To Catch a Thief: Nocturnal Observations on Raccoons

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 2003, Tom Bentley

Raccoons have stolen my car and are hightailing it to Vegas. OK, I’m exaggerating, but having observed their devious and dexterous ways, I wouldn’t put it past them. Maybe they’d have trouble backing out of the driveway, but put them in front of a video poker game and they’d be cashing in in no time.

I know this from watching them snaking individual pieces of my cat’s food, prized from the dish to their mouths, with them all the while watching me watching them. At the house I lived in before my present house, the raccoons were almost like roommates: they’d show up in the evening after their day job, hungry for a bite. I couldn’t seem to figure out that once the cat dish was established as a set table, they could be counted on to show up for dinner on our deck.

Our cat, who had all the courage of a blueberry, would watch a short distance away with her whiskers whisked, while one to four raccoons would pluck her food like candies from her dish, popping the pieces into their mouths with great savor. They’d occasionally vary their diet: once I saw one snag a moth in mid-air and pop it casually into its mouth — raccoons would make great centerfielders.

My girlfriend Alice and I would watch from mere feet away on the other side of the sliding glass door, amazed at the spidery, controlled delicacy of the coons’ paws. And they seemed fearless: they would stretch their furry frames the full length up our glass door, looking wide-eyed at us. I’m sure if I let them in, they’d grab the remote and change to the Nature Channel.

Once Alice left a big basin of water on the lawn outside our bedroom window for plant watering the next day. We heard a commotion in the wee hours and looked out to see three very kittenish babies frisking around its rim, frolicking and falling in the water. Just a few nights later, the same crew was racing up and down the vertical trellis on the bedroom deck, moving at amazing speed from top to bottom. And when we unthinkingly left a kid’s wading pool full of water on the lawn, it only took one evening for them to slash it to a flat, soppy mess with their happy claws.

I realized after a while that the raccoons saw us as entertainment — we were like a big-screen TV, showing spooked bipeds with puzzled faces, amusing them while they crunched their cat chips. If we opened the door to shoo them away, they’d just go around to the other side of the deck to see us from a different angle. One particularly memorable evening, we watched a single big raccoon fastidiously dining, when a blithe skunk walked up and displaced the coon at the cat bowl. The coon scampered off but soon came back with two baby coons. The mama raccoon tried to distract the skunk while the babies turned to the bowl. Finally annoyed, the skunk swung around, and with a glandular swivel of its hips it delivered its perfumed payload off of our sliding glass door with us two feet away (and thankfully on the other side). That seem finale enough — everyone departed, leaving us to clean up.

It sounds as though I admire their pluck, and in a sense I do, but that admiration is tempered by the unholy terror they can invoke. When we bought our present house in rural Watsonville, the previous owner left us a series of four oak wine barrels, cut in half, at various heights on the deck. He had made them into water gardens, where a pump circulated water from top barrel to bottom into tanks filled with plants and goldfish. The day we moved in, we checked the tanks and the plants were trashed and the fish were gone. We decided we had some pretty low-down neighbors, skulking around stealing goldfish from an unoccupied house.

It was only after we’d restocked the tanks with fish and come out to see some missing that we realized that the naughty neighbors were coons afoot. (Many feet, actually; their footprints were outlined in the water they’d splashed from the tanks.) These depredations continued almost nightly. Soon our tanks were fishless again, and our plants barely alive.

It was when the raccoons nabbed a beautiful big lemon-colored Coi given to me for my birthday that we began plotting our revenge. Somehow the revenge turned out to be as painful for us as for the raccoons. First we thought to put up some sheer netting over all of the tanks, held taut by nails on the sides. (One look at raccoons’ faces tell you they can laugh; our netting must have provoked hilarity — they easily lifted it or tore it to get back in the tanks.)

Then we bought chicken wire (and over ineffectual time, several grades of the stuff), sheathing the tank tops with what we thought was impenetrable protection. That seemed to only increase the coons’ resolve – they either lifted it off the sides or jumped on top of it so that it buckled, giving the access again to their finned appetizers. We decided to go medieval on them: we recovered the tanks with layers of hog wire, and then cut it so that a series of spikes protruded up from various spots on the tanks.

These spiteful spikes actually made me feel some slight sympathy toward the raccoons, until I saw that they figured out how to move around the spikes and still slither those ravening paws into our frightened fishes’ waters. At this point, our serene and lovely water gardens were the stuff of nightmare: metallic, jutting fortifications that looked more broken battleground than bucolic berth. It was as though the fish were in prison, though the raccoon skills made it minimum security. Short of topping the barrels with metal manhole covers, we were stumped.

And weirdly enough, unlike the celebrity coons who came to our other house with their posses, preening so you could photograph them from flattering angles, the fish-tank coons were ninjas — we never saw them, only the results of their pillagings. I even spent a couple of bleary-eyed nights in the living room, hoping to catch them in the act. No dice — they probably injected soporific gases down the chimney.

Technology to the rescue: we bought a “raccoon radar” device: it’s a motion-detector alarm on a timer, set to deliver a nails-on-the-blackboard high-pitched tone that sends raccoons scurrying to a more unprotected fishing hole. Once we set it up properly, we didn’t lose another fish. And it’s so much more visually discreet than spikes tipped with curare or land mines.

We do occasionally see coon tracks around, and we have spotted a goggle-eyed possum on the deck now and then, and that’s fine. I like knowing there are creatures out there, that the night’s alive. I just don’t want the night eating my goldfish. But I know there’s room for us all out here, whether in uneasy truce or not.

Just don’t get me started on the gophers.