Raccoons tend to have either a polygynous or a promiscuous mating system, or some combination of the two. In a polygynous system, a male mates with at least two females. Various forms of polygyny exist, ranging from relatively loose arrangements in which males mate with a number of females seemingly at random, to more organized structures such as those in which a male actively defends a harem within a defined space. Certainly, the raccoon engages in a loose form of this mating system. In fact, its social structure seems so loosely organized in some populations that it has been described as promiscuous. In promiscuous mating, males and females may each couple with various partners throughout the breeding system. This often happens in such a haphazard manner that it is difficult to even characterize this behavior as belonging to a particular system. Again, the raccoon’s mating arrangements may vary between the two systems, even concurrently within the same area, depending on the degree to which a male, or perhaps a group of males, has exclusive mating rights to the females in its home range. –Samuel I. Zeveloff, Raccoons: A Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002
Dontcha just love the way animal behaviorists describe behaviors they don’t understand as “haphazard”? And what’s up with “mating rights”? One would have thought only humans were so unevolved as to regard females as property!
Though a naturalist should always beware of excessive anthropomorphizing, I think it’s worth remembering that, in many ways, raccoons do resemble human beings. They are highly adaptive and omnivorous. They have binocular vision and an exceedingly well-developed sense of touch. Though their forepaws are not quite as sensitive and dexterous as the hands of primates, they do come close – to the consternation of humans who find themselves limited in their ability to lock coons out of something they want access to. They have highly developed vocabularies, as one would expect for creatures with strong social bonds between mothers and offspring. Some researchers feel they are right behind primates in the complexity and flexibility of their associations. They use communal latrines, and they love garbage.
Although some males commonly mate with several females each spring, pair bonds between individuals may still occur in some areas. On the other hand, though a male and female may even den together throughout the winter and bond with one another a month before mating, the female may still breed with several males.
After the mating period, no associations between males and females are apparent, and the males provide no assistance in rearing the cubs.
As is true of many carnivores, including canids and pinnipeds, the erectile tissue of the penis is reduced and its function supplanted by a penis bone, the baculum. In the raccoon, the baculum is long and curved, which helps the male maintain vaginal penetration. Mating, which occurs between January and March, immediately after emergence from winter sleep, may last an hour or more.
–John O. Whitaker, Jr., and William J. Hamilton, Jr., Mammals of the Eastern United States, Cornell University Press, 1998
Eyewitness accounts of raccoons fucking are rare, due to their human-like preference for the privacy of a den. Here’s one description I found:
A pair of copulating raccoons was observed on February 26, 1954, at the Campbell Farm from 9:05 a.m. to 10:01 a.m. The morning was cloudy (five-tenths [i.e., half?] of sky covered), chilly (estimated to be between 35 and 40 F.), and with a breeze of approximately 15 miles per hour. A young female weighing approximately 10 pounds, and an older male weighing approximately 15 pounds, were in a small grove of saplings on the south bank of the Wakarusa River.
Shrill cries uttered by the female were heard first at 9:05 a.m.; the animals were seen first at 9:09 a.m. when the male, mounted on the female, was tightly holding her in a semi-crouched position with his forelegs immediately in front of her hind legs, and his hind feet were on the ground between hers. He was making rhythmic copulatory movements, consisting of a slow inward motion (requiring three or four seconds) in which he seemed to thrust his penis deeply into the female’s vagina, and a faster outward motion (less than one second) as the penis was withdrawn partway and at which time the male’s pelvis was elevated and the forepart of his body brought forward and downward. The penis is inserted in the vagina in such a way that the baculum is hooked over the pelvic bone of the female, probably assuring his position on the female [reference omitted]. At each of the quick withdrawing motions the female uttered a sharp rattling cry and often attempted to bite the male by turning her head upward. Her actions frequently caused the pair to lose their footing and fall, the male always holding his position.
At 9:17, the male ceased the thrusting movements, and at 9:19 he began jerking movements, from one side to the other, roughly pulling the hindquarters of the female with him, causing her to utter a short cry. This activity caused the pair to move in a circle with heads toward its center. The vigorous thrusting movements were resumed at 9:29, and at 9:42, the cries of the female diminished except for an occasional whimper. Copulatory movements ceased at 9:46, at which time the pair settled slowly to the ground. The forepart of the male was down with his head over the left side of the female and his hindquarters conspicuously high. Less than two minutes later, the male again was dragging the female in a space approximately ten feet in diameter. At 9:51, thrusting movements, slower than those previously noted, were resumed. The rate of these movements was soon doubled but this time the withdrawing motion of the male was less vigorous and the female was not crying out. These movements were interrupted three times by the male by short circular movements. At 10:01, the male suddenly slipped away from the female and ran rapidly southward. The female hesitated a few seconds, then slowly walked eastward, and entered a ground den.
–Howard J. Stains, The Raccoon in Kansas, State Biological Survey [Lawrence, KS], 1956
Despite the humorously clinical language, in the absence of fuller information on the emotional lives of these animals, it is almost impossible to avoid bias in a description like this. Does the female utter “cries” and “whimpers,” or are they really “screams” and “moans”? Stains said the female “often attempted to bite the male,” but what did he actually observe? Was this behavior agonistic, as he seems to imply, or playful?
But the observer can hardly help it if he reflects the unconscious biases of his culture. The perception of the male as active, aggressive initiator and female as largely passive responder is built right into the language and mental imagery we use for sex: we tend to picture the vagina as a hole, an empty space waiting to be filled, rather than (for example) a powerful ring of muscles, or a dense matrix (Latin for “womb”) of interlocking, life-giving organs and tissues. One can only wonder how a scientifically trained observer from, say, Borneo – where sex practices strongly emphasize female pleasure, and favor plateaus rather than climactic peaks – would have interpreted this same copulation.
Needless to say, the term “promiscuous” is also far from neutral in its connotations. But there’s no doubt male raccoons get around. I got this nifty snapshot from my neighbor a while back; I’m not sure where it originated.
This survey wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the many cultural uses of raccoon penis bones: as amulets, as jewelry – even as pipe cleaners. This seems to go back to the Indians.
[In 1649, Finnish naturalist Peter Kalm wrote] that the raccoon’s oddly curved penis bone – which Linnaeus had noticed while dissecting his pet – was hailed by the Indians as the perfect tool for cleaning their tobacco pipes.
–Virginia C. Holmgren, Raccoons: In Folklore, History, and Today’s Backyards, Capra Press [Santa Barbara], 1990
According to my brother Mark, a cultural geographer and Latin Americanist, the use of raccoon baculums as love charms occurs as far south as Central America. The commercial Lucky Mojo website includes a brief essay (or extended catalog copy) on the subject. The author, catherine yronwode, cites her own experience in the Ozarks, and offers a helpful list of vernacular names: love bone, pecker bone, coon dong, possum prick, Texas toothpick and mountain man toothpick. Yronwode stresses their use as love charms and good-luck charms – but of course, part of her aim is to sell the things. To me, the most interesting anecdote was this one:
Early in 1996, my co-worker Susie Bosselmann came into my office and saw my stuff and — to my surprise, as she is a very “fussy” person who abhors bugs and spiders — she said, “Ooh, lookie! You’ve got coon dongs!” She was pointing to the penis bones Larry and Barry had sent to me.
Susie is in her 60s and she grew up in Oklahoma, an area contiguous with Missouri and Texas. I had thought that the wearing of raccoon penis bones was limited to the Midwest, but she expanded my horizons when she said that she and her husband had recently been at a gun show in Kentucky and had seen “a beautiful coon dong necklace, with hundreds of ’em strung together, just like a Cherokee Indian ceremonial necklace.” She would have bought it but it was too expensive, she said. I asked her why someone would make a coon dong necklace, and she said, “Well, what ELSE can ya do with ’em?”
I think the raccoons might have a few ideas about that.