As I stood looking over at a friend’s backyard, where she and her neighbours had constructed an elaborate wooden fortress to repel invaders, I thought: It’s time to admit defeat. The adversary has outsmarted us at every turn. It gorges on our leftovers and is completely unrepentant when confronted with its thievery. It grows fat, but lacking mirrors or plastic surgeons, refuses to be shamed by its corpulence.
“Does that thing even work?” I asked, pointing at the wooden barrier.
“We’ll see,” she replied.
It probably won’t. Every time we think we’ve engineered a space that is safe from the invader, it finds a way in – to sports stadiums, bank branches, Tim Hortons outlets, subway cars. We are outfoxed, or in this case, outraccooned. They are better than us, in so many ways. On this holiday, as we celebrate the country’s birthday, we must acknowledge the skill and craftiness of our opponent. It’s time to name the raccoon our national animal.
This will not be popular in many quarters, understandably. The pro-beaver faction will slap tails in outrage. But the beaver was only entrenched as a national symbol via private member’s bill in 1975, reportedly as a pre-emptive response to the news that New York was going to name it as the state animal. Worse, the beaver is a symbol of the country’s bloody past, our history weighed in countless shiny pelts and the near-extinction of a species. The raccoon – enterprising, wily, adaptable – is the symbol of a shiny urban future.
The other group that might oppose the elevation of the raccoon is homeowners, of course, who are understandably opposed to sharing their attics with creatures that refuse to hold down jobs or pay mortgages, and spend their nights partying in garbage cans. It’s fair to say that raccoons are the Marmite of mammals. For every person who spends all day watching a raccoon climb a Minnesota skyscraper, heart in mouth, there is another who silently plots vengeance while blocking up all the tiny holes to the garage.
Prior to beginning my campaign on the trash pandas’ behalf, I thought I’d call Suzanne MacDonald, who studies animal behaviour at York University in Toronto and is an expert on all things raccoon. The animals are a familiar sight in many big cities in Canada – they’re even starting to move into Alberta – but Toronto is, famously, Raccoon Nation. It’s here where attitudes have calcified, as Ms. MacDonald discovered during research she conducted a few years ago.
“The research showed that half of Torontonians love raccoons, and half do not love them,” Ms. MacDonald said. “The half that don’t love them had raccoons damage their property. So if you’ve had them wreck your property, you say ‘Goddamn raccoons!’ But if you haven’t, you say, ‘Aren’t they adorable?’”
Ms. MacDonald falls squarely in the “Aren’t they adorable?” camp, or, more precisely, “Aren’t they fascinating and worthy of study?” She cites the urban raccoons’ persistence and adaptability, the fact that they’re excellent parents and the way they demonstrate admirable sangfroid when faced with humans. “There’s no species like them. They’re endemic to North America. We should be proud of them.’’ (No one knows how many raccoons live in the Greater Toronto Area, though a survey 20 years ago put the number at 40,000. Ms. MacDonald thinks it’s at least doubled since then.)
How smart are they, though? Do we have to worry that they’ll take over while we’re busy on Instagram and Tinder? Will we arrive home one day to find they’ve changed the locks? Ms. MacDonald assures me that, despite what some irate homeowners believe, raccoons are incapable of gloating. It is not malice in their shiny little eyes when they stare so boldly. They are, like the rest of us, just trying to sock away a layer of fat to get through the winter.
Interestingly, while they are famously adaptable, especially in urban environments, they do not teach each other things, such as the best way to open compost bins. Rather, they learn through “local enhancement” – one raccoon might see another tipping a bin, and will try its luck in the same place later. As for the alarming video of a raccoon breaking into one of Toronto’s new, supposedly raccoon-proof bins earlier this year, Ms. MacDonald says it’s too early for panic: The latch on the bin had malfunctioned. “They haven’t learned to break into them yet,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean they won’t.” Of course, they have learned to break into Tim Hortons, as we discovered from a viral video showing a raccoon dropping from the ceiling, snatching a doughnut (orange glazed) and slinking away again.
What better way to celebrate Canada Day than with an argument over which animal best represents the national spirit? We are a country that has always favoured endless procedural debate over bloodshed, which surely counts in our favour. Think of various constitutional accords, Canada Reads, The Greatest Canadian contest – any multiple-part discussion around a table, fuelled by coffee and broadcast by the CBC, is this country’s Mardi Gras and Olympics rolled into one.
A couple of years ago, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society introduced a debate over the national bird, which you would think would have been dull in the extreme, like Meech Lake with twigs and beaks. Instead, the argument over the gray jay versus other favoured birds, notably the loon and the snowy owl, descended into a vicious Canadian conflict. There were stern words, firmly held opinions, and possibly even a raised eyebrow (rumoured, but never proven.)
So, let the national campaign begin; I know who I’m rooting for. In our hearts, we may imagine that we’re mighty caribou or wolves or owls, but in our heads we know we’re raccoons, scurrying around for food that’s not too junky, looking after our kids, carrying a bit too much chunk around the hips. Just trying to get by in the urban jungle. That’s not such a bad place to be, Canada.