Our office building is near a rural stretch of highway, and we’ve learned to ignore the wildlife. But this one raccoon was carrying something in its mouth, and one of our lead researchers followed it across the parking lot. The animal scurried to a narrow creekbed and dropped its burden by the water. It was a small chicken drumstick stolen from the office dumpster. But what struck the researcher was how the raccoon dunked the chicken in the water before eating it. “It actually waggled the food in the water,” he reported to us as we ate lunch in the breakroom.
“Raccoons wash their food,” we said, nodding, although none of us could recall exactly where we’d learned this.
“But other animals don’t. When did raccoons start?” he said.
“Awhile ago,” we said, a little sheepish. We were researchers, men and women of science. Even though animals aren’t our area of expertise, not knowing embarrassed us.
Later, someone looked it up and reported the answer to the break room. “Raccoons didn’t wash their food until humans did. They learned by watching us.” We watched Keith, the office slob, munch on a piece of fried chicken, the smell of oil and spice spreading through the room. Everyone knew it was probably his garbage that attracted the raccoon in the first place, but with the gap in our knowledge filled, we felt magnanimous and forgave him.
“In Thailand,” someone said, “if a monkey steals your water bottle, they know how to unscrew the cap.” Someone talked for a while about how smart crows are. We all felt smart. Walking to our cars at the end of the day, we heard the water in the creek bubble and sing.
Later, we heard scratching noises coming from the dumpster. Someone reported it to the property management. After someone watched a pair of raccoons drag papers from the dumpster, we started wondering. What else had they learned from watching us? How far did their imitation skills go? Soon, more employees were bringing chicken to lunch. One thing we noticed was how the raccoons would stare. Some mornings, you’d see them at the forest’s edge. It seemed like they were peering through your windshield as you pulled in to your parking space and gathered your things before heading inside. And it was a little eerie, we admitted, since they sat with their necks craned, ears twitching as if they expected something from us.
Over time, we hypothesized that the staring was also an imitation—almost a mockery of people who spent their days gazing into reflective screens. We noticed raccoons in the trees outside, as if they were more eager to peek into the building than to scavenge inside. A new kind of hunger. Around this point, the property management set out poison traps. You’d see more raccoon bodies on the side of the highway each week and more black and white tails hanging from the antenna of a strange new car in the parking lot. Every eradication tactic was used except, it seemed, securing the dumpsters.
But still, the raccoons left the woods to enter our world, and in their persistence and ability to survive, we found inspiration. Most of us had finished major projects, and there was a lull before we had to resubmit our grants. Winter was looming and soon all wildlife would retreat into the forests, into the indomitable realm of sleep and cold.
Our new zoological research felt urgent, and we were eager to begin. Which is why five or six of us are gathered on the cold asphalt parking lot this evening. By observing these animals, we thought we might catch a new reflection of ourselves. But now, there are dozens of them at the edge of the woods. We suspect they’re in the trees as well but don’t want to look. You forget about the physicality of them: their snouts and fangs and the way they move, graceless and tentative, their backs arched a little too high.
And they’re silent as they stare back. Around us are faint highway noises, swift echoes of everything we don’t know. Or everything we know but are afraid to admit. There’s that iridescent glow in their eyes and though we know what causes it, we can’t help but wonder what they’re seeing, what they’ve learned. Their masks vanish as they step forward, onto the asphalt.
All rights reserved to Robert Yune.