Monday, May 19, 2014

The Raccoon

When I was around three or four I met my first raccoon - an unexpected moment of intimacy (though I didn't think of it that way at the time) that has stayed with me. It was in a zoo. Back then, most of the local zoos (the Bronx Zoo was the exception) were city run and were the kind of dingy, gray landscapes that still haunt the dreams of many animal rights activists. In fact, my few memories of the Central Park and Prospect Park zoos are generally cast in gray and white - not the pretty kind from classic movies but rather the dreary kind from color photos showing rubble piles in war-torn cities.
Bears at the Prospect Park Zoo c. 1929. In my memories, the cages were even drearier. Photo from NYC Parks
Cougar at the Prospect Park c. 2013. The change isn't really the colors but the fact that animals are given proper care and attention, including enrichment like this pumpkin at Halloween. Photo from Have Sippy Will Travel

These memories are also devoid of animal life with a cast of three individuals. The first is a chimp displayed in a miserable little cage fronted in glass or Plexiglas. I don't remember the animal and maybe I never saw it, I just remember wondering at the barren cage and being told that there used to be a dancing chimp in it. The second is a gorilla who had vomited and had proceeded to eat the vomit (note that these zoos were later given to the Wildlife Conservation Society and are now pretty fantastic). The vomit is a brick red - a rare bit of color! - in my memory, which is unlikely unless it had been fed some sort of colored primate biscuit. The third is the raccoon. It is the only one I really ever think about much, but it has made a nice little nest in my brain and refuses to leave.

I remember it as a rather small creature with silvery gray fur, a white belly, and black on the mask and tail stripes. I remember the hands most of all; white & gray fur with deep black hairless fingers and palms, slightly glossed like new leather. The raccoon in my memory is standing behind the black chain-link fencing of the bare concrete cage, it's little fingers curled around the metal like a prisoner in a cartoon. Sometimes the chain-link is just vertical iron bars. Maybe it paces a bit too. I am standing behind a black bar also - a thick railing intended to hold people back from the cage itself. In my memory I am just tall enough to see over it instead of having to stoop below it, but it's just as likely that my dad did the same thing parents everywhere do, sitting me on the bar for a better view. I am bundled up in a coat and mittens (brown with some sort of pattern) and very happily eating one of those large pretzels available at hot dog carts all over the city.
I came across this guy in Prospect Park -
see how cute they can look?

I liked the raccoon. I may have thought it was cute or funny or mysterious or anything else. My knowledge of animals was fairly extensive, fueled by books my parents read to me, coloring books and TV shows (Wild America was a favorite), but still mostly limited to being able to identify different species and maybe even pair some up with odd facts like that cheetahs are the fastest animal and that lemmings commit suicide periodically (these were the "facts" as I knew them then anyway). Familiarity with the real thing was different. I was old enough to separate the real animals from their children's-book and cartoon counterparts but still too young and innocent to really understand what that meant. The result was a void waiting to be filled with my own observations and real life experiences. Zoos can be a great place for that.

Here was a real-life raccoon. It was not some smiling, dancing cartoon character or a picture on the TV. It was right there and I loved that. Even better, the raccoon knew I was there too. It was not asleep; it was not hanging out in the back of the exhibit or doing anything that told me that I was unimportant to it. It was hanging out with my dad and me, watching us with interest. I was hooked.

Photo obtained from National Wildlife Foundation
Then, quick and sudden, the raccoon reached out and took my and mitten pretzel from me. In that instant, my knowledge of the raccoon as a real live animal and individual gelled. Here was no Disney/Richard Scarry/Sesame Street character looking cute in the background or teaching me about manners, friendship or sharing; this was all the things those characters encourage you not to be! It was rude, it was selfish, it was a bully. It was also my first real encounter with nature. I cried. I'm not sure whether this was a reaction to the loss of my pretzel and mitten, to the unexpectedness of the "attack" or to the fact that my entire view of this cute raccoon (and the natural world in general) had been so suddenly and violently overturned, but either way it upset me.

The memory ends there. I have no recollection of how my father consoled me, or if I later told the story to my mom with tears or laughter. That is forever lost to time. How accurate my memories are is also a question. The more you remember an event, the less accurate it gets, and I remember this event quite often. It's not just my memory either. My mom and dad both remind me of it on occasion. It is a glue that binds us together with the early years of my childhood. For them it is a window to a time when I was innocent and carefree, perhaps also an early portent that I was to pursue a career working with animals. For me, the memory and the raccoon specifically, is a symbol of my first real interaction with a wild animal.

There are many sad things about the memory - the deplorable state of the zoo, the lack of color, the thievery - but they lost their bite long ago. I can hardly blame the raccoon for it's actions that day and in fact I now see that rather than simply taking my pretzel and mitten, it also imparted a gift - a lesson. It woke me up to complicated realities of nature - that a creature can be both cute and scary, that the black and white view of animals portrayed in children's books is no more correct that that of shows focusing on the violence of predators, that sometimes life just sucks - and to the fact that I am not entirely separate from it.

Raccoons can be both cute and scary (okay - this one's more cute than anything)

The raccoon and I reenact this event periodically. Each time I can feel the fingers grab at mine and the pretzel they hold. I can feel the light scratching of a claw or two as they accidentally hook onto the yarn of my mitten, and the sudden cold of my now empty, naked hand. I still remember the awe and then shock I felt as all of this happened. Like the Egyptian goods Seth and Ra who must fight each day as the sun crosses the sky, we are forever locked in this conflict, becoming (personal) archetypes - the raccoon represents not theft or trickery but nature, and my young self represents innocence and ignorance. I approach the raccoon with the joy of the innocent and the raccoon takes the pretzel and mitten, forcing me to face nature as it is, not as my ignorance would see it. Each time is like the first time for me - the memory is that strong - but before and afterwards, the heat of our conflict is long gone leaving in it's place the warm glow of that perpetual intimacy and lessons learned.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


This week: a book review.

As this blog is first and foremost a place for me to practice my nonfiction writing, and as much of my reading time is spent reading nonfiction, I thought I might occasionally post book reviews on here. All were originally posted on Goodreads

Last week I finished "Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution" by Richard Fortey. My review is below.

This book does shed light on trilobites - their biology, ecology, evolution and even behavior. For non-scientists, there is plenty of explanation of scientific methods etc. These get pretty repetitive, enough so that I suspect everyone will be skimming/skipping these sections by half way through. 

Personally I found that it was weighed down by the author's self-involvement. Fortey attempts to bring the book alive with lots and lots of personal anecdotes. It works okay in the beginning but gets old after a while. Part of the problem is that some of these additions add little to the topics he is illustrating. It is enough of an issue that I found myself pretty bored by the last through of the book. The bigger issue is his ego which comes through loud and clear. 

Fortey loves to talk about his own discoveries and accomplishments. That is warranted in many places but it happens so frequently that it left me wondering what other researchers have found. It's not that he doesn't mention the successes of others, but many of those are historical figures and the current ones are uncommon and frequently are colleagues of his. Cronyism is nothing new in such books, but combined with the giant number of personal contributions to the field and the overall paucity of others makes it stand out. 

His acknowledgement of dissenting opinions is even rarer. Most are only snidely hinted at. For instance, he mentions that one of the new species he named was contested by others but doesn't say anything else; his dismissal of them is so strong he doesn't bother to go into detail. It was a missed opportunity to discuss the process of identifying and naming new species or groups. He does eventually discuss that fascinating issue and gives some good examples of similar research and arguments making his lack of detail on that particular story all the more confusing. 

For the most part he avoids the vitriol characteristic of Richard Dawkins and some other popular science writers, even calling Dawkins to task for it at one point. One exception is his in depth discussion of Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould is well done but odd in it's detail. I actually wondered if he had a particular problem with Gould, and I'm still not sure (he does mention Gould in a more positive light later but not in any really detail). BTW - I am aHUGE fan of Gould's writings, so I'm admittedly biased here but I saw no issue with Fortey's points, rather I was taken aback by how much attention Gould and his book got in that section.

Richard Fortey with one of his beloved research subjects. Photo obtained from Age of Wonder

The end result is a mix of the really interesting and the really tiresome. Sadly, these are common issues in popular science books. Brian Greene & George Schaller are great example of scientists (non-scientists writing about science generally never have such issues) that have been able to write great popular books on their fields. 

Richard Fortey is a world-renowned expert on trilobites and the depth of knowledge he displays is wonderful. This is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in trilobites or paleontology, just be prepared to skim through sections of it. 


The original review can be found here:

Other Goodreads reviews of the book can be here: