Raccoons: It’s All In The Hands

Raccoons: It’s All In The Hands

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

Harry Houdini was a great break-out artist: handcuffed, straight-jacketed, chained and submerged in water, he’d always emerge.  Raccoons are famous break-in artists. No chimney flue, garbage can, or campground cooler is safe from their prying hands.

Like Harry Houdini, it’s partly clever hand work that makes the raccoon so good…and so bad. Raccoons have remarkably sensitive hands, with five long, tapered fingers and long nails. They lack thumbs, so can’t grasp objects with one hand the way we can, but they use both forepaws together to lift and then acutely manipulate objects. Thanks to this tactile intelligence, raccoons are problem solvers that adapt easily to cities, suburbs, and other manmade habitats.

There’s a myth that raccoons wash their food. (Our North American raccoon’s species name, lotor, means washer in Latin.) But what they’re doing when they wet and rub an object is “seeing” it; it’s thought that water contact increases a raccoon’s tactile ability. When a raccoon wets and handles a crayfish, stone, worm, or clam, he’s gathering information: nearly two thirds of the sensory data that he’s processing comes from cells that interpret various types of touch sensation. In other words, touch is as important a sense as hearing, smell, and sight.

Raccoons are omnivorous, which many researchers believe has pushed raccoon brain development. Every object they come across has the potential to be food: this drive to acquire a wide variety of foods, scientists believe, has driven human brain development as well. As every teacher knows, children learn by touch, whether it’s building blocks or bouncing balls, and in cognitive development the sense of touch is vital to developing abstract understanding.

How did raccoons develop those incredible hands? They evolved around river and lake banks in South America where they had to use their forepaws to find food hidden under water or buried in mud and silt. The fingers of a raccoon’s forepaws are well-padded. Each has some four to five times more mechanoreceptor cells (cells adapted to detect mechanical stimulus, such as changes in pressure) than are found in most mammals. Only humans and other primates have similar numbers.

So raccoons have this enormous ability to sense with their forepaws and a brain that’s able to interpret and store vast amounts of touch sense information. They’re omnivorous, curious, smart, practically fearless, and they have great memories. So, why, I wonder, haven’t they learned how to open a simple barrel latch? Let me explain.

For over thirty years I’ve watched raccoons make their evening rounds to the primitive campsites on Cumberland Island, a national park at Georgia’s coastal border with Florida. Cumberland offers a welcome escape from mud season, and I look forward to making the trip there each year. There are miles of uninhabited beach, a large live oak forest and robust populations of feral horses, migrant birds, wild boar and armadillos.

Raccoons have all kinds of natural foods at their disposal, from oysters and fish to mast crops and crabs. Why they prefer boxes of Saltines and hamburger buns to fresh oysters is beyond me. But they will spend hours trying to obtain camper food, often successfully.

Raccoon-proof containers at each campsite on the island consist of four foot square plywood boxes with sides screened using small-mesh hardware cloth. The boxes sit on posts five feet high. The front of each box is hinged and locked with a simple sliding barrel mechanism. I have witnessed raccoons hanging for hours from the wire mesh sides, poking their fingernails through the fine mesh (the defense against that is to line the inside of the box with cardboard). But I have never seen or heard of a raccoon opening a simple barrel latch. Why haven’t they figured it out?  

Rangers who have been dealing with raccoons for years have their theories. Some think it’s the lack of an opposable thumb. Others say that because it’s a two-step process, raccoons simply can’t manage it through trial and error. I think it’s only a matter of time before they slide open the barrels and we have to change the locks. 

Tim Traver is an author and freelance writer. Previously, he served as executive director of the Upper Valley Land Trust and co-directed the social service organization COVER Home Repair.

  1. Doug Stowe
    Apr 04, 2014

    I am fascinated by hands, my own and others. Anaxagoras had said that Man is the wisest of all animals because he has hands. An animal that has hands much more human-like than the raccoon’s is the possum. It is nowhere near as smart as the raccoon, but still there may be some sense to Anaxagoras’ thinking. We human learn best when our hands are engaged. By making things we learn about our material culture in greater depth and with greater enthusiasm than can be found in the laziness of books.

    I suspect that the raccoon will learn how to open the latch sooner rather than later. And once that knowledge gets passed on, rangers will have to lock up the garbage with combination locks.

    I write about hands in my blog, wisdom of the hands.

  2. Karen Maclean-Little
    Jan 15, 2016

    These animals are so smart, but the hands thing have my attention. Training seems to be done with hands and signals.

  3. Pat
    Jan 06, 2017

    I am a wildlife rehabilitator and raise to release raccoons. I have a barrel lock on the inside of the large pre-release cage so when entering, they don’t get out. Learned the hard way to keep a long screwdriver hanging outside so when they lock me out, I can still get inside. They can lock it and do remember. Once it happens, it is slid into place every time I go back out.  Should not be long until they figure out how to open it.

  4. Tami
    May 12, 2017

    I have a raccoon that has been visiting my yard at night, I can’t work out how he is getting the bird seed patty off of the washing line I attached it to, ten it is 6-7 ft off the ground, no overhanging trees - he must’ve jumped and hung on to the line while simultaneously opening the mesh to get the patty out - HOW does he do that?

  5. Elise Tillinghast
    May 15, 2017

    I don’t know, Tami, but I bet it would make a great game camera image. Which you could then share with us…

  6. Nate
    May 15, 2017

    I’m a raccoon rehabber for release. I have raised many lil guys. Never underestimate a raccoon. They make fools of everyone who tries to figure them out. Procyon lotor (before the dog/washer) they are smarter than cats,dogs, etc. and the important thing to remember is their extreme intelligence, then the paws which they do use as hands. I have given the juniors human baby Busy-boxes for lil kids (that you put into cribs, etc) and away they go. They will wear them out! If left with a regular combination lock (closed and locked inside the cage) they can eventually open it.

  7. Victoria
    Apr 01, 2018

    Y’all think raccoons could be taught sign language? Like, are the hands good enough (even w/o opposable thumbs)? And surely they’re smart?

  8. John Ross
    May 17, 2018

    This morning a juvenile raccoon visited my patio and checked out my Main Coon cat. They were close to being the same size and Max the cat wanted in now!  Once in he growled and was tense. The raccoon went to the back yard and smoothly and effortlessly climbed 20 feet up a 100 foot fir tree.
    Later a group of scolding crows caused me to see the raccoon half way up the tree where he was casually crossing on branches to a second, then a third tree.

  9. Todd Scarbrough
    Oct 25, 2018

    It was told to me in med school that as you move from mice, cats, dogs, to raccoons, the raccoon is the first animal in that line with a well developed enough lateral corticospinal tract to facilitate fine hand (or paw) movement. The corticospinal tract helps route signals from the brain to the muscles of the extremities; it’s very well developed in primates and humans for example.

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