Although Alexandra Horowitz’s freshly-reviewed and much-hyped book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes disappointingly fell flat in the execution of an otherwise nice concept, her frantic fact-finding is usually more charming than disarming. One anecdote she relates is particularly quaint. As she recalls walking with Humane Society wildlife scientist John Hadidian, who has spent more than 25 years tracking and studying Procyon lotor, the common raccoon, she says, “Even a century ago, raccoons were fairly beloved in America. They were popular as pets and were knows as mischevious, inquisitive, and quick studies. President Coolidge, sent a raccoon for his Thanksgiving table, promptly decreed her his pet, named her Rebecca, and took her with him on long walks and on whistle-stop train tours.”
The verity of her rendition of Coolidge’s story is questionable — how long a walk on a leash is a raccoon willing to take? Rebecca’s favorite pastime was reportedly “being placed in a bathtub with a little water in it and given a cake of soap with which to play. In this fashion she would amuse herself for an hour or more,” as First Lady Grace Coolidge wrote. She also enjoyed rides around the house, draped across the back of President Coolidge’s neck.
Now this mode of comport is unthinkable, but apparently rabies wasn’t a widespread problem in raccoons until the 1950s. Raccoons are less visible in Detroit than one might think, where the seemingly rarer foxes and, recently, even coyotes roam freely. Their nocturnal brethren the opposum and everybody’s favorite, the rat, run rampant through the neighborhoods. Sometimes raccoons turn up near restaurant dumpsters, infiltrating bags of trash with their neat slender fingers, but squirrels have some obvious corners on the domestic trash market, judging by the holes where plastic lids of garbage cans have been chewed through.
While feasting on raccoon meat seems to have also passed out of fashion, the practice persists in some places close to home where southern appetites rule. Perhaps somewhere in the city, someone keeps a pet raccoon, and if I walk far enough, I’ll find them toddling happily down the street together.