My wife calls them cat flaps, but I think of them as small-mammal IQ tests.
Predictably, our cats scored miserably, and by far the most gifted student turned out to be a raccoon that for months had been raiding our garbage can and birdseed bin whenever we forgot to close the garage door.
He (a pronoun of convenience, because I have no idea of its gender) was so bold that when caught in the act, he would climb just out of reach in a tree by our driveway — not retreating, just waiting us out. With the entire family standing around cooing over his cute little bandit face, I guess he knew he had nothing to fear.
This is our raccoon story. Common and adaptable to humans as the species is, you probably have your own. If so, you may be asking why a family with a known thief on its property would install freely swinging, clear-plastic doors leading into the garage and the kitchen.
The short answer is that none of the domesticated mammals came out of this looking too bright. But the idea, at least, was to stop the yowling nighttime demands to come in or go out from Phoenix, our sand-colored, neutered male cat. He, unfortunately, suffered brain damage from eating legs-up cockroaches left by our pest control service. Seriously. That was the vet's diagnosis a few years ago when Phoenix lapsed into a drooling stupor, a condition from which he never fully recovered.
Putting a bowl of food directly on the other side of the flap, pushing his hefty ginger torso through to demonstrate its transporting capabilities — none of it worked. Our two younger female cats eventually caught on, but with Phoenix there was never even a glimmer of understanding that total freedom could be his with the touch of a paw.
As with any wild animal, it's hard to say how smart raccoons really are. But by one measure, ratio of brain to body weight, they come out pretty well, better than their distant relatives, bears and pandas, and slightly better than cats.
Another revelation in the article I read on the subject in a highbrow publication called the Berkeley (Ca.) Daily Planet was that teaming up with humans seems to bring this ratio down; it's lower among dogs than wolves, for example. And if raccoons are not especially brilliant, said Bill Giuliano, a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida, they are very inquisitive. Also, with a highly elevated sense of touch, they like to try and retry all kinds of fastenings and locks.
Plus, they have motivation. When they figure stuff out, they get to eat, and our raccoon was feasting almost every night. Picking up garbage and sweeping his spilled sunflower seeds from the floor of the garage became practically a morning ritual. He especially liked to steal the cats' food and soak it in their water, which we knew from finding dirt and kibble residue in the bottom of the bowl.
There was a setting on the flaps to prevent his raids, to allow cats out and keep raccoons from coming in. We used it reluctantly because any encounter with a locked flap bewildered even our sharpest cats, causing a major setback in their training. Also, the toothpick-sized adjustment tabs turned out to be hard to see in the dim corners of the kitchen and garage, especially without reading glasses and after a couple of beers.
So, we didn't always get this right, and, one night last week, got it absolutely wrong. I was awaken by the crash of large plastic bin of cat food hitting the kitchen floor. Downstairs, in the dark, I saw the mound-shaped raccoon helping himself to an even larger mound of spilled food.
As usual, he was in no hurry to leave, until he realized with a few increasingly panicked scratches that, this time, the flap wasn't working. He looked up at me to help him, and I had no choice to do so, reaching around to turn the doorknob.
But right then, at 1:52 a.m., I vowed I'd been outsmarted for the last time. I found our old Havahart trap in the garage and placed a full bowl of cat food behind the metal plate that triggers it.
The next morning, the raccoon had taken the bait, licked the bowl clean, sprung the trap — and then departed. Yes, amazingly, the trap was empty. He pulled off the same trick the next night. It wasn't until the third attempt, when I carefully smeared peanut butter on the trigger plate, that he stayed trapped.
My best guess was that he had used his dextrous, hand-like paws, which compensate for their lack of opposable thumb with long, sharp claws, to pull the trap door open and set himself free. Not likely, said Giuliano and Dave Cock, an avid hunter, former bird curator at Busch Gardens and general purpose critter expert.
The raccoon probably escaped because the trap door had landed on its rump or hind leg, they said. But Cock added that this can be learned behavior, propping the trap open while the animal eats, which I considered pretty impressive. The raccoon's dejection after being caught — "He's like, 'How did I let this happen,' " my teenage son said — added to the feeling that we were dealing with quite an intelligent creature.
So did the "psssst" sound that came from my expensive, handmade German bicycle tire on the drive to my son's school. We'd thrown the cage in with my bike, and our raccoon had reached through the mesh to give the tire a scratch. Maybe it wasn't really revenge, but it seemed that way. Certainly, he looked pleased with himself.
I let him out in a semirural neighborhood like my own, vaguely aware that this was just dumping my problem on someone else. Yes, and adding one more animal to an already overpopulated species, which is one reason raccoons are so susceptible to a wide range of diseases, said Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"All this does is create a great amount of angst and stress and absolutely does not ensure the survival of that animal," Morse said.
Not only is relocation a bad idea, he said, it's illegal, though he promised to let me slide this time. Another common suburbanite urge when capturing a raccoon — keeping it as a pet — is an even worse idea, he said. As soon as they start to mature, it's "like dealing with a schizophrenic house cat with the strength of a chimpanzee."
All of which made me wonder if too much civilization can have the same effect on us that it does on cats. Wouldn't I have been smarter to solve my raccoon problem with a .22-caliber rifle and a stew pot?