Watch Raccoons Escape Trash Can—Are Urban Animals Getting Smarter?

A lion might be the king of the jungle, but in the urban jungle, it’s all about the raccoon.

Raccoons that live in cities or suburbs seem to be more resourceful than their rural kin, according to preliminary research by Suzanne MacDonald, a psychology professor at York University near Toronto and a National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration grantee.

Case in point: MacDonald recently captured video of raccoons getting stuck in—and cleverly getting out of—a garbage can tightly secured with bungee cords in her suburban backyard. (Watch another National Geographic video on raccoons.)

The video was part of her ongoing experiments looking at the behavior of raccoons, a native North American mammal that has adapted incredibly well to living in urban environments.

City-dwelling raccoons have special challenges not found in their natural habitat, according to MacDonald: dealing with traffic, constructing den sites in man-made structures, and exploiting new resources, like garbage bins and swimming pools, for food and water.

“There’s a lot of work on behavior in wild animals and captive ones, and [my] work is somewhere in between,” she said.

We talked to MacDonald to find out what she’s learned about these clever backyard bandits.

What’s so special about raccoons? Why study them?

Raccoons are special in the way they’ve been affected by us. Lots of other wildlife lives in cities, and one of the reasons that raccoons have done so well is that they are able to eat anything. If you can eat pretty much whatever you find in a Dumpster, then you’re going to do okay.

That’s why rats do so well. While rats have been around for a really long time, raccoons are relative newcomers. We want to know if their arrival in cities has changed their behavior. (See pictures of cities and their environmental struggles.)

What types of experiments are you running?

For the first project, we put GPS collars on them to find out where they go in the urban areas and what their home ranges looked like. After that, we became interested in their little brains, comparing the behavior of urban raccoons with rural ones.

Our hypothesis is that the urban environment is shaping animals and changing them, such that the raccoons in the city are becoming smarter. (Watch: “Life as a Raccoon.”)

We’re constantly making new garbage cans and new locks, and if they want to survive, they have to figure out our stuff.

How are you testing raccoon intelligence?

I have sites all over the greater Toronto area, and I put out these motion-capture cameras that work at night, usually in somebody’s backyard. At each study site, I placed a garbage can with a top attached by a bungee cord, which a raccoon generally wouldn’t encounter in Toronto.

At the bottom of the can, I placed an open can of cat food. Then I just wait, and the cameras capture everything that happens.

What differences did you find between urban and rural raccoons?

Getting into our garbage is actually a hard problem. None of the rural raccoons were able to figure it out. Many, many raccoons tried when I tested them this summer, but none of them got in.

The food is at the bottom of the can, and a typical animal will smell the food and try to get in through the bottom where the food is. (Learn more about wildlife in your backyard on Nat Geo Wild’s Urban Jungle.)

The urban raccoons [in the video] smelled the bottom of the can, and then they immediately went to the top off the can to pry it open.

What does this tell us about the behavior of other animals we find in cities?

Humans are helping these animals evolve and are pressuring them to survive our environments. And it turns out that raccoons are just these perfect little urban warriors. (Get facts on suburban wildlife.)

Portions of this interview were edited for length and content.

Follow Carrie Arnold on Twitter and Google+.

Carrie is a freelance science writer living in Virginia. When she's not writing about cool critters, she's spending time outside, drinking coffee, or knitting. You can visit her website at http://www.carriearnold.com
  • Alison Craig

    You may also want to consider rural raccoons though. They are able to figure out to actually unlock many styles of latches and such to get into a chicken coop and teach that behaviour to other raccoons. They are very clever and adaptable to many environments. Great video.

  • Anita Madtes

    I have enjoyed watching raccoons for many years. Their problem solving abilities are incredible and their familial bonds are very strong. They are very funny to watch, playing in water, hide and seek, chasing each other, and problem solving. I understand urban areas have their ‘pest’ problems but the flip side also needs to be understood. Why aren’t domestic animals rated in the same way? Domestic animals (cats, dogs, etc) cause significant harm as well. Left to roam the streets they can pose hazards to other pets, trash cans, and attack humans. The balance is tipped against raccoons because they are an ‘other species’ which makes them seem scary. It doesn’t make one or the other side right. Granted I am very biased in favor of raccoons, I feel the same way about them as anyone else feels about their domestic pets. Dialog should continue on all fronts.

  • Marianne

    I’ll never forget the time my husband and I went camping in upstate New York. We were awakened by a ruckus in the night. Shining our flashlight towards the noise, we spied two raccoons opening our cooler, which was not an easy feat, opening the lid, reaching in under the ice, and taking our wrapped steaks we had planned on having for dinner that day. They are quite clever creatures!

  • Ron

    I think animals like racoons already have the intelligence and will. But the urban animals have experience. I’ve seen animals do some really amazing things. Also, I think they are almost sentient. I think the proof of that is they know when they are looking in your eyes.

  • JT Higgins

    Ahhhh raccoons are so cute (NOT) they are a nuisance!
    For the past five years (they) have systematically destroyed our backyard.
    Potted planters, fish pond with decorative lights and bubbling fountains, patio furniture and 3 swimming pools with solar blankets all completely trashed.
    Many hundreds of dollars lost not to mention all man hours these monsters have destroyed.

    It wouldn’t matter if there were 50 foot high fencing, they can climb faster and higher than any cat.
    Oh, and lets not forget the worst smelling poo piles they leave behind each evening.
    Cages don’t work.

    Actually, if I were able to fire a gun in the city limits I wouldn’t hesitate doing so. Instead I’m using poison which is a work in progress since there seems to be 10 times more than I would have guessed.
    No doubt you “tree huggers” would not approve, and that’s fine. Feel free to back up your SUV and take them home with you.
    Remember baby alligators are cute till they grow up and you loose a leg or an arm!

  • JoAnn

    I have raised many baby coons. They are smart and affectionate. They would go for walks with my dogs . Other dogs who bothered them got put in their place.

  • Doug Harper

    I live near the beach in San Francisco, very near Golden Gate park. I enjoy the Racoons that cruise through my back yard. They keep the feral cat population in check. I would much rather have the raccoons around than those damn feral cats. Most of the soil in this area is sand. Everytime I try to cultivate an area in my back yard, every cat around shows up to poo in my newly turned soil. The coons, are entertaining. My boys and I spend many evenings with spot lights going through golden gate park watching complete families defeating the latest trash can “Raccoon Proof” devices. Another good spot is a place called “Lands End” The park service has tried everything to keep the Raccoons out of the garbage cans….NOT! To date, they have defeated all devices used. I found one on the fence in my back yard, missing a substantial amount of fur, foaming at the mouth, staggering, and growling. He had also lost control of his bowels. Unfortunately I felt the need to humanely dispatch him. I took him to the Fish and game folks. Afew weeks later they advised he was in fact rabid. Very Sad

  • bradford cutler

    I remember reading a study done in Washington DC where the raccoons had learned to get from one side of town to the other using the large storm drains to extend their range for access to food. Too many personal stories to repeat here but here are a few. Water, not food is the biggest limiting factor for raccoon survival where I live. I sometimes would use the hose turnoff at the end of the garden hose and not at the faucet (DON”T MAKE THIS MISTAKE), only to have the raccoon convert my garden hose into a sprinkler during the night. Lesion learned. But wait there’s more. I always make sure the main water pipe that feeds the house is turned off when I leave town. One weekend as I left for my ranch, I had traveled just about 100 yards down the road when I had suddenly realized that I had forgotten to turn the main water switch off. Rather than turn back immediately and completely eliminate a potential problem, I rationalize that the risk was so small that it didn’t warrant the effort. After all, I was only going to be gone for two days and not two weeks. The raccoon didn’t care, as he turned my water faucet on full bore and I was out an extra 100 bucks for that’s month’s bill. He didn’t even have the common courtesy to turn the water off after using it. Now I always use brass faucet caps so the event doesn’t repeat itself. These masked raiders of the night are incredibly intelligent and resourceful. They have even learned to rip off the insulation wraps around the outside AC pipes, so that they can drink the water from the condensation that occurs on the exposed cold pipes.

  • Mike

    The raccoon’s front paws make a useful pair of hands. The raccoon’s brain has evolved so it can make good use of those front paws.

  • Gina Walker

    Very Smart! It took them a while to get the string. You don’t want to get too close – they have nasty tempers!

  • Nancy

    I wondered why I was finding ripped up beer cans in the barns. Realized that the raccoons were taking the cans out of the re-cycle bins and carrying them to the barns to rip apart and get every drop.
    I heard of a fellow who had a small hut to live in while he built his house. One night he reached under his bunk for the beer case and found a small hole in each of the caps and each bottle half empty. He heard a noise in the rafters and looked up to see a passed out raccoon up there.

  • Sandra Boles

    Beautiful, smart, clever, social and very persistent. I have raised many raccoons and released them back to the wild. I have always noted they will hang out and wait for the others and will not leave them, as they are doing in this trash can scene. They are also protective of one another.
    I wish we could track our raccoons that we release back to the wild, I would like to know how they are doing. Any suggestions?

  • Jimmy Vaughan

    lived in the country and all 4 kids had 2 or 3 coons growing up
    coons; all from age eyes closed. We ate at 6pm; one would take favorite toy, a big soup spoon, and bang on under house pipes if not feed shortly there after. all went for walks,us and the dogs & kids for the afternoon pond swim. Longest home stay was Zeke at 5 or 6 years; they usually left at 2nd breeding season

  • Ian Colley

    I watched the video with interest……we don’t have raccoons [or racoons] over here…..but didn’t see any evidence of applied intelligence, excepting perhaps, the opening of the can by pulling at the only part offering a grip, ie. the rim of the lid.
    The trapped animal had no way of escaping and was still immured until a second one repeated the opening operation to access the food, when of course it simply pushed through the gap.
    Interesting, but I’m afraid, no evidence of higher intelligence, unless the second guy was in the R.R.S**
    Regards, Ian C.
    ** Raccoon Rescue Service.

  • Squirrel Nutkin

    My raccoons figured out how to slide open my basement windows and eat my sunflower bird seed forage and get out the same way. Eventually they would join me on the porch steps and actually took short naps there. Two used to rattle my screen door when they saw me inside and wanted a few dog food kibbles. Very clever and endearing and I’m convinced some figure out which humans can be trusted and become quite tame. Opossums on the other hand remained aloof and skittish.

  • Ian Colley

    I spent some considerable time writing a note about the ‘intelligence’ of raccoons NOT being proven by the video. This note hasn’t been added to these comments.

    Do the moderators think that my reasoning reduces the ‘weirdness’ and therefore the interest factor of this ‘news’ item?

    The animal which was trapped inside the bin was only released by the actions of another, which was trying to access food……..Q.E.D.

    As an English observer, I now at least know what a racoon looks like!

    Will this comment be shown?….I don’t think so!
    Regards, Ian C.

  • Bryony

    getting smarter? Maybe. Imo they’re surely getting more desperate with nothing natural in our pesticided, over-manicured suburbs, as we take over more and more of their natural habitat. We’d garbage too — and eachother — if that was the only way not to starve to death.

  • Marge Falendysz

    I live 3 miles North of O’Hare Airport. We are in a suburb less than a mile from the Chicago city limits. We have a boatload of wildlife around our homes because cook county has a huge amount of Forest preserves laced all around and inbetween all the municipalities in cook county.
    I would never get anywhere near a Racoon! We have had them in the yard and my husband chases them away with the water jet on the hose. Raccoons have Huge long nails and many are rabid. If you could see the sap running out of the pine tree they climbed to get away from the hose you would see how much damage those claws can do. My neighbor got into it with a coon and the racoon ran at him and tore right through his jeans to the skin. ER and 22 stitches later from four slices in his leg was not worth it. Rabid animals have no sense to be afraid of you. Leave them alone and we’re all better off.

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