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August 19, 2009 10:43 PM   Subscribe

Can you suggest some food-filled puzzles to give my backyard tribe of raccoons?

I have a tribe of raccoons that live in the brush that surrounds my house. They eat out of my compost heap (and never touch my trashcans). And I absolutely adore them. They're our bush kitties.

Having read that they can solve puzzle locks, I filled a half-pint Bell jar with dogfood, put the lid on, and tossed it outside for them when they rolled up on evening patrol. Half an hour later, it was open and empty (and surrounded by baby raccoons).

What other puzzles can you think of that I can test them with? I'd rather not have to build stationary edifices, but I'm quite good with my hands and can build all manner of mechanism. I'd rather not give them anything that they can just tear through, 'cause that's no fun. Likewise, I'd like to avoid tiny pieces that they might ingest.

[And if you came in here to tell me not to feed the raccoons: I'll accept reasoned arguments to that effect via email, so long as you don't feed any wildlife either (including birds).]
posted by Netzapper to Pets & Animals (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Of course, this is a bad idea, but I think you really do know that and that's not the question you asked. Therefore...

You can buy nest-able sizes of lock-and-lock containers. Fill the centre one with something and then just wipe a tiny bit on the outside container to get their attention.

You could also buy thick natural (not plastic, for their health) rope and trap treats in amongst the pulled-apart fibers. A very thick rope, knotted at both ends, with the treat at the centre could take them a bit to get at.

FWIW, if you are going to do this, you should probably give the treats AT the compost pile, rather than bring them close to the house where they can cause real damage. Never underestimate them.
posted by Kickstart70 at 10:50 PM on August 19, 2009

You probably already know that raccoons are brazenly clever, curiously sly critters.

They might be smarter than you give them credit for; also meaner.

Raccoons figure out very quickly where the best food is (rotting fruit and veggies in compost bin). They will ignore your garbage can of expelled plastic wrappers and whatnot until the compost bin has been emptied dry. When they run out of compost supply in winter, your trashcan will be like Wedding Cake to those hungry fuckers. They'll eat anything.

If I were you, I wouldn't let them associate your house with food.
Even though they are incredible. And fun to watch. They are not pets.
Please don't tease them with puzzles filled with food.

If you want a challenge, pick up a kit and carry it down to a stream full of trout.
posted by at the crossroads at 11:58 PM on August 19, 2009

I'm going to go ahead and respond once to preempt the "don't feed them" argument, and then I'll go back to not threadsitting in hopes that I can get some ideas.

In general, I agree that feeding wild animals is detrimental to the animals in question. And in previous residences, I've gone out of my way to avoid leaving any food outside for the animals to find.

I've always tried before to keep animals from associating my house with food. However, in this situation, I've already lost that battle:

1) My grandfather lived here for a decade before me. He fed the birds. The raccoons emptied out the birdseed every night, and he filled it up again every morning.

2) My compost heap (and those of others) is already a primary food source for the local tribe of raccoons. Even after the house was unoccupied for several years the raccoons still made a nightly patrol past the compost heap. In rhe several months after we moved in, but before we were using the compost heap, and we still saw them every night digging in the old compost looking for food.

I already have an excellent raccoon-proof solution for my trashcans. They are never molested by the raccoons, even when they're full of stinky tasty shit that I don't compost (for whatever reason). Even in the dead of winter (which isn't so dead here). Even when the compost heap is completely empty. In the fifteen years of residential history I know for this residence, the raccoons have never been a problem--except when unprotected bags of trash have been left out overnight (and even then it's questionable if it's the raccoons or the goddamn packs of fucking dogs people let fucking run loose).

Finally, I don't think there's any moral or ethical (and only a slight practical) difference between feeding the birds and feeding the raccoons. The crows here are more destructive and more annoying than I've ever seen the raccoons be. If I were asking about fun bird feeders, would you be so loathe to answer?
posted by Netzapper at 12:25 AM on August 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Google animal environmental enrichment activities to see how zoos keep animals occupied and working for their meals. For instance:
Food containers with small holes,
a bone iceberg for tigers,
a feeder mop for monkeys,
a fresh coconut,
a moat,
a small bale of hay with treats hidden inside,
and various kong-like devices.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:05 AM on August 20, 2009

Also note that many of those devices are hung on bungee cords to make it even harder to get the food out.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:06 AM on August 20, 2009

I've fed raccoons before for many years but I limit it now. It's not good to have them become dependent on you for food. They need to know how to catch their own food because they are going to keep breeding and that's going to be a lot of hungry raccoons in a few years.

We have a strip of woods behind our house with a creek behind it so the moms tend to chase the babies off to find their own house to mooch off of when they're old enough to take care of themselves but not always. The 1st generation moochers tend to be cautious/grateful and have manners but the 2nd or 3rd can be aggressive. I had one this year that raced to the door and knock one of our cats (15lb.) out of the way and charged the door a couple other occasions until she realized the food had stopped. It's an exciting experience but not one I recommend. Do not underestimate the temptation of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Raccoons love sweets!

I've stopped feeding the coons unless it's spring/cold out and it's a mom with babies (see above). It's hard to fight that "help me, I'm starving here" look in a momma raccoon's eyes. I quit once it gets warm out and the babies can forage on their own. I still put out melon rinds, bad tomatoes, etc. on the mulch pile but it's away from the house. I don't give them any left overs that they can associate with the house.

If you want to have fun watching the raccoon, get a glass storm door if you don't have sliding glass doors already and leave an outside light on. The raccoons will come up to eat the bugs, you'll enjoy a good look at the babies and it will still be safe to open your back door at night without having a furry ring tailed neighbor trying to move in.
posted by stray thoughts at 1:14 AM on August 20, 2009

There are puzzle boxes for humans, some of which are more difficult than others. The Costa Rica boxes may be manageable for Raccoons, the Japanese and Moroccan style puzzle boxes may be too difficult and expensive. Or too time consuming to build any way. I would also expect "the monkey escaped the fifth way" kinds of difficulties.

How about cardboard mazes? Or obstacle courses? I reckon a coon ought to be able to handle tightrope walking, ladders, the ladders that flip upside down.

Does Rube Goldberg inspire?
posted by mearls at 5:26 AM on August 20, 2009

I don't have any raccoon specific puzzles to offer but I did want to say, if it were me, I'd be trying to do the same thing. Although I guess our dog would probably collapse from the excitement.

Raccoons are awesome and fun to watch and have around and adorable. So, actually, are porcupines and skunks. They're a little more problematic, though.

What about going to the pet store and looking for the kinds of food-encapsulating toys people give dogs? Oh, also, a toy store.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:45 AM on August 20, 2009

They would enjoy a Buster Cube, I would think.

My parents feed one raccoon, and he can't peel whole bananas. But if you cut a banana into half, he can handle it. Maybe you could test their banana-peeling abilities.

A local restaurant in my town feeds the raccoons their fried chicken leftovers by the bucketful.
posted by Ostara at 7:24 AM on August 20, 2009

Be aware that if they have established a latrine on your property, this is dangerous, particularly if there are children around. Here's what to look for and how to make it safe.
posted by lakeroon at 8:09 AM on August 20, 2009

How about some sort of cooperative puzzle? Like a pulley or lever that raises a box covering the food, so that the raccoon activating the mechanism can't reach the food by himself?
posted by electroboy at 9:24 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

We used to feed/spay/neuter the feral cats in our neighborhood (and may very well be starting up again), but providing a source of fresh water for them was problematic. My husband rigged up a smallish galvanized tub with a connection to our hose bib with a toilet float in it. When the water was low enough, the tub would fill back up again. It was very clever and seemed durable enough.

Until the raccoons found it.

First, they'd just use it as you'd expect, washing the cat kibble in it. So that was okay. They, one particularly fat one found out that if he pushed on the float ball, water would spray out. That was fun for a bit. Then he figured out that if he SAT on the ball, he would have a continuous spray of water in which to wash his goods. As you can imagine, the float ball didn't last long with a 30 pound raccoon sitting on it. This all took place right outside our glass door, so at least we got to watch and laugh hysterically as the destruction took place.
posted by jvilter at 10:50 AM on August 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wasn't trying to lecture. Sorry if I came off that way. It was just a big shock to have a raccoon charge the door this year and I wanted to share a heads up. She would see the cats inside and wanted inside to. The cats did not share her enthusiasm to be roomies. Most of the time I've never had much trouble with the raccoons but sometimes you can wind up with an aggressive one.

Zoos do what you want to do with the animals to stimulate their minds and give them some entertainment. Hiding food in trees so monkeys have to find it, freezing food in ice for the tigers to play within the water, etc. If you visit a zoo, you might ask the keepers about this (think it's called animal enrichment). They'd probably enjoy having someone to talk to about it.

Some of my ideas are metal tins that have a push down or screw down lid could take a beating without breaking. An old style metal lunch box with a clasp would be challenging. Hang a piece of fruit on a rope from a tree high enough that they can't stand up to grab it. Leave a box or something that is light enough for them to slide under the fruit and can climb up to get their reward.
posted by stray thoughts at 12:08 AM on August 25, 2009

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