“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 what comes first, docility or cognitive abilities.”
Some research suggests the process of domestication changes how animals think. Dogs, for example, are better than wolves or nonhuman primates at following some human gestures, such as pointing to hidden food.
This does not necessarily mean that raccoons will soon be reading our gestures. But living alongside animals that may be evolving to exploit our presence might mean people need to better understand how the animals think in order to avoid conflicts with them, the researchers said.
Raccoons, however, could be particularly difficult. Working with captive raccoons has convinced Dr. Benson-Amram that they actually enjoy cognitive challenges. “We give them problems, and even when there’s no reward, they just keep going for it,” she said.
Raccoons in urban environments 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 trash bin, secured the lid with a bungee cord and deployed it in backyards to see how raccoons would react.
“I had one female 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 who invaded their land.
“These guys have figured out a way to live with us,” she said. “Surely to God, we can use our giant cortexes and figure out a way to live with them.”
Betsy Mason is a freelance journalist and a 2022 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.