Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't pretend to be accurate. It is, after all, a space romp starring a laconic tree. But the surprise is its science holds up—kinda. Yes, Star Lord could survive in space without protection for a full minute. And yes, according to raccoon expert Dr. Suzanne MacDonald, a professor of animal behavior at York University in Toronto, the quick-thinking, selfish, and aggro Rocket Raccoon—a lab experiment gone amuck—actually has a biological basis.
MacDonald is spending her summer researching raccoons in Ontario, Canada on a remote island without a convenient multiplex. “Even though I'm covered in mosquito bites and haven't seen a movie in a long time, it's worth it because raccoons are pretty awesome,” she says. But MacDonald's already got the Guardians' poster. “Some friends of mine are screenwriters in Los Angeles and they sent it to me and said, 'The raccoon is going to be everywhere because the raccoon is the cool character.” Cooler, in fact, than Marvel even realized. Says MacDonald, not only are raccoons anatomically designed to break out of jail, they have real-life super powers that Guardians left out. (And they probably don't sound like Bradley Cooper).
L.A. Weekly: How smart are raccoons?
MacDonald: All raccoons are pretty smart. Back in 1913, this guy named Walter Hunter wanted to see if raccoons are smarter than dogs. He had memory tasks and found that raccoons actually were really, really great at remembering things for a longer period of time than dogs. The dogs got distracted because they're kind of like ADHD animals sometimes, and raccoons can remember for quite a long time. You know how B.F. Skinner studied rats and pigeons? Studying raccoons is really hard, so no psychologist studies them in labs. That's why I'm working in the field, giving them things to do in their natural environment and seeing how they solve puzzles and problems that I give them. Does the raccoon have super powers?
Not really besides his intelligence.
I wouldn't put them on a team and expect them to be the smartest, but they do have super powers, that's why I asked. They can see with their hands. You know how dolphins have sonar so that they can see underwater? Raccoons can do the same kind of thing with their hands—they have really, really sensitive hands, much more sensitive than we do. They don't have to look at something. They're great at night because just by grabbing an object, they can know if it's edible or not. I'm surprised the movie guys didn't make that one of their super powers. It's awesome. If they were in a dark room, the raccoon could solve a problem. What's the raccoon's name?
Rocket, Rocket Raccoon.
Rocket. Well, that's not very creative, Rocket.
He's a jail escape expert.
Oh, okay. Well, that's actually a good idea. The thing about raccoons is that they don't have opposable thumbs, so they're not monkeys, they're not apes, they can't grab things like we do. But they can get their little hands inside things because they have tiny fingers, and they work away at stuff. If that's what Rocket does, then that would make sense. And they can get in and out of all sorts of places. You know when you see them, they look like they have these heavy, giant bums—like they're all ass when they're walking, kind of hunched over? That's just the way they walk. If you flatten them down, their skeleton's really flat—they can squeeze into places that are two inches tall. They don't need any room at all. They put their back feet out and their spine just goes quite flat. That's how they get into your garage and your houses. They would be good escape artists, so that's actually quite realistic.
How are they in terms of group behavior? Do they tend to be solitary or social?
We always assume that raccoons are pretty solitary, but the research that we're doing now is finding out that they're much more social than we thought. I'm comparing urban raccoons and rural raccoons. I would assume that Rocket was an urban raccoon—I don't know why, but I would just assume he grew up in the city—and would be then quite social. In the city, territories are much smaller and they have to get along with each other, so they overlap with lots of raccoons. We're finding out even the males are much more tolerant of each other than we thought. They don't hang out in a gang, but I'll have my cameras up and I'll see 50 raccoons a night.
Do raccoons get along with humans?
I used to have a raccoon living under my deck in Toronto and she'd come out every day and have breakfast with me. They're very easily trained and once they habituate to you and realize you're not going to hurt them, they're really cheeky—that's the only word for it. If they're used to you giving them food, sometimes I'd come home and they're on my front step like, “Where are you?” My cat sits outside with the raccoons and they all wait for me to feed them. It's pressure, I can tell you. Most people don't like them as much as I do—I find them fascinating—but if you feed them and you're kind to them, they will not go away.
So the idea in Guardians that Rocket was a lab animal, which he has a lot of anger about, is strange because scientists have not been able to work with raccoons in the lab at all.
That's right. There's no raccoons in a lab anywhere that I'm aware. That's just not a thing. They're large, they're ornery, they don't take kindly to being pushed around, and they are not closely related enough to be a good disease model for humans, so nobody really uses them. Rats are much easier to pick up and handle and breed. Keeping raccoons would just be crazy. Monkeys have the misfortune of being close enough to us that they get tested with the Ebola virus.
But Rocket's aggressive personality sounds true.
If you push, they'll push back. They have good teeth and they're not shy, like a squirrel that will run away. They're big animals and they will come at you if you come at them. Humans are going to win because humans have bigger weapons. But certainly, they will take on a cat. Cats will win. From my cameras in the city, raccoons always back down. But if they're cornered, they will defend themselves. They're considered mesopredators: they're not prey, they don't get eaten by anything. I would not want to be in a fight with a raccoon.
Are they selfish? In several scenes in the movie, other characters will put their lives at risk for each other, and the raccoon just thinks that's dumb.
Raccoons would never do that. Really, no animal would do that but humans, so that makes total sense. But a raccoon would just go, “Yeah, I'm not doing that. I'm leaving now.” Certainly, that's perfectly normal. Raccoons are out for themselves.
Is there anything biological about a raccoon that would help it adapt to space better than other animals?
It would just be like putting a monkey or a cat or a human being in zero gravity. There's nothing special that would make it more or less adaptable to zero gravity. They would float, they would figure it out. I think it would be hilarious.
This raccoon is voiced by Bradley Cooper—
He's one of my imaginary boyfriends.
Is his the voice you would picture a raccoon having?
Now that you said Bradley Cooper, I'm just like, “Obviously,” but let me think. I always have raccoon voices in my head when I see them, but I'm female so a lot of raccoon voices in my head are female. You know the actor Bob Balaban? He would be awesome as a raccoon. Not necessarily someone so handsome, someone more like, 'Doo-dee-doo.' Or John Goodman even would be good as a raccoon. I wouldn't cast him so much as a leading man, but certainly a sidekick.
See also: Our Guardians of the Galaxy review
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