illegitimate. They write, “the invisibility of liminal animals does not just lead to indifference or neglect. Much worse, it often leads to a de-legitimization of their very presence.  Since we assume that wild animals should live out in the wilderness, liminal animals are often stigmatized as aliens or invaders who wrongly trespass on human territory, and who have no right to be there. …Since they do not belong in our space, we feel entitled to eliminate these so-called pests in the animal equivalent of ethnic cleansing.”

Here I am reminded of the human Harlem resident shown in a previous video, remarking that the raccoons think they live there, as if such a thing couldn’t possibly be true. This is an illustration of the way liminal animals are rendered invisible because they exist outside our existing framework for either wild or domestic animals. Since these two categories are conceived so rigidly, imagined to be both mutually exclusive and comprehensive, the raccoon, who travels both between and outside of them, cannot actually be seen for what he is.

To illustrate this point, I will analyze a few videos of interactions between humans and central park raccoons. Before the next clip, I want to point two things out. The first is that the humans in this video are attempting to interact with the raccoon, who is searching for food, much in the same way you might see someone interact with a pet. They attempt to pet the raccoon, and make noises to call him that one might make for a dog or a cat. Additionally, at around the thirty second mark in the video, some kids in the background exclaim, “Let’s adopt him!” Both the behavior and the comment about adoption signify that these people are putting the raccoon into a domesticated animal framework.


Olivianoele92. Raccoon in Central Park (2015, February 03). Retrieved April 01, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUefU9Yc5Ac


 

In the next video, we see a woman who regularly feeds the Central Park raccoons.

 


CBSNewYork. Raccoons in Central Park (2016, November 15). Retrieved April 01, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di0jiMUJMs8&t


 

Again, this woman appears to be using a pet framework to understand the raccoons. She references her emotional attachment to the animals, as well as feeling a need to provide food for them. Emotional attachment and provision of food make up two of the main elements of the modern human/pet bond. As I mentioned earlier, the domestic/wild binary doesn’t allow for liminal animals like the raccoon. It appears from these videos that rather than creating a new category for the raccoon, or dismantling the domestic/wild binary in some way, people are instead using a framework they already understand and accept in order to relate to the raccoon. In the case of the people in the last two videos, that is the domestic, or pet, category. But it’s clear in this situation that not all people opt for that category.

 

 

 

Image taken by author, March 2017

 

 

This image is a picture I took of a sign in Central Park, discouraging humans from feeding “wildlife” (particularly raccoons, given the image of a raccoon face). These are posted all over Central Park, particularly in areas where raccoons are known to congregate. I want to point out the use of the word wildlife here; now we have the other side of the wild/domesticated binary being applied. To some people, raccoons are wild. Recalling what Donaldson and Kymlicka say about the popular imagination regarding wild animals, wild animals are not conceived of as being a part of human lives or activities, and certainly not to be interacted with. Feeding them disrupts this understanding, and is understood to be harmful meddling. When raccoons are understood to be wild, they are to be left alone, and violating that division is strongly frowned upon. Here’s a video of a park ranger giving the city’s official position.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


In this video, the raccoon is constructed as wild, and its wildness means that humans should not intervene in its life. I think it’s particularly interesting that the park ranger notes that the raccoons need to be able to find their own food; it seems to me that raccoons who adapt to humans feeding them, by becoming less fearful or changing their sleep patterns to be out during the day, are actually doing a pretty incredible job of solving problems and finding food. This ability to adapt and thrive is a huge part of why the urban raccoon has been so successful. But it doesn’t fit with the construction of the animal as wild and therefore inherently separate from humans, so it’s distressing to many.

 


CBSNewYork. Raccoons in Central Park (2016, November 15). Retrieved April 01, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di0jiMUJMs8&t


 

This brings me back to my main point, which is that the conflict between those who feed and approach Central Park raccoons and those who frown on the practice and advocate leaving the animals alone is at its heart a conflict of understandings about what the raccoon is. To some, the raccoon is understood as a domestic animal, something to be touched, and fed, and cared for. To others, the raccoon is a wild animal, something to be left alone and sometimes feared. This conflict arises out of the fact that the raccoon is actually neither and both, existing as a liminal animal which is autonomous and undomesticated but also lives among us in the city. It is because we have no cultural construct that can account for liminal animals, and instead can only work within the wild/domestic binary, that people choose from either one or the other category.

These totally different reactions to the same animal are because the raccoon is a different being to different people, existing within different categories with different rules of conduct. I don’t mean to suggest that one way of relating to the raccoon is right, or that I know what the ethical solution to this disagreement is, but rather that the situation doesn’t arise because one group are idiots. Instead it arises because even though many liminal animals live among us, our conception of animals as either wild of domestic, and wild animals as inherently and necessarily separate from humans, doesn’t allow us to accurately account for the in-between status of the urban raccoon. Of course, for the group for which raccoons are wild, feeding and touching them is foolish and dangerous. But for the group who understand them as domestic, why wouldn’t they want to associate with them and feed them?

I struggled to understand what was going on here when I first began investigating it. I wondered, were city people just stupid and out of touch with how to interact with wild animals? It became obvious that it wasn’t necessarily that. It was just that they didn’t understand the raccoon as wild, because it lives in the city among humans, something no wild animal is understood to do. I’m not sure I can speak on who’s right in this situation, because the animal in question is incommensurably different to the different camps of humans. I do think it’s important, like Donaldson and Kymlicka note in Zoopolis, to work on building an understanding of liminal animals, and start to consider them as rightful cohabitants of cities. I think this would be a good starting point in sorting out a solution to this conflict.

 

Sources:

  • Copeland, L. (2016, September 30). Will Raccoons Trump Rats as the Ultimate Urban Mammal? Slate.com. Retrieved April 01, 2017, from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2016/09/raccoons_are_taking_over_urban_environments.html
  • Donaldson, S. & Kymlicka, W. (2011). Zoopolis. Oxford University Press.
  • Dziemianowicz, J (2016, July 7). Stop this child and her idiot parents before they get a Central Park raccoon killed. New York Daily News. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/stop-idiots-central-park-raccoon-ends-dead-article-1.2701675
  • Haraway, D. J. (2007). When Species Meet. Univ of Minnesota Press.
  • Nir, S. M. (2016, November 13). Raccoons in Central Park Draw Crowds, and Warnings to Stay Away. New York Times. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/14/nyregion/raccoons-in-central-park-draw-crowds-and-warnings-to-stay-away.html?_r=0

 

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