“This is perhaps the first step towards domestication,” said Benjamin Geffroy, a biologist at the University of Montpellier in France. “Now we need to know more about which comes first, compliance or cognitive abilities.”
Some research suggests that the domestication process changes the way animals think. Dogs, for example, are better than wolves or nonhuman primates at following some human gestureslike spotting hidden food.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that raccoons will soon read our gestures. But living alongside animals that may be evolving to exploit our presence could mean that people need to better understand how animals think to avoid conflict with them, the researchers said.
Raccoons, however, could be particularly difficult. Working with raccoons in captivity has convinced Dr. Benson-Amram that they actually enjoy cognitive challenges. “We give them trouble, and even when there’s no reward, they just keep going,” he said.
Raccoons in urban settings can also be remarkably persistent, said Suzanne MacDonald, an animal behavior scientist at York University in Toronto. For one study, she put an open can of cat food in a dumpster, secured the lid with a bungee cord, and unfurled it in backyards to see how raccoons would react.
“I had a woman spend like eight hours trying to get in,” Dr. MacDonald said. “And she did.”
Raccoons are often perceived as invasive, Dr. MacDonald said, but humans are the ones that invaded their land.
“These guys have found a way to live with us,” he said. “Surely by God, we can use our giant barks and find a way to live with them.”
Betsy Mason is a freelance journalist and a 2022 Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow.