Monday, February 21, 2011

Raccoon Nation: Outwitting The Critters

Toronto filmmaker Susan Fleming has a knack for explaining nature.
In last season's hour- long documentary Crows she explained how the black birds are among the most intelligent in the wild kingdom.
And she's done it again with Raccoon Nation --the hour premieres on The Nature Of Things Thursd. Feb. 24 at 8 p.m.
I felt this one might be specifically made for me --it opens with a tracking shot of the Don Valley and I pick out my street very clearly.
"You live in one of the most heavily infested raccoon areas in the city," Fleming explains to me on the phone.
Tell me about it. On garbage night as I'm putting out the trash I can look up in the trees and see the raccoons waiting for their chance to knock the cans over and enjoy a feast.
They're not there on other nights and I swear some of them have even figured how to unlock the cache.
Fleming spent a year documenting the problem in Toronto and elsewhere. She guesstimates she spent at least 90 all nighters tramping through Toronto backyards in search of her subjects.
And she gets some terrific shots: one has a mother raccoon showing her three kits how to compress their spines and slither through a wedge in a garage door.
Two of the kits learn pretty quickly but the third seems to be a slow learner and finally mother has to pick him up in her and through the tight opening.
The kits are so sweet, Fleming is saying and they need complete supervision during the first year of life. But once they reach sexual maturity --watch out!
In fact she has a whole segment on the raccoon problems in Japan?
Excuse me but I thought raccoons were native to the Americas? Well, Japanese parents saw how entranced their children were with a cartoon series on raccoon kits and bought the kits at pet stores...
When the raccoons matured they turned nasty and were let go and with no predators to contain them started running amuck.
One strange scene has normally peaceful Japanese monks involved in an extermination campaign before their temples crumble from the raccoon pests munching away at the timber.
In Germany it's the same problem: a pair of raccoons escaped in 1936 and have been taking over in the forests ever since.
Fleming worked with Chicago researchers to collar raccoons in the city and then release them to determine their field of operation.
"Surprisingly it's only a few blocks for each animal," she says. "And they don't seem to intrude on another's territory."
Fleming says city slicker raccoons have many of our health problems: they're obese from eating trash and can suffer from diabetes and tooth decay. Their country cousins may be fewer in number but are smaller, slimmer, more healthy.
Toronto with its network of ravines has been dubbed the raccoon capital of the world. Fleming manages to explain their word. She says evidence is mounting that the raccoons are getting smarter as they try to live in an urban jungle.
"I was surprised by a lot of what I saw. For example females can band together in a kind of nursery school for their kits. "
Besides multitasking the raccoons are also shown solving problems like how to tackle those pesky garbage locks. We see them spending hours at the task of picking the locks.
And Fleming insists picking locks is actually making their brains smarter.
I know what animal Fleming will next study but am sworn to secrecy here.
All I can say is it is an equal menace in Toronto and has four legs. Care to take a guess?
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

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