26 Sep 2012

The Raccoons at Biomuseo

By: Jorge Ventocilla

Dr. Eustorgio Mendez, a highly regarded retired professor of zoology at the University of Panama, notes that the geographic area where the two existing raccoon species in Panama are found is specifically Central Panama, in the Canal area. These species are Procyon lotor and Procyon cancrivorus, both similar but different in weight and color in some parts of their body. For a long time I thought that the species found near the Biomuseo and along the Calzada de Amador were P. cancrivorus, but a few nights ago I received a call form a colleague who was walking along the causeway, Ricardo Moreno, a biologist who specializes in wild mammal species. He told me he had seen two subjects that belonged to both species. Thanks to Ricardo we can confirm that both species inhabit the area.

The cute “bandit-masked” raccoon is a likeable neighbor of the Biomuseo. It is part of the Procyonidae family. The most popular member of this family in Panama is the coati (gatosolo); however, it includes other less famous relatives as the olingo, cusumbo and cacomistle. For some of them the “bandit mask” is very noticeable, on others it is not; however, all of them are members of the same gang.

Usually nocturnal, the raccoon is a great climber and also a good swimmer. Raccoons thrive near the sea and mangroves, rivers or lakes. This species uses every opportunity to get food, either crab or shrimp and if there is none, fruits or seeds or even coconut and whatever visitors throw in the trash at Calzada de Amador.

A colleague told me that, many years ago, there were raccoons in San Felipe, at least in a tree-covered 1.2 acre area called “el boquete” (the gap) located between the house of the Arias family and the old Instituto Bolivar. Perhaps someone in the neighborhood could tell us if there are still raccoons in Casco Viejo. 

As for our little friends at Biomuseo, it is possible that Mr. Alberto Bonilla is the one person who knows them best. He has worked as a security guard in this area for over a year and he keeps an eye on the family of four (two adult raccoons and two kits), which prowl the area. “I have not seen them for over a month. I think they are trying to stay away from the boa that is said to dwell behind the building”, Alberto says.

Alberto Bonilla is also very familiar with the “27” cats in the neighborhood. There are “six kittens, two medium-sized cats and the rest are adults”. Twenty-three of them have been sterilized. He usually gives them water and food; he even has names for them, like “la negrita”, “miki”, “chiqui”, “tikín”, “la sobona”… His favorite is “Tina”, an approximately 3-month green-eyed kitty. Why does Alberto care so much about cats? “Because they saved me from a snake bite”, he answers. One of the cats was watching and swatting at a piece of cloth that was by his side and it turned out that beneath the piece of cloth there was the snake. “If it had not been for the cat the snake would have bitten me”, Alberto says.

Do cats and raccoons get along? “There is no problem with that, they do not fight each other”, he replies.

The real problem for the raccoons at the Calzada de Amador is cars. Years ago, Inez Campbell, former Director of Punta Culebra Nature Center, told me that she counted ten raccoons that were hit by cars in just one year. Appropriate signage to warn about the presence of this little animal would be an excellent idea. These little friends add to the charm of the vicinity of Biomuseo and the entire Calzada de Amador.

Anna Frogge, docent guide in Punta Culebra, told me once “animals are teachers, just as we are. A lot of people don’t realize that in the Calzada we live alongside other species until they come to the Center. I was explaining marine pollution to a group of children and at lunch a group of kids noticed that three raccoons were watching us. They started asking about what they ate, where they lived, as its usual in kids. I told the to eat fast and watch their food, because the raccoon is an opportunistic fellow. And no, they cannot feed them. A raccoon got into the garbage and started eating a sandwich that a kid threw out. He almost choked on a piece of plastic. He did not die, but the kids saw how they can harm themselves with some things that we throw away. In the end the raccoon ate the sandwich and went for a walk on the beach with his offspring. When the kids saw this they shouted: “Look! There he goes with his family!”

English translation: Sara I. Melo D. (Biomuseo volunteer)