Raccoons Past and Present

I am connecting you here to an episode of Radiolab, the radio program and podcast that gives an entertaining pop culture twist to baffling problems in science. The episode originally aired in January 2017 Here it is:


I shouldn’t say too much, but here is why a science-oriented radio program about raccoons in the Caribbean has some relevance to our appreciation of the past’s action in the present:

Maybe you have heard of a group of islands a bit southeast of Puerto Rico, in the French West Indies, called Guadeloupe. Even if you do know of the islands it is unlikely that you know the history of the raccoons living there.

The story of these critters intersects with the project of this site in a couple of ways.

First, we often impose what we know, what we have learned in the past, upon the world around us. For instance, we characterize raccoons as bandits. We feel comfortable blaming them for outdoor garbage spills, convicting them without trial and usually without any direct evidence for two reasons: first, when we wake up in the morning to find the trash cans have been knocked over we know that raccoons are more likely than butterflies to have caused the damage; and because raccoons wear those burglar eye-mask disguises. When we say that raccoons look like bandits, we translate onto them something we have learned about humans, which is to distrust people who cover their faces (you’ll decide for yourself how broadly to apply this generalization). We anthropomorphize animals when we compare aspects of their behavior to what we think we know, based on past experience, about human behaviors. And when we impose behaviors we impute motives — we project onto animals what we wish to confirm in our biases about humans. The point, in broadest terms, is that we reach back to the past in order to confirm and give sanction to who we are in the present.

An anthropomorphic contest from the Breviary of Renaud and Marguerite de Bar, Metz ca. 1302-1305. (British Library, Yates Thompson 8, f. 294r.)

The second point of curiosity is that Guadeloupe’s raccoons are fakes. Well, the raccoons are just doing their raccoons thing, but some of the humans in Guadeloupe have bought into a story about these little creatures that do not hold up to the evidence. The false narrative has reached deeply into the collective identity of the people of Guadeloupe to the extent that the truth has become hard to accept. It is not certain in the conflict between truth and fiction exhibited in this case that the truth will prevail.

You may see no harm in holding to a false sense of the history of Guadeloupe’s raccoons despite the newly revealed truth of their ancestry. Perhaps you are right that the cost of such an imagined past is small. But I advise caution. The episode ends with a short discussion of the Bald Eagle, which Robert Krulwich describes as “a kind of a wretched bird that steals other people’s nests and is generally a vulgar animal….” Still, he says, we have given it majesty, we have dressed it up, and in doing so we have made it about us. The “American” Bald Eagle is not so much about what eagles are but about who Americans are, with war and peace in our talons.  

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