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Critters of New York

My Horny Raccoon Roommate and Me

Why did a raccoon take up residence on my fire escape, and then begin masturbating?

11:00 AM EDT on September 5, 2023

A raccoon sitting on a fire escape stares through window bars.

Papy! (Lauren Leffer / Hell Gate)

I was working in my home office one day in early August when my partner appeared in the doorway to announce, "There's a raccoon sleeping out on the fire escape." Without thought, and almost involuntarily, I sprinted across our apartment to see it with my own eyes, and gasped when I arrived at the window. There was a raccoon, and the raccoon was indeed sleeping—curled up in a ball in the corner against the railing, and shaded partially by the spindly trees between our building and the Prospect Expressway. I watched his little chest rise and fall. His ears twitched. "Hello," I cooed, as if to a human baby. 

He came back the next day, and the next. After a few days of consecutive reappearances, we bought a pet camera to watch the raccoon more closely. By the time my partner and I started our surveillance campaign, I'd already spent hours gazing at the creature as he slept or groomed himself.

He was enchanting. An iron gate and a glass pane separated me from my fire escape raccoon, but by observing his daily routine, I found myself feeling more connected to the city and its non-human inhabitants than ever before. The raccoon offered me a link to the natural world, which can often seem so dispiritingly distant living in Brooklyn. I quickly became familiar with his 30-minute nightly personal hygiene routine: He'd clean his ears, scrub his paws, and chew his tail like a corn cob before disappearing into the darkness. Of course, we gave him a name—Pepy Sato, after the nearby Pep Boy's Auto sign that we designated a local landmark for having the same pattern of burnt-out lightbulbs for years, which read "P-E-P _ _Y'S A_TO."

With the camera in place, I began every morning, not with my usual Twitter scroll, but on the video app, sorting through all the footage the pet cam had captured while I'd slept. Those recordings revealed nocturnal secrets we'd never have known otherwise. Sometimes, Pepy stopped by for a 3 a.m. stretch and sniff break. Other times, he'd reappear climbing down from the roof, or up the narrow stairs of our fire escape, only to quickly vanish again. Always, he was adorable. 

Of course, I'd seen raccoons elsewhere in Brooklyn. Who among us hasn't watched an entire family of masked bandits emerge from a Prospect Park trashcan after sundown? But out of all the fire escapes on all the blocks in the borough, Pepy chose ours. It was like rediscovering object permanence to see the same animal in the same place every day, returning of its own volition. Other New Yorkers might know the feeling from, for instance, keeping tabs on Flaco the owl as he flies freely around Central Park, or watching a pigeon brood on its nest. 

Absorbed by my raccoon roommate, most of my thoughts and conversations soon became Pepy-related. Before bed, I'd post choice photos or clips from the day's footage on Instagram. I brought the raccoon up to friends at parties. Together, my partner and I wondered what Pepy did when he wasn't directly outside our third-floor window. We speculated about his thoughts and his inner desires. Was he happy? Was our fire escape a good place to live? Could he smell the eggs I was cooking and did he want some? It was a picture of domestic bliss, just two humans and a racoon (sort of) sharing space.

Then one day, we awoke to an especially surprising discovery. A recording from the night before showed Pepy engaging in what appeared to be an act of self-pleasure, extensively licking his penis. This, I thought both then and now, is a good thing: He knows his hairy little body and does not know shame. My partner took to affectionately calling Pepy "our nasty guy." The penis-licking video prompted even more questions, namely, is this normal? Is our nasty little guy OK? 

So I reached out to some experts to find out. After all, it's important to get to know your housemates. 

Raccoons evolved to live in forests and grasslands, specifically alongside waterways in riparian habitats, Suzanne MacDonald, an animal behavior researcher at York University in Toronto, told me. Thanks to their adaptability, problem-solving skills, and generalist diet, raccoons have proven to be adept at urban life. "In that way, they're extremely smart," she said. Raccoons' expanded habitat includes in New York City, where according to the Parks Department, there’s been an uptick in reported sightings in recent years. 

What about Pepy, specifically? Was he handling Brooklyn alright? I quizzed MacDonald on his routine and tendencies like a concerned mom at a parent-teacher conference. In every case, she said what I described sounded like standard, healthy behavior: the extensive grooming, his solo-denning, his semi-irregular sleep habits, and even the penis-licking. "I'm sure it's perfectly normal," she said of his self-pleasuring, though she noted that in 800 hours of her own recordings, she'd never observed such a thing. Macdonald asked to see the video for herself. I sent it by email and received a follow-up response that included a winky face. "Pepy Sato looks perfectly normal (and very happy lol)," she wrote. 

The possibility of raccoon masturbation also didn't faze Lauren Stanton, a cognitive ecologist who studies raccoons and other urban wildlife at UC Berkeley. "Would it surprise me that that's what's going on? No," she said, citing other animals like dolphins, our fellow primates, and otters that have been documented self-pleasuring. Raccoons are smart enough to foil bungee cords on garbage lids and locks on cat doors, so why wouldn't they be able to solve the mystery of their own genitals? 

In fact, some scientific studies suggest that living in cities might make raccoons "smarter." In MacDonald's own, not-yet-published, research, she found that urban animals use more strategies and are more persistent when confronted with a challenge like accessing a hard-to-reach food source than their rural counterparts. The Parks Department's Sunny Corrao, a public engagement associate for the agency's wildlife unit, has seen the creativity and craftiness of NYC's raccoons with her own eyes. Corrao has watched raccoons raid dumpsters on street corners and fish for crayfish in the Central Park Ravine. (Raccoons will basically eat anything they can catch easily and fit in their mouths.) When observing them, she said she feels as if "you can see the inner workings of their brain going." "They definitely fit the model of, 'if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,'" Corrao said of their resourcefulness. "They're a perfect mascot for New York City."

The Parks Department does field some complaints about the critters, Corrao said, and garbage-related conflicts are common. But many humans are like me, and are excited to see raccoons around town. "For some people, they have aesthetic value," she said. Encountering wildlife in the city can boost people's well-being and bring a sense of calmness, Corrao added. Plus, as mesopredators (middle-ranking, mid-sized predators), raccoons play an important role in the ecosystem, keeping populations of other, smaller animals in check. Do they eat rats? Sadly, Corrao couldn't answer that question.

What she could tell me, however, is that I'm not alone in having a fire escape raccoon. Corrao has received numerous reports of raccoons sleeping and hanging out on fire escapes around the city. "If you think about it, a fire escape is kind of like a human-made tree," Corrao explained. The structures mimic a raccoon's natural, preferred home, an arboreal den. In seeking shelter on fire escapes, raccoons can find a sense of safety above the ground, as well as a nice, canopy-like breeze and improved air circulation. "As it gets colder outside, this raccoon will probably find somewhere else to den. But in summer, [the fire escape] is providing a nice, cool, safe space for it," Corrao said of Pepy, validating one of my deeply held desires—that my fire escape, and by extension myself, was a raccoon safe space. 

Which begs the question: How far away might Pepy roam from his comfortable, makeshift den? Apparently, like human New Yorkers, urban raccoons too can generally find everything they need in just the span of a few blocks, said MacDonald. And with traits like food preferences and shyness, raccoon range size seems to vary widely between individuals. Myles Davis, a senior manager at NYC Audubon who did his master's degree research on wildlife in the city, noted that territories can be upwards of 30 acres when you consider the raccoons that live in large greenspaces like Greenwood Cemetery and Prospect Park. 

Short of putting a radio collar on Pepy, there would’ve simply been no way to know how far he ventured each night. But, according to Davis, who has set up his own cameras around the city to monitor raccoons, when Pepy wasn't visible on the pet cam, he was likely foraging for food and socializing with his peers. Davis's cameras frequently captured raccoons gathering and even playing together. This knowledge assuaged one of my biggest concerns about Pepy—that he might be lonely or abnormally isolated. 

Each of the experts I spoke with offered up incredible anecdotes of raccoon ingenuity and persistence: eight hours spent breaking into a trash can, mastering a complicated puzzle box that befuddled coyotes and skunks alike, demonstrating an understanding of buoyancy and physics. 

It was wonderful to learn about all manner of raccoon exploits. Yet at the same time, that wasn't the raccoon behavior I'd come to know firsthand. My little guy didn't put any of that genius on display in his time on my fire escape. For two weeks, I watched him scratch himself, occasionally jerk off, and sleep. In the comfort of the metal platform bolted to my building, Pepy performed no pretense or posturing. He was just a raccoon vibing and surviving in his urban bachelor pad. I feel infinitely lucky to have been a part of his world. 

I don’t know where Pepy is now. Recently, the pet cam caught him descending from our roof one last time. Since then, our footage has been only squirrels. Despite discouraging statistics about the average lifespan of an urban raccoon (MacDonald noted they generally live about two to three years, and that their lives are frequently cut short by people driving cars), I believe Pepy is still out there—licking himself and snoozing his days away. 

Maybe he'll come back. More likely, he's moved on to greener pastures and better-stocked dumpsters. But each time I step into my kitchen, I find myself glancing out the window at the fire escape, just to be sure. And next time I spot a raccoon in the park, I'll be looking extra closely, watching for any sign that it might be my old roommate. 

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