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Not necessarily a man's best friend

By Melvin Maddocks / June 12, 1980



As garbage pails rattle in the summer night, let us now praise raccoons. With certain reservations, of course. For in the detente that exists between raccoons and the human race, who, we may ask, is pushing whom around, fellow victim?

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Most of the legends about raccoons are told by Uncle Remuses whose pockets, as it were, have been picked.

A week or so ago a friend phoned to announce that, after a quarter of a century of country living, he had perfected his raccoon Maginot Line at last. "For every offense I have a defense," boasted our von Clausewitz of raccoon warfare.

Reckless man! The raccoon is the most indefatigable of guerrilla fighters. A few days later our very exhausted friend called to report, between huge yawns, his defeat and capitulation. Using the latest techniques of protest, the raccoons had spent their nights parading, very noisily across the roof above his bedroom. On the second night, shortly after 3 a.m., our friend staggered onto the porch waving a slice of white bread as a flag of surrender and abjectly unwired the lid to his garbage pail.

He has become another victim who will join all us other victims in telling tall tales about the cleverness of the raccoon, until the Scarlet Pimpernel seems a clumsy clod by comparison. Thrusting the photographic evidence under one another's noses, we exchange accounts of how our favorite enemies twist our doorknobs, enter our kitchens, open our refrigerators, turn on our faucets to wash down their chosen snack, or even unseat a bottle cap for a swig of soda.

Once beaten, a raccoon-humbled person, like our friend, will dedicate himself to overestimating the powers of his conqueror. Sterling "Rascal" North claimed he knew a raccoon that would trot upstairs and take a shower whenever that word was dropped into the conversation.

An ex-Army Engineer secured witnesses to testify that, on a summer evening, an old raccoon would come out of the woods, unlatch his screen door, and join him in his living room every time he played Beethoven's Ninth on his stereo. (The Boston Symphony version, recorded at Tanglewood, in case any raccoon-lover is interested.) When the last magnificent note of the final movement concluded the "Ode to Joy" the four-footed connoisseur would leave his post between the speakers and stroll thoughfully back into the woods. No other symphony, no other composer could lure him into the audience circle. When you've got taste, you've got taste.

Speaking of taste, we are disinclined toward stories about animals that talk. But in the case of raccoons -- Richard Adams take note -- we make an exception. We quite understand why, in his engaging book for children, "The Great Ringtail Garbage Caper," Timothy Foote assigns his raccoons names like Anatole and Joshua , permits them to invent games like acornball, and grants them the ultimate scavenger's dream: the ability to drive a garbage truck.

What we cannot figure is how John Gardner, in another new book, "A Child's Bestiary," can make the alphabetical leap straight from Python to Red-Headed Woodpecker, without even an "as you were" to the Raccoon.

The raccoon, we have always believed, was a sort of writer's pet. In fact, raccoons and writers bear a resemblance. Both are nocturnal creatures. Both tend to combine a sense of humor with fits of temperament. The endlessly inquisitive raccoon, like the endlessly inquisitive writer, faces life with a perpetual question mark in its eyes. Sniffing out, tracking down, it seems to long to hold everything in its hand-like paws until it truly grasps -- until it understands.

Over 50 years ago The Reverend J. G. Wood, a naturalist who must be believed, told of a raccoon that, in his tolerant presence, ate up his pencil, then tried to eat up the notes he had just been taking. "Not succeeding in the attempt," The Reverend Wood wrote with his spare pencil, "it consoled itself by tearing the paper into minute morsels, employing teeth and paws in the attempt."

Just like a raccoon, we say. Just like a writer.