Nov 13 2017

Raccoons Are Smart But Not Good Pets

raccoon-AesopsAnimal intelligence is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it forces researchers to think carefully about what intelligence is. The comparison might also provide a window into what constitutes human intelligence in particular.

There is no question that humans have intellectual capabilities that no other species has. However, some animals are smarter in certain ways than you may imagine. Certain birds, like corvids (jays and crows) have demonstrated significant problem-solving capability, for example. Researchers are also finding that raccoons may be even smarter than we suspected.

One paradigm of animal intelligence research is known as the Aesop’s Fable test, based on the the story of the thirsty crow. In this tale a thirsty crow came upon a tall pitcher with water at the bottom, but it could not reach down the long neck to the water. So it dropped stones in the pitcher to raise the water level until it could reach. This behavior demonstrates creative problem-solving and some basic understanding of cause and effect. Corvids have the ability to pass this test – they can figure out how to use objects to raise the water level to gain access to water or food.

A recent study performed the same test on raccoons. They were given access to a long tube with marshmallows floating lower down, too low for them to reach. First they were shown how dropping stones would raise the water level. Two of eight raccoons tests were then able to use this effect to gain access to the marshmallows. Statistically this is not as good a performance as corvids, but at least some raccoons are smart enough to pass the test.

One additional raccoon gained access to the marshmallows, however. They figured out how to grip the top of the tube and then rock back and forth to knock the tube over. The researchers had specifically designed the tube so it could not be knocked over, but the raccoons essentially broke the apparatus. This is interesting because it shows that animals may have particular skills or predilections that they will use to their advantage. Knocking over the tube was a very “raccoon” solution.

The researchers also went further. In a follow up experiment they exposed the raccoons to the same setup and gave them access to floating and sinking balls. The sinking balls would raise the water level, while the floating ones were “non-functional” – or so the researchers thought. Again the two smart raccoons performed well, and they figured out that by dropping floating balls on the water they could then push them down, splashing water and marshmallow up along the sides of the tube, and thereby gaining access to the food. One raccoon figured out how to spin the floating ball to bring up a marshmallow clinging to it.

So some of the raccoons solved the test, but not in the way the researchers intended. They demonstrated creative problem solving.

Other researchers are interested in how raccoons are adapting to human civilization. Most people in rural or suburban areas will have experience with raccoons. Raccoons also live in cities, but you may be less likely to see them.  They have learned that humans are a great source of food, if you can figure out how to break into their containers. Raccoons are also fairly dexterous, and can break into most things if there is food to be had.

Researchers have compared urban and rural raccoons, and found that urban raccoons have better trash-can opening skills. When confronted with unfamiliar containers, they are more confident and successful in figuring out how to get passed any obstacles. When tracked with GPS city raccoons can be seen avoiding high-traffic streets, and taking safer paths to their destination.

Two questions remain – is the increased intelligence of city raccoons only a result of learning, or is there some evolution going on. Raccoon populations have increased significantly in the passed 80 years, and they are increasingly moving into human-occupied areas, including cities. This suggests that they are adapting to human civilization.

This phenomenon may be similar to what is believed to have happened with dogs. They started living on the edge of human populations, taking advantage of the scraps humans leave behind. Those better able to interact with the humans had a survival advantage. In this way dogs may have already been partly domesticated before humans started breeding them.

So, are raccoons adapting to humans in the same way? Are they becoming not only more clever, but domesticated? If so, how long will this process take? Further, will raccoons split into two species, the wild raccoon and the domesticated raccoon, similar to wolves and dogs?

It seems likely that raccoons will respond to the massively changing environment represented by human civilization. They already seem to be flourishing and adapting. The question is, what niche will they find? They will not necessarily take the same path as dogs or cats. Perhaps they will just become better thieves, increasing not only their cleverness but their stealth.

We may have a clue to the future of raccoon in modern day experience with raccoons as exotic pets. Because they can be adorable, some people may think it would be cool to have a raccoon pet, but veterinarians warn that they make terrible pets.

First, they need constant supervision. They are very good at destroying things, and if you ever left them alone in your house they would cause significant damage. Caging them is not an option as it is cruel to cage a wild animal and that will just stress them out. Raccoons respond to stress by biting. They also cannot be house-trained, and so will relieve themselves anywhere. Essentially, they would be nightmare pets.

But what if they were truly domesticated? Are these inconvenient behaviors part of being wild, or are they just core to being a raccoon? Is getting into trouble and destroying things part of the raccoon personality that would not be solved simply by domesticating them?

It is interesting to think about the future of raccoons. They are clearly one species doing well in the increasingly urbanized world. They are smart and dexterous, do not really fear humans, and are usually not dangerous (unless they have rabies or you provoke them into biting you). How far with their adaptation go? Will we see a future of super smart or fully domesticated raccoons? It’s not unlikely.

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