Updated: Nov 16, 2020
And just like that, my upstairs neighbor is back, dug a hole through some insulation board around the attic fan and went right back to her little nest in the corner. Found her initially while going up to find a box of back taxes, so we’ve been referring to her as my mom’s accountant, I guess we were stupid to think replacing the insulation board would be enough. She’s a raccoon — I figure I’d better borrow a live trap and once we’ve caught and released her we’d better get serious about replacing the screens over that attic fan.
Raccoons are known by the scientific name Procyon lotor, which really makes them sound formidable, and yes, I know they are formidable, but man ~ Procyon Lotor sounds like a supervillain from the comics with flaming wings and cosmic blasts coming out of her eyes. Procyon is the name of a star as well, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor. Procyon appears in the sky shortly before the brightest of all the stars in the sky — Sirius, the dog star — in the constellation Canis Majoris; Pro-cyon essentially means ‘Before the Dog’ in Greek, and in the case of the raccoon the name is meant to show a raccoon's relationship to dogs, although current genetic studies suggest modern canids existed before the raccoons appeared.
The mammals we group together as carnivores, that’s Order Carnivora, split into dog-like and cat-like forms about 42 million years ago. Sub-order Caniformia, the dog-like ones, would have been kinda weaselly back then, tree dwelling, smallish. Some of those guys became recognizable as dogs maybe 20-25 million years ago, but caniforms also went in all kinds of other directions too, becoming bears, raccoons, skunks ~ some even went back into the ocean as seals and walrus. In the 10 to 15 million years ago range it looks like the ‘black mask and black and white striped tail tree climbing’ job was popular in Central America, cuz that's when raccoons and ringtails started doing their thing. There are two other kinds of raccoons in the world besides the one in my attic; besides Procyon lotor there's also Procyon pygmaeus, who is only found on the island of Cozumel off of the Yucatan in Mexico, and then Procyon cancrivorus, the crab-eating raccoon who lives from Costa Rica all the way down through most of South America east of the Andes. Cancrivore is a great word for ‘crab-eater’; I enjoy the few days a year that I get to live the cancrivorous lifestyle.
Lotor, it turns out, is son of Zarkon, emperor of the interstellar Galra warlords and sworn enemy of the giant robot Voltron, defender of the universe… um… but that's only if you grew up with poorly dubbed Japanese science fiction cartoons after school… In Latin, lotor means laundryman, and its used for raccoons because of the obsessive dabbling in water they like to do when eating. There doesn’t seem to be a conclusive answer for why raccoons do this, apparently they aren’t actually washing their food, mostly it may just be habit while dining near a stream to scrabble about in case theres anything else yummy one might turn up.
Although English certainly did accept and adapt a number of indigenous North American words, that number is tragically few; admittedly I’m no scientist, but I think I’m pretty safe in saying that the English language absorbed less than .05 percent of its vocabulary from the Algonkian languages of North America. Most of the words we absorbed that we still use regularly are words for animals the British colonists had never seen, like skunks, moose, chipmunks and caribou. In 1606, John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, relates an inventory of animals and plants to be found in the forests of the Chesapeake Bay area: ’there is a beast they call Aroughcun, much like a badger, but useth to live on trees as Squirrels doe.’ The native Americans that Smith was in contact with, the Powhatan, were eventually forced to speak English and their language was extinct by the 1790’s. Linguists have tried to back-format this word from survivals of other Algonkian languages, and the result is ‘ahrah-koon-em’ ~~ ‘one who scrubs/ scratches with his hands.’