A very interesting book could be written about the Raccoon and, with its industrious energy and resourcefulness, it deserves to be elevated to the status of the National Emblem in place of the parasitical, carrion-feeding Bald Eagle. — Ivan T. Sanderson, Living Mammals of the World (1955)

“Go raccoon go!” shouts an onlooker in a viral video of a raccoon stealing a donut through the ceiling of a coffee shop.

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Christopher Columbus referred to them as perros, the Spanish word for dog. Algonquins called them arakunem, meaning “one who scratches with his hands.” Online, raccoons are often referred to as “trash pandas,” or “forbidden cats,” and are one of the most beloved beasts of the memesphere. In 2014, Reddit user CarlPeligro coined (or at least popularized) the phrase “trash panda.” Commenting, “raccoons = trash pandas,” on a post of a raccoon in a tux in the r/aww subreddit, he helped initiate an internet movement that cast the ringtail bandit as an adorable folk hero. Soon after the Evil Plotting Raccoon gained success, many similar meme templates followed. Viral stories about rogue, zombie, and dead raccoons have painted the animal as objects of fascination, disgust, and ultimately reverence. Even Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 referenced “trash panda,” cementing it further in the pop-cultural imagination.

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Humanity’s fixation with these animals goes back centuries. The name, taken from the Powhatan language, was among the very first words recorded by Europeans arriving in Jamestown. A popular trickster figure in a variety of Indigenous cultures, Europeans were bewitched by the beguiling creatures, but perhaps unprepared for their mischievousness. They brought them back to Europe, hoping to domesticate or breed them, and almost immediately the animals escaped, invading the continent and beyond. Bright generalists who will eat just about anything, raccoons quickly acclimate to both rural and urban environments. Rivalled only by rats and pigeons, they’ve become a staple of city wildlife across the globe, enchanting and enraging citizens in equal measure.

Sometimes called “the Raccoon Capital of the World,” in 2014, the city of Toronto invested $31 million to design a raccoon-proof garbage bin. When these new containers were rolled out years later, featuring specially designed twisting locks on the lids, people started to worry they worked a little too well. The raccoons seemed to be gone, and sadness fell on the city. The mourning was short-lived, though. It wasn’t long before the first video of a raccoon breaching a bin went viral. Shot in low light from a window, the camera zooms in on a raccoon atop the new green garbage bin with the specially designed twist tops. While raccoons lack thumbs, their hands are remarkably dexterous, and with time to spare, the animal twists the lock to access the garbage inside. Many other videos followed, featuring the raccoons bypassing the barriers specifically designed to keep them out in well under 30 seconds. 

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The response was contradictory. As much as people hate when raccoons make a mess of their garbage, most watching can’t help but root for them. In a 6,000-word article about the new bins for the Toronto Star, animal behaviorist Suzanne Macdonald declared herself “Team Raccoon,” and she wasn’t alone. Even government officials begrudgingly admitted admiration for the resourceful pests. John Tory, the mayor of Toronto, went on TV to joke that sharing the video of the raccoon amounted to colluding with the enemy. Even with tens of millions of dollars down the drain, the city was forced to admit that Team Raccoon had won.

As more and more people live in urban environments, disconnected from nature, raccoons represent one of the last remnants of the natural world we are exposed to in cities. Not only have we ultimately failed to contain them, but they also live off our waste, a reminder of humanity’s destructive tendencies. As cities increasingly represent an apocalyptic vision of a ruined natural world, raccoons thrive in the carnage we live behind. Their presence and continued survival remind us that in spite of our efforts, our hold on the world might not be as strong as we imagine. 

It seems that living in a garbage world, these guardians of garbage represent our fears and anxieties over impending climate doom. But they also offer a wisp of hope. The raccoon’s rebel spirit and unquenchable curiosity feel like a subversion of environmental hopelessness. When we cheer for the raccoon in the ceiling, we identify with our best and worst selves: resourceful parasites surrounded by garbage. As animals with little respect for authority or capitalism, raccoons flout convention in ways we can only hope to. While often anthropomorphized, the most common raccoon memes elevate them to a status above and beyond human reach. They are tricksters and survivors, worthy of caution and respect. 

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.