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Column: Animals aren’t a dumb as some people think

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 6/2/2020 10:10:16 PM
Modified: 6/2/2020 10:10:10 PM

A couple of weeks ago, up in the park, Kiki and her sometime zooming buddy, Sadie, a big white goldendoodle, stopped leaping through the woods all at once and showed a particular interest in a large old hemlock, standing up against it and peering upward. Tom (Sadie’s male human) was standing a few feet away from me. “Oh!” he said, “there’s a raccoon up there.” There was. It was watching us (and the dogs) from a dark hole some way up in the tree with obvious suspicion of our intent. Then it disappeared inside.

Subsequently, on our almost daily walks, I’ve tried to swing by what I now call the Den Tree to see if anything’s happening. And something is: There’s at least one little kit up there, and one large, apparently serene mama maintaining order and security fairly close to a lot of human and canine activity.

We’re all familiar with raccoons. Even those of us raised in cities have seen them scavenging at night after spending their days tucked away in the crevices of urban architecture. They’re common in Europe, most notably Germany. They were imported into Japan as pets following the popularity of a show about an animated raccoon, and now live wild there, as well. Interestingly, they seem to have thrived and increased more on the fringes of human activity than they once did in the pre-Contact wilderness.

It’s always tricky to try to transcribe native words into your own language, so the closest the early Virginia settlers could come to the indigenous Powhatan for raccoon is aroughcun (John Smith). The name refers to its idiosyncrasy of washing its paws and food before dining. The scholars who have dubbed every plant and creature with a Latin name call it Procyon lotor, a mishmash of Greek and Latin that translates into a very unsatisfying “before-dog washer.” My French-teacher friend Béatrice calls it raton laveur — “the rat that washes” — and the Germans, elevating it from the order Rodentia to Carnivora, call it Waschbär — “the washing bear.” But my absolute favorite is its Italian name: Orsetto lavatore, “the baby bear that washes.” Just saying the name is fun, especially if you give it a Neapolitan accent.

There are probably as many opinions about raccoons as there are people to express them. Some of us, in spite of their clear intelligence and ability to thwart our efforts at security, find them benign, comical neighbors. Others, spooked by the occasional epidemics of rabies, like them as far away and as few as possible. They’ve been hunted for sport for centuries; caps made from their pelts are still symbols (though used for humor nowadays) of frontier life. Raccoons were extirpated in Jamaica and Cuba quite early in the colonial era, when they were hunted for food. During the Roaring ’20s in the states, a raccoon coat and a touring car were essentials of the Gatsby crowd. Two college deans of my acquaintance both sported the coats; one of them even sported the nickname Racky. You’d think, in these days of the coronavirus epidemic, that the raccoon would become a symbol of good behavior: It always wears a mask and washes its hands as often as possible.

We had a pet baby raccoon once, in the early ’70s. Its mother had been run over, and my secretary had spotted it crouching under her car. We couldn’t keep it. Fish and Game would take it, but they’d put it down. The only one who wanted it was a dear friend, a mild-mannered poet and Dartmouth English professor who’d just lost his dog. A few weeks after the transfer, the poet and novelist James Dickey came to town. My friend, his host, was unable to cope with the great man’s bluster, drinking habits, and good-ole-boy Southern bonhomie. So I was recruited to play and sing with the guest, who’d brought his guitar, too. Old-timey Appalachian stuff. But Big Jim was a handful.

One evening my poet pal had a soirée to honor Dickey, who sat in a large armchair holding court. Then he said that he’d heard there was a pet raccoon around. “Let me see him!” So I went and got the poor thing, who’d been ailing for a couple of days, and placed it gently in Dickey’s hands. As he tried to pet it, it suddenly dashed up one arm, around the back of his neck and down the other arm, pooping liquidly the whole way, all over Dickey’s blue blazer. Instead of dying from suppressed laughter, like everybody else in the room, I grabbed Scooter and carried him gently back to his capacious cage. As I passed my friend in the kitchen, he leaned close. “Can’t fool a dumb animal, can you?” I opined that animals weren’t nearly as dumb as many folks thought them.

These days I’m watching Mama up in her nest watching us. During the sweltering weather of last week, she lay on her side with her head hanging out, panting. Next day, there was a little one on a handy limb, looking for a breeze. Two days ago I hit the jackpot — madonna and child at once. The kid ducked out of sight, but popped his nose back out; she looked at me with a “Don’t you have something better to do?” I decided yes, I did.

Willem Lange can be reached at

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