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December 30, 2019 19 mins

Trash pandas. Nature's ninjas. Sure, these ring-tailed rascals go by plenty of names. But whether you love 'em or hate 'em, they're clearly taking over Toronto. Will and Mango discuss everything raccoons, and why they deserve a little respect.

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Speaker 1 (00:03):
Welcome to part Time Genius, the production of I Heart Radio.
I Guess What? Well, what's that Mango So gave? Are brilliant.
Brilliant researcher who basically powers the show was telling me
that when he moved out to l A, he lived
in this airstream trailer behind someone's house. This was as

(00:23):
he and his girlfriend were trying to figure out their
apartment hunter or whatever, and apparently these raccoons came by
one day and stole his girlfriend's shoes. They were just
sitting outside. They came by, stole the shoes, and then
a few days after that the shoes were back where
she'd left them, except now they've been washed. They've been
so like the raccoons washed the shoes or apparently he said,

(00:45):
this is a real thing. Like there's this whole YouTube
world of raccoon food washing videos where the critics just
kind of like dunk their food and water and then
rinse it out before they eat it. This is not real.
It is. But here's the thing. So recas aren't doing
all that washing because they really like clean food or
they're super like sanitary. It's because when they dunk their food,

(01:07):
that's the way they learn more about it. They've got
these hairless front paws that are extremely sensitive to touch,
and according to the National Geographic raccoons have four to
five times more sensory cells in their paws compared to
most mammals, and of the part of their brain that
processes like sensory signals is actually devoted solely to that
sense of touch. And that means they can determine the weight, size, texture, temperature,

(01:31):
whatever with their paws, like just when it comes into
touch with something, that's awesome. But how does dunking food
and water help with this? Yeah, so that's the strangest part.
Water it's like a superpower. It increases their sense of
touch in the same way like sunlight might for our
sense of sight, Like you know when you wake up
in a dark room and step outside for the first time,
like suddenly you can see everything. And when a raccoon

(01:53):
dunks a grape or a pair of shoes or a
smartphone as they like to do on YouTube, into water,
it stimulates the nerve endings of their paws and as
a result, it opens up this whole new world to them.
And uh, it's called dousing, that's what it's called. When
they dip stuff in water. But uh, it's actually developed
as a way to help them locate food when fishing
in cold water streams. And while this is a super

(02:16):
useful trick to have, it's also you know, made them
super adorable eaters on YouTube and YouTube celebrities. But that's
just the first of nine facts we've got about raccoons today.
Let's dive in. Hey, their podcast listeners, welcome to Part

(02:49):
Time Genius. I'm Will Pearson and as always I'm joined
by my good friend man Guesh Ticketer and on the
other side of the soundproof glass wearing a welcome to
Pawny shirt. That just made me smile to see this,
and it's got a big picture of a raccoon on it.
Now that's it's an impressive parks and rack reference from
our good friend and producer Tristan McNeil. Yeah. I mean,
you're not gonna see any Eagleton shirts with trash pandas

(03:11):
on them. But you know, well, how do you feel
about raccoons, Like, are you schemed out by them? Do
you think they're cute? What's your stance? Well, you know,
when I was a kid, I actually really liked raccoons
because I would go over to my grandmother's health. Actually,
we've had Mamma on the show before, talking about how
to live a healthy life at the age of ninety one.
But anyway, I'd go over to her house and there

(03:32):
was a raccoon that we nicknamed Bandit, and we would
feed bandit marshmallows. It's probably a terrible idea and probably
not good for them, but we would put marshmallows out
on a plate on the back porch and Bandit would
come up and eat them, and we just we just watched.
But then one time I tried to walk out there
while Bandit was eating the marshmallows, and the scary face

(03:52):
that it made at me, and the noise, Like any
I can't even recreate the noise. It's pretty terrifying. So now,
to be honest, I'm a little bit scared of Yeah,
I have a little like I I feel the same way.
I actually like my first stuffed animal was a raccoon,
so like, I used to carry that around with me everywhere.
I had fondness for raccoons. But then, uh, once I
learned a little bit more about them, I've sort of

(04:13):
maintained a healthy distance from them. But it's curious. Well,
what's your first fact? Well, how about the fact that
Toronto is the self proclaimed raccoon capital of the world. Now,
I was in Toronto not too long ago. I had
no idea about this. I don't know how I missed
this fact. Well, I am intrigued. Go on, all right, Well,
for years now, the city has been grappling with a

(04:33):
raccoon population boom, unlike any scene before. Now. According to
the Toronto Star, the raccoon takeover began back in two
thousand two. This is when the city rolled out its
organics bin program, and that's where they separate compostable waste
into you know, these separate green bins. And as you'd imagine,
local raccoons were huge fans of this program because it

(04:56):
required residents to basically put all of these choice edible
garbage items into one easily typical bend. And so pretty
soon raccoons were coming out of the woodwork and making
new homes for themselves in these neighborhoods and in people's
backyards and just kind of throughout the city. And this
happened so much so that last year the city estimated

(05:16):
there are now more than one hundred thousand raccoons living
in Toronto. I love that, and that is crazy. It
is well. The infestation has become such a problem that
in two thousand sixteen the city spent about twenty four
million dollars on this special new wastebind type that they
were putting everywhere, and it was specifically designed to keep

(05:37):
out the scavenging critters. Not to open one, you have
to turn a handle on the lid and unhinge this
gravity lock, and since raccoons don't have thumbs, the city
hope that raccoons wouldn't be able to work the handle.
But as we know from science experiments on the subject,
there are few locks on Earth that can't keep out
a hungry raccoon, and so this proved to be the

(05:59):
k last year when multiple videos were released showing these
determined raccoons opening the bin's lids and claiming all the
garbage goodies inside there. But now, to be fair, out
of nearly half a million bins, only a couple dozen
raccoon break ins have been reported, and the band manufacturer
does claim the break ins are the result of faulty

(06:20):
handles rather than the animals actually mastering this lock system,
but it doesn't seem like Toronto will be giving up
its title anytime soon. So on that subject, here's the
fact that might not surprise you. Raccoons are excellent problem solvers.
But the question is how smart are raccoons exactly? And
researchers have been trying to figure this out for well
over a century at this point, but the conclusion is unanimous.

(06:43):
If there's food involved, raccoons are very smart. That makes
sense well. One of the earliest and most famous studies
of raccoon intelligence was carried out in the early d
by this animal behavior scientists named H. B. Davis, and
he rounded up a dozen wild raccoons and then presented
them with a series of puzzle boxes, each of which
was baited with a piece of food and and outfitted

(07:04):
with a different kind of lock. And so the task
was for the raccoons to figure out how to pick
the lock, open the box retrieved the snack. And while that,
you know, might sound hard, Davis actually made the task
even tougher. So the raccoons had to contend with a
variety of lock types, including hooks, bolts, buttons, latches, and
levers I guess, and some boxes even had multiple locks,

(07:25):
like two buttons or a pushbar and a lift latch,
and so it gets pretty complicated. But despite Davis throwing
everything he could at them, in the end, the raccoons
could I guess, open eleven of the thirteen different complicated
lock types, and most of the animals mastered few of
them in fewer than ten tries. So Davis suspended the
experiments for a few years, and then he returned to

(07:47):
the task and he found that the raccoons immediately remembered
how to operate the different locks like he started testing this.
He repeated the experiments several more times, and he realized
at the end of this that once they solve a problem,
they can remember exactly what that combination is for like
three years or more. That is unbelievable. All right, Well,
I know we talked about raccoon's love for washing things,

(08:09):
especially Gabe's girlfriend's shoes. I mean that seems like a
great trick, right, Like you just leave all your laundry
out and hope the raccoon laundry service returns it press enfolded, right,
But I don't know how the presston folded part, but
it's it's impressive either way. But that's the interesting thing
is that the raccoons are actually named for their little hands.
So the word raccoon was derived from the Powhatton tribes

(08:32):
name aurankan, which means the animal that scratches with its hands.
And I'm certain that I mispronounced that, but I did
find that fact interesting, and it was I said hands,
thank you. I know how to say hands now. But
it was one of the first Palhatton words ever recorded
by English colonists at Jamestown. But they weren't the only
ones to notice a raccoon's pause, as it's really it's

(08:53):
defining feature. The as tech name for raccoons was actually
a word that means the one who takes everything in
its hands. So weirdly, the raccoon's scientific name also takes
its cues from the animals dexterous pause. It's called the
price ion lodar, which is a Neo Latin word and
it translates to the before dog washer. I guess because

(09:16):
raccoons came around before dogs. But it is funny that
like everyone zoned in on that hands feature of the
pause feature, right, like like I feel like I I
look at their cute masks or whatever. There they're fuzzy tails.
So I'm gonna take this back to Calvin Coolidge, who,
as you might remember, had a pet raccoon when he
was president in the nineteen twenties. And that's a fact

(09:37):
I feel like we've all heard and remembered, but I
never knew how it came to be, And Gabe pulled
us up for me. So the first thing to know
is that Calvin and his wife Grace Coolidge were about
the biggest animal lovers ever to live in the White House,
right and the whole country knew it. So the couple
had like this menagerie of animals on the grounds, including
like a goose, a donkey, a wallaby of all things.

(09:59):
And they this collection of pets that the press called
the Pennsylvania Avenue Zoo, and Coolidge supporters were so eager
to like add to this presidential zoo that they would
just routinely sent him these unsolicited pets. So like he
got cats, dogs, and canaries, which are pretty standard things.
And then history dot com says he received a black

(10:20):
haired bear from Mexico and African pygmy hippopotamus from a
rubber bagnate, and even a pair of live line cubs
which the fiscally conservative president gave the less than fuzzy
names Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau. Of course, the raccoon
was also a gift from this admirer, this woman from
Mississippi named Vinnie Joyce, except that Vinnie hadn't sent the

(10:43):
raccoon to be a pet. She actually intended the animal
to be slaughtered and served as an entree at that
year's Thanksgiving. But I guess at the time raccoon meet
was something of a delicacy, and in fact, the first
edition of Joy of Cooking has a recipe for raccoon.
But um so weird, I know. Thankfully for the raccoon, though,
President Coolidge did not share the country's taste for raccoon

(11:05):
and decided to grant the massed animal this pardon and
he kept as a pet instead. They named Rebecca. And
it's pretty funny, like they tried to keep her in
the house. She clawsed upholstery, she tears apart clothing. She
just generally runs the muck. But then the Coolidges decided
to build her this wooden treehouse outside on the south lawn,
and they were just obsessed with her. They'd walk around

(11:27):
on a collar and leash. The caller said, Rebecca Raccoon
of the White House. On it. She even participated in
the Easter egg roll, though apparently that was kind of
the last draw because she um clawed at children and
and then kept running away from the White House, so
like the staffers had to keep chasing her down, but
they decided to donate her to the National Zoo, where

(11:48):
she lived happily and was heralded as the first Raccoon
of the White House. What a great story. All right,
why don't we talk a little bit about raccoon masks,
because you were saying that that probably would have been
the defining feat, sure that I would have thought about
if I was trying to give this creature a name.
And you know, raccoons have always been viewed as bandits
in popular culture, and that's partly for good reason, Like

(12:09):
they make off with whatever they can get their weird
little hands on. And let's be honest, those little black
masks they wear aren't helping matters, since it just makes
them look like these little furry outlaws. They may be cute,
but they definitely look like outlaws. Yeah, it's like in
that book Secret Pizza Party, which yeah, from the guys
who made dragons love tacos. But uh, you know, I
I love that book so much. Just how that raccoon

(12:31):
like dreams of stealing pizza and and like has all
these ideas and and you know he finally does it
because he tricks people by thinking he has a mask on. Yeah. Well,
obviously they don't wear the eyemasks to be stealthy or stylish,
but you know, these markings actually help the raccoons, and
it helps them to see more clearly. So according to researchers,

(12:52):
the black fur kind of functions like you know, like
you would put grease pain or like black stickers that
athletes wear under their eyes during gay aims, so that
dark color absorbs incoming lights so that the glare doesn't
interfere with their vision. And raccoons used this trick to
see better in the dark. Actually, so their mass cut
down on the peripheral light that might be out there

(13:13):
in the dark, and it makes it easier for them
to perceive contrast and and tell different objects apart from
each other. I had actually never heard this before. Yeah,
that's really fascinating. So here's a bit of a surprising
research I found. So, according to Suzanne McDonald, who is
this psychology professor and biologist at York University near Toronto,
the raccoon capital of the world. I guess, uh, city

(13:36):
raccoons tend to be smarter than their country cousins. And
in two thousand fourteen she outfitted city raccoons with GPS
callers to see how they handled themselves compared to country raccoons,
and in one experiment, she discovered that the city dwellers
had learned to avoid major intersections altogether. And in another test,
she found that most city raccoons were capable of opening

(13:56):
trash can lids, while the country raccoons would like then ever,
quite figured it out. In fact, they smell food at
the bottom and just like kind of pod it, but
they never understood how the lids system worked at all.
And uh, you know, it's it's funny because, like um,
she she was comparing the two, the city raccoons just
went for the lid every single time. But you know,

(14:17):
I think it's an interesting test. I do hope it
doesn't lead to like stereotyping of country raccoons, because I'm
sure there are some smart country raccoons out there, and
and they have other talents that they're way better at.
But uh, that's right. It is a fun study. Yeah,
that's pretty funny. Well, I know we've got two more
facts to go, but before we get to those, let's
take a quick break. Welcome back to Part time Genius

(14:53):
where we're talking raccoons. All right, mego, what is your
last fact going to be? How about we talk about Japan,
which has been deal with an out of control of
raccoon population for about forty years now. So Toronto isn't
the only cosmopolitan place with this issue. And surprisingly, Japan's
whole mess can be traced back to this beloved children's cartoon,

(15:14):
really a cartoon. Yeah. In ninety seven, this animation company
released an anime adaptation of this memoir called Rascal Memoir
of a Better Era, And both the book and the
animated series are about this author, Sterling North, and this
baby raccoon named Rascal that he kept for a year
as a boy. And the anime cartoon series it premiered

(15:35):
in January of that year in seven and then ran
a new episode each week for the entire year, and
pretty much the whole country was swept up in raccoon fever.
So families began importing these pet raccoons from North America
so their kids could re enact what they've seen on screen,
and the trend became so popular that for years after
the cartoons released, more than fifteen hundred raccoons were brought

(15:58):
to Japanese shores each month. Yea, and as you can
probably guess, things got out of hand pretty quickly. So
Japanese families soon discovered that real raccoons aren't as loyal
or cuddly as he might see on TV. The real
life versions might trash your house, attack your kids, and
and also eat way way more than you think, so

(16:19):
they aren't great roommates. But when when the pet raccoons
grew too larger unruly, many families just released them into
the wild, and eventually the Japanese government got wise they
banned the important ownership of raccoons, but it was already
far too late, and today the descendants of that first
wave of raccoons have spread to forty two of the
country's forty seven prefectures, and they're believed to cause about

(16:41):
three thousand dollars worth of damage to food crops every year.
Oh wow, So, so what about the cartoon like did
it kind of fade into obscurity after, you know, people
lost their love for these raccoons or what. No, Rascal
Raccoon is actually still an icon there and he's this
merchandizing powerhouse in Japan. And of course the original series
is still could a classic and you know you get

(17:02):
that right, Like, as awful as they are, cartoon raccoons
are still pretty cute. So definitely, So what are you
gonna end with? All right, Well, how about a little
fact about marshmallows. You know I shared the fact at
the beginning there. So last year a team of scientists
put eight raccoons through what is known as the Asop's
Fable test to see whether they could recognize cause and effect.

(17:24):
So you might be familiar with the fable in question,
and it's the one where a thirsty crow can't access
the water at the bottom of a picture, so the
bird cleverly drops pebbles into the picture until the water
level rises enough for the crow to be able to
take a drink. I vaguely remember that. I don't know
what the moral of that story is, I do remember that,
So how's it relates to the test. We're not going

(17:44):
to get into the morals of this today, it's it's
just way too deep for us, but any well, for
the raccoon version, researchers knew that the water alone wouldn't
be a big enough draw, so they added marshmallows to
the mix. Now, the raccoons were placed in a room
with a cylinder of water with marshmallows floating on the surface,
and then stones scattered all around it. Now, the catch,

(18:05):
of course, was that the water level was so low
that the raccoons couldn't get to the marshmallows. That actually
have to displace the water with the stones in order
to be able to reach those marshmallows. So the researchers
demonstrated this move for the raccoon audience, and then they
waited to see if they would repeat this behavior themselves. Now,
in the end, two of the eight raccoons successfully repeated

(18:27):
the trick and claimed these marshmallows. Well, the third raccoon
decided to go her own way, so she climbed on
top of the cylinder rocked it back and forth until
the whole thing tipped over, allowing her to claim the
marshmallow prize without lifting a single stone. Anyway, given enough time,
they all seemed to somehow get to the marshmallows. Yeah,
of course they do. I mean they always get the marshmallows.

(18:50):
But you know, I like that fact. I like that
you brought sticky treats into the mix, that you've got
raccoon ingenuity just highlighted there, and of course ASoft the trifecta.
So I think I've got to give it to you
this week. Thanks so much. And if any of you
out there have great facts or stories about raccoons and Mamma,
if you happen to be listening Mango, I don't know
if you've heard Mamma pitched the podcast, but she tells

(19:11):
people to listen and she says it's like the radio
on your phone, and so it's a it's a good pitch.
But if you've got great facts are great stories, we
always love to hear those from you hit us up
on the socials, but from Gabe, Tristan, Mango and me,
thanks so much for listening.

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