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Stranger in Paradise

Friday, January 27, 2017 - 04:00 AM

(Photo Credit: Guillaume Aricique)
Back in 1911, a box with a dead raccoon in it showed up in Washington D.C., at the office of Gerrit S. Miller. After pulling it out and inspecting it, he realized this raccoon was from the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, and unlike anything he’d ever seen before.  He christened it Procyon minor and in doing so changed the history of Guadeloupe forever.  

Today we travel from the storage rooms of the Smithsonian to the sandy beaches of Guadeloupe, chasing the tale of this trash can tipping critter. All the while trying to uncover what it means to be special. 

Produced and reported by Simon Adler.

Special thanks to Sally Stainier and Allie Pinel for all their help translating in Guadeloupe and New York respectively. 

Thanks to Bernie Beelmeon, Paola Dvihally, Hervé Magnin, Guillaume Aricique, Laurence Baptiste-Salomon, David Xavier-Albert, Florian Kirchner, Matt Chew, and everyone at the ONCFS. 

 

Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.    

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Comments [41]

James Van Dyke from New South Wales, Australia

I really enjoyed this episode, as I do most Radiolab episodes. However, I do think it missed the boat on a few issues pertaining to invasive species, and reading the comments here I see that most of the commenters don't really understand these issues, either. Here in Australia, invasive species are one of our biggest problems, and there are heaps of ethical issues concerning their management. Politicians make popular statements about eradicating some of the more damaging species, like cane toads, foxes, cats, horses, etc., and these meet with varying degrees of approval (cane toads) and resistance (horses) from both within and outside Australia. As conservation biologists, I think we totally understand that to kill, poison, and otherwise eradicate many species, including those that are popular (like horses in Australia or Racoons in Guadalupe) is ethically confronting. Many people will argue against it by saying "it isn't the animal's fault", which I think Jad was getting at towards the end of this podcast. That is totally, 100% true, and it is also true that we have altered environments in so many ways that few, if any environments are truly "natural". For these reasons, there is a bit of a problem with how we subjectively define species as native and invasive. There is definitely a human value judgement there.

However, at the same time, we see clear ecological consequences of many invasive species, often on top of or at least in interaction with other human impacts. Here in Australia, cats and foxes are tremendously effective predators on heaps of native species- mammals, birds, and reptiles, and are definitely responsible for at least local extinctions of these animals. There is thus a clear need to manage their numbers, if we want to retain those native species. While this may sound like a value judgement (ie native species value > invasive species value), the consequences also include alterations to the foodweb, such that a fox impact is not just on the small mammal it eats, but also on the plant that the small mammal eats, or its competitor, or its native predators. These cascading effects can sweep through the foodweb, such that a fox, even if it drives only one species extinct directly be predation, could drive a number of other species extinct as well via indirect responses to the extinction of the prey. It's likely true that, given thousands or millions of years, natural selection will drive the evolution of new species that colonize the resulting open niches, but that's an eventuality that we cannot predict with any certainty. Still, the value judgement remains.

Is it more ethical to eradicate a cute and charismatic animal that has demonstrative negative impacts on a local ecosystem, or is it more ethical to eradicate that animal so that some variety of native species can survive? Where do the respective ethics/values of invasive vs native species intersect? Which supersedes the other?

Jun. 07 2017 07:51 PM
Aaron Estis from Atlanta, GA

This story reminds me of the debate I sometimes have with southerners who adore the confederate flag. Many of them became attached to the flag through a false narrative - that it really just stands for southern heritage, regional pride, etc, which parallels the false narrative - the raccoons of Guadeloupe are a separate and endangered species. When you point out to them that historians have uncovered the real meaning of the flag and the confederacy it represented through analysis of the secession acts of the states that joined the confederacy, (Scientists have analyzed the DNA of the Guadeloupe raccoon) they feel as though something that is part of their core identify is being attacked. Facts vs feeling? Isn't that often the terms of debate or many of our intractable issues?

May. 30 2017 08:54 AM
Ana Ofelia from México City

This episode was very interesting, but also lovely. I hope you keep making more episodes about animals, they're my favorite. Thanks for your amazing work!

Apr. 17 2017 12:57 AM
G.

The song that plays in the end is Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe - Ambiance Vikings.

Apr. 12 2017 06:34 AM
Kate from Scotland

This may be my favourite episode yet.

I'm working in a zoology lab as we speak. I'm constantly questioning if someone mislabelled something or jumped the gun on what species they thought the specimen was, and hearing this story just reminded me how big a difference a small change can make. Ripple effect, amirite? Thanks for this one, A+.

Mar. 30 2017 06:41 AM
Sloppy from Sweden

Interesting reactions to this show. I like raccoons and animals in general but that doesn't mean that I'd prefer Jad, or any other person reporting, to hide their opinion. And while the PC nature of imposing an opinion onto another may seem straying from the narrative, the political status of this raccoon was just that. The official status doesn't change the animal anymore than Jad containing his opinion changes who Jad is.
By Jad revealing his opinions and Robert's response to it we are given not a verdict but an opinion. Something less than a counter point but a sensible lack of certainty on the opinion by Robert. This for me is part of the magic of these two guys who share their thoughts, feeling and opinions during these pieces.

Keep up the awesomeness. ;)

Mar. 28 2017 08:08 AM
Kim Castro from Costa Rica

Hey Guys! nice podcast. You should do one about cats, did you know that cats in the US have been killing/extinguishing a lot of endemic species of animals like rare birds. Thanks

Bye, hear you soon.

Mar. 27 2017 10:00 PM
bo

does insular dwarfism considered a separate biological sub species ?

Mar. 27 2017 03:40 AM
Peter Nelson from Chelmsford Ma

It seem to me that you left out a HUGE part of the story that you alluded to briefly when mentioning the EU ruling. It their ruling they implied that the raccoon is an invasive species that is threatening local species in Guadeloupe.

What are the local species that it's threatening, how serious is the threat and how do the people on Guadeloupe feel about their genuine locale species? These seem like important questions to determining the fate of the raccoon in Guadeloupe, and as a conservationist and environmentalist myself these would be the questions I think are central to your story.

Mar. 18 2017 04:24 PM
A I from New York City

I am disgusted by this episode. After years ago, listening to the 'Yellow Rain' segment and seeing how callous your reporting was to natives' stories, plights, and beliefs, I took a long break from RadioLab - which up until then, I'd been a huge fan. I couldn't stomache the insensitivity in the reporting tactics, leveraging human suffering in the hopes of a sensationalist reveal - in effect, badgering a native that his/her beliefs were WRONG. And yet, here again, you guys are 'head to head' deflating some poor old woman of her belief that a beloved pet is just a common species, even detested by one of the hosts. Why in the name of 'science' would you do that? Once and for all, GOODBYE RadioLab.

Mar. 16 2017 10:45 PM
Guthrie from London

As usual an interesting episode.

But what happened half way through just before you're usual break right in the middle of Robert talking some advertising crashed in.

It was out of character and a poor listening experience, something I'd normally associate with commercial vendors who clip and crash through a show to make sure the ads are watched or listened to.

Please tell me this was an editing/uploading error and not the new norm.

Mar. 13 2017 09:51 AM
Matt Chew from ASU, Tempe, Arizona

Prior comments in this thread exemplify the usual range of reactions I encounter when discussing how to decide where living things belong and why. But one issue hasn't been raised: what are watermelons doing on a Caribbean island? Recent research indicates watermelons are traceable to northeastern Africa, i.e., ancient Egypt and Sudan. Such a question of belonging rarely occurs to people when a species or variety has characteristics that make it useful (and therefore economically valuable). Even scientists discard objectivity and make allowances for agriculture. This despite the fact that every watermelon patch in Guadeloupe was at some point stripped of 'native' vegetation and repurposed to grow one introduced plant species. Watermelon farmers erase entire 'native ecological communities'. Therein lies the key to an unlooked-for lock. Although watermelon monocultures now populate swathes of Guadeloupe, we're unlikely to consider them antagonistic. It wouldn't occur to most people to suggest that watermelons are invasive. Why not? Firstly, because people like watermelons. Secondly (if forced) we recognize watermelons have no choice in the matter of where they are planted. Pushed further, perhaps we realize that watermelons never meant to leave Africa because they (a) weren't aware of being in Africa, (b) weren't aware of anywhere else to be, and (c) weren't aware transportation was available. Watermelons didn't, and in fact couldn't, invade a Caribbean island. Raccoons seem immeasurably more aware of their individual environments than watermelon plants, but there is little reason to suspect any raccoon ever meant to leave North America and go elsewhere, much less to figure out how and organize an invasion. In saying raccoons are invaders or that the species is invasive, scientists have again discarded objectivity. Conservation biology has never even claimed to be objective. It can only claim to employ scientific methods to promote and achieve its purposes. One of conservation biology's ends is to maximize what ecologists call beta diversity - in short, the biotic differences between places. They choose their battles carefully enough that they probably won't go after watermelon farmers. But they don't always choose so well. When you see a species being labeled 'invasive' you can guess that it probably doesn't have much of a constituency. The problem with the Guadeloupe raccoons is that it pits the beta diversity based preferences of EU environmentalists and their conservation biologist allies against the aesthetic and cultural preferences of the islanders, who don't consider the raccoons to be invaders any more than they consider watermelons to be invaders.

Mar. 02 2017 02:57 PM
John Longa

I question the alleged verociousness of the raccoons, as least as it pertains to killing dogs. Every youtube video I can find shows dogs absolutely mauling raccoons = /.

Enjoyed the episode, thank you

Feb. 24 2017 09:02 PM
Cal

I enjoy Radiolab, but I have to question the accuracy of some of the statements made on this episode.

All I had to do was skim the Wikipedia article on the Guadaloupean Raccoon, and it seems to confirm that

a) The Guadaloupean Raccoon is a subspecies of the common raccoon. Even though it might not have been indigenous to the region. Professor Helgen's own study (2003) confirms that it is not exactly the same as the common North American raccoon. Our raccoons are Procyon Iotor, the Guadaloupean is Procyon Iotor Maynardi.

b) If the raccoon is similar to any other species - it's not as closely related to the North American one as it is to the Bahamian one, and that's probably where it came from. They tell the woman that it comes from the US, but that's incorrect.

c) Helgen says the specimen raccooon wasn't an adult and that explains the smaller size, but the article claims the SUBSPECIES is defined by insular dwarfism. Who is right?

d) In 1996, the Guadeloupe raccoon was classified as endangered by the IUCN because its population number of less than 2,500 mature individuals has continued to decline. This seems to contradict the notion that the raccoon is an invasive pest overrunning the island, despite all efforts by the presenters.

Putting all this together, the story told by Jad and Robert's careful editing seems to be fairly different from the reality, and I wish we had heard the story only from the native islander's points of view. I wonder how many other boring Radiolab stories were made 'quirky and interesting' by massaging the facts in a similar way?

Feb. 24 2017 04:14 PM
Cem from Baltimore

Hey ky from NYC the music at the end is Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe - Ambiance Vikings

Feb. 23 2017 07:34 PM
Mike Walter from North Carolina

Hello, I love this show. Your episodes are always interesting. This episode in particular was great in that it kept revealing new layers through out. However, I think it's important to note how pervasive and disruptive invasive species are on so many levels. I felt this episode was a little light on their threat to diversity. Sure raccoons are uncommonly capable of living well with humans and off the refuse of society, but there are many more examples where invasive species are uncommonly capable of outcompeting species, populations or entire trophic levels of relatively balanced ecosystems. The question of whether we are cruel to kill or manage one animal in order to attempt to save potentially large components of entire ecosystems (and a lot more animals/plants/fungus) gets more clear when you look at a bigger picture. Invasive species are a legacy of our species' uniquely uniform distribution across the globe. Maybe the planet hasn't balanced from our own recent and explosive emergence in the global ecosystem.

In this particular example on Guadaloupe however, it seems that this invasive species and the species most impacted by their presence, humans, are in a relationship both deem mutually beneficial. The raccoons get to exist as furry rascals and the humans have a national symbol they can rally around. I say if the islanders are ok with them, let them be as there isn't much threat that these new invaders will spread from the island (as if they weren't everywhere already).

Feb. 17 2017 09:08 AM
Ray from Arizona

I find this very interesting, though some of the comments are picking on the islanders may not be correct, after being told something is rare for so long is now a pest, when it was a pest all along to them but also something special. We should not be so critical as we do the same thing here in the US. Is there a genetic difference between the mount graham's red squirrel and the red squirrel that can be a pest in you attic? What about the New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse and the meadow jumping mouse, who can tell the difference except where it may be living. It some times appears that we can create new species to meet an objective, weather it is the privilege to name a species or to meet some other objective, usually not entirely for the benefit of the species.

Feb. 15 2017 10:20 PM
Hugh from Sydney

I love the show. It's unmissable.

This episode was no exception.

The locals who ignored the science that the raccoon was imported/invasive reminds me of climate change deniers. Their own world view overriding important scientific realities.

It is an interesting insight into that mindset.

Feb. 13 2017 06:36 AM
Tara B from San Francisco

A quick discussion about the impact of colonialism and racism on Guadalupe and the collision of values is necessary and missing. The Conservationist approach is not patently better or righter than the Guadalupean approach to their pest-pets, this is where colonialism has entered and obscured the discourse.

Feb. 08 2017 02:20 PM
Serge Halvorsen from New Haven

Dear Radiolab,

Your show is, hands down, one of the very best ever! Distilled digital audio awesomeness every time.

I recently listened to Stranger in Paradise and I laughed out loud during the sponsor break for Rocket Mortgage in the middle of the show.

Rocket Mortgage -> Rocket the cybernetically modified raccoon (Guardians of the Galaxy) -> guadeloupe raccoon

BWAHAHAHA!

Well played Radiolab, well played indeed!

Feb. 07 2017 07:01 PM
Suzanne from Paris, France

Hi Radiolab!
I just want to make a quick correction. At the beginning of the episode, Guadeloupe as a French oversees department is described as a "territory." It's actually more like the French equivalent of Hawaii. Administratively speaking, Guadeloupe is as much a part of mainland France as l'Aquitaine or Ile de France.

France also has territories which are named "territoires."
Just like how Puerto Rico is a territory of the US.

Anyway,
Thank you for making my commute 1000x better.

Feb. 04 2017 02:41 AM
Andrew from Seattle, WA

What's the name of the song in the background around 27-28 minutes of the podcast?
Thanks!

Feb. 03 2017 05:12 PM
Kevin Acosta from Los Angeles

The Cozumel Raccoon is an island raccoon that has been called a separate species, that's just up the coast in the Caribbean, in Mexico. Give it enough time and the Guadeloupe Raccoon may become their local equivalent.

I thought they were similar when at the opening of the program you mentioned that the raccoon was smaller than the mainland counterparts, which is one of the traits of the Cozumel raccoon.

Anyway, I love trash pandas. I don't encourage people keeping them as pets, but they are smart animals.

Feb. 02 2017 12:53 PM
Robert Taylor-Jones from UK

Really interesting episode!

It reminded me of an excellent book I read recently that mentioned the Racoon story in passing: "Where Do Camels Belong?" By Ken Thompson.

It's a book that basically sets out to demolish the entire idea of "invasive" species as an inherently negative thing. And I think it makes a really compelling case. It certainly rubbishes the idea of animals "belonging" anywhere, which I noticed one of the scientists on your programme said.

Like, take these racoons. They were a rare endemic species, so of course they had to be protected. Then they were an endangered species and had to be controlled. But the whole time the racoons were doing the same thing! Whether they were eating the eggs of rare birds or controlling the populations of pests or whatever, they were doing it just as well or badly before as they are now. The good of the whole ecosystem is the most important thing, surely?

I'd really recommend the book, anyway. Love the show.

Jan. 31 2017 04:15 PM
ky from NYC

WHAT song is playing at the end of this episode?! it SLAPS! Also RadioLab is amazing.

Jan. 31 2017 02:38 PM
Sjoerd van Leeuwen from Amsterdam

Hey Radiolab,

I really loved the episode! A couple of years back I made an artwork about the "nazi raccoons" from Germany. I cycled back to their point of origin from the Netherlands (where I live) and found the tree into which the raccoons were released. The final artwork was a lecture performance with slides. I case you are interested you can watch it via the follow link: http://www.sjoerdvanleeuwen.nl/he-who-scratches-with-his-hands/video/

groeten and thanks for producing my favorite podcast for years already,

Sjoerd

Jan. 31 2017 12:26 PM
Earl West from MN

I keep thinking about the couple who were raising watermelons. They said they got guard dogs, and the raccoons ripped the dog to pieces. I am not sure how they could think the raccoons were still cute and cuddly after seeing this poor dog had been ripped into pieces. Would they have still felt this way if the dog had been their pet, and what makes them think the raccoons wouldn't have done the same to them if they had tried to stave of the little vermin?

Jan. 30 2017 12:33 PM
Nathan from Monterey

The islanders interviewed in this story are no better than President Trump; They place their own selfish desires and political concerns above the consensus view for best wildlife management practices.

Jan. 30 2017 08:27 AM
TK from Australia

Long time listener, first time commenter.

I found the episode to be interesting and informative, I was particularly touched when Simon broke the news to Na. She still holds her lost pet so dearly to her heart and to tell her that not only was her beloved pet not special because it wasn't unique, but that active culling of other racoons is encouraged is quite cruel. Sure, it makes for compelling radio, but at what cost?
Most people can relate to losing a pet which essentially becomes family and to tell them that their pet is a pest, now hunted, I thought was unnecessary. You can hear it in her voice. Just my two cents.

Jan. 30 2017 02:45 AM
Tanvi from New Orleans

I have been listening to Radiolab for a long time and have never written in, but this episode made me want to express why I love this show. Just like my other favorite Radiolab episodes, this one was funny, poignant, and made convincing cases for both science and human emotion in challenging situations in the way that Radiolab is so wonderful at doing. One request, though. Can we please see a picture of Na and Petit Sofi? It would make me so happy!

Jan. 28 2017 10:47 PM
Danielle Tougas from Calgary, Canada

I enjoyed the episode but I have to object a little to the idea that a nation's animal is noble and reflective of the country - in Canada, our unofficial animal is the beaver and we're quite cognizant that it's not a particularly noble, smart or elegant animal. Perhaps it reflects our self-deprecation? Most likely, it's just a reflection of the importance of the fur trade to the development of Canada as a nation.

Jan. 27 2017 09:29 PM
phil from England

Just to put that “you’re going to be waiting a long time" into context, the Tundra swans and Whooper swans probably look identical to most non zoologists yet you’d have to go back around 1.3 million years to find a common ancestor between them.

Assuming both life on Earth in General and humanity in particular are still around by the time Guadeloupe Raccoons are worth reclassifying, I suspect we’ll be too busy colonizing other galaxies to bother.

Jan. 27 2017 06:21 PM
Lisa Kline Simon from Portland, Oregon

It is upsetting that anytime there is a RadioLab episode involving animals, Jad and Robert talk about them as if they are things to be disposed of rather sentient beings with whom we share the earth. I only got to the point in this episode where Jad decided raccoons are "gross" and "immoral" and then advocated shooting or poisoning them. To me, that's pretty gross and immoral. I turned it off and couldn't help but be reminded of the episode where gov't officials were using a goat to attract other goats so they could gun them down from helicopters -- Jad and Robert laughing at their suffering all the while. I wish they would just stop doing episodes involving animals altogether. So depressing.

Jan. 27 2017 03:59 PM
Shawn Newton from Hot Springs, AR

Who did the mix on the Mr. Sandman song in there? Good music.

Jan. 27 2017 03:58 PM
Bridget from Colorado

What happened to the raccoons who were "rescued" by the police and thrown into a dog crate?

Jan. 27 2017 01:41 PM
Dean from Loma Linda, CA

I would be curious to know the ecological impact of these raccoons on the island flora and fauna. Are these animals as significant as other invasive animals like mongoose or rats? Could these animals have been introduced earlier, like grey fox on the California Channel Islands? These foxes are considered distinct and with a shorter evolutionary timeline than traditional biological speciation.

Jan. 27 2017 11:26 AM
Rick from New Mexico

Finally a science episode so I don't have to delete the episode without listening to it like I did with the last one.

Simple note for subject selection, ask this question: Is it science? if the answer is not "yes," then seek another subject, and pass the idea to TAL to do.

Jan. 27 2017 11:16 AM
Will from New haven

Great show always! Especially broadcasts about animals there's always hidden messages for those in the know I love it! Question what's the song at the end?

Thanks

Jan. 27 2017 09:54 AM
Luke Peters

Great show, fix the typo

Jan. 27 2017 09:39 AM
Chris Kavanaugh

Podcast title has a typo.

Jan. 27 2017 08:45 AM
Jeff Sirmons from Tampa FL.

I just finished listening to the Stranger in Paradise episode, and I couldn't help but recall the episode that permanently hooked me to this show. That episode was the one about Tasmanian Devils and the tumors that nearly destroyed the entire species. These tumors were deadly due to the face-eating and incestuous nature of the devils. I couldn't help but think that the conclusion of this episode forgets this lesson. If Guadalupe cared about the raccoons more than their own use as an image for the island, they should probably do the opposite of sheltering them and bring in more North American raccoons to create a healthier, more diverse gene pool.

Jan. 27 2017 07:38 AM

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