Why MPR Raccoon captivated the world, and what it tells us about myth and ourselves

mpr raccoon fan art
Fan art by Megan Tegeder (via @mtegeder on Twitter)

Unless you were on a total media blackout for the past 24 hours, you may have heard of what people are calling the MPR Raccoon (hashtag #mprraccoon, branded by Minnesota Public Radio, hence the MPR initials), an out-of-nowhere story that became so huge that Minnesota journalist Tim Nelson, who reported the story, never saw an audience response like this in 25 years of reporting.  

For the one or two people out there who haven’t heard of this intrepid lady raccoon (and, yes, it’s been confirmed that she’s female), you may want to check out one of the many articles out there that give a full account of the who, whats, and whens.

When I first discovered this story by accident on Twitter at 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, while having trouble sleeping, I was joining in on the action in media res so I had no idea what was going on at first. Something about a raccoon climbing up the UBS Plaza, a 25-story building and the 15th tallest one in St. Paul, Minnesota?

By the time I found one of those live feeds, the raccoon was now descending after being stuck on the 23rd floor for a while. She had apparently changed her mind about making the full ascent and started going back the other way, only to later change her mind again and resume ascending again.

Though it took me a while to be fully clear on all the details, judging from the trending hashtag, and all the many posts about it everywhere on Twitter and Facebook, the story had clearly already gone viral, not just in the U.S. but apparently internationally. The only two factors I could glean at first were (a) cute animal, and (b) danger. “Cute animal in danger” is generally a situation that will generally arouse a lot of human interest. But the sheer intensity of people’s emotions on display compelled me to dig about a little further. And after clicking around a bit and taking a few minutes to watch one of the live video feeds, I started to realize what was really going on.

No, it was clear that this was not just a matter of “cute animal in danger.” What was occurring was a spontaneous, collective telling and creation of myth.

Let me explain what I mean.

Those who know my work as the Pop Mythologist know that myth—approached from a literary, anthropological, and psychological perspective—is one of my greatest life passions. In my view, just about every aspect of life has a mythical component and can be at least partially explained in mythological terms. Myth isn’t just an ancient phenomenon. It’s pretty much widely accepted nowadays that we have modern forms of it existing through various media such as film, television, and literature. I like to go further and say that the creation of modern mythology is a constantly occurring, dynamic process which permeates every aspect of modern human society and life.

Inevitably, there were some #mprraccoon tweets, even by those who were among the ones captivated by this raccoon, acknowledging that on the surface it might have seemed a bit silly or foolish to be so absorbed by this story in light of everything else going on in the world. I didn’t see it that way.

Before I go on, I want to clarify that I too was one of the many people who found themselves moved by the images of this little raccoon clinging to the side of such a tall building. So what’s to follow is in no way a dismissal of the event or of people’s reactions to it. On the contrary, it is an appreciation of it. My intent is only to add a fuller appreciation to it through largely subconscious processes brought into the light and made more conscious.

mpr raccoon

So let’s begin by getting something out of the way. Yes, from a certain viewpoint, it can certainly seem ridiculous that so many people were so captivated to such a degree by a single raccoon, with everything going on in the world. Additionally, animals, both in the wilderness and those dwelling within human-occupied areas, constantly die in great numbers on a daily basis. But they do not have an audience so few people think about it on a day-to-day basis. Speaking purely from the detached, objective viewpoint, there is no reason why this raccoon’s life in particular is any more valuable than any other creatures who go through life and death struggles every day. Indeed, there are even human beings in massive numbers who go through life and death struggles, and many of them lose that struggle, on a daily basis. But, again, not much of an audience—or at least certainly not approaching the size of MPR Raccoon’s audience. So why all the emotion and the drama over this one little guy?

As far as we know, one of the qualities that makes human beings unique within the animal kingdom is the act of storytelling. It is not just the ability to tell stories. It is the need to tell stories, a need so deeply ingrained in our individual and collective psyches that we tell stories to both ourselves and others, on every conceivable level, big and small, each and every single day.

By “storytelling,” I include what we typically refer to as “stories”—that is, fictional tales written by authors designed to entertain and provide recreational enjoyment. But it’s far more than that. At the ultimate level I can only describe the fullest meaning of “storytelling” using numerous, interlinked definitions:

  1. The creation of meaning and significance, in general, through the use of signs and symbols such as language. (e.g. “I am a good human being making a difference in the world.”)
  2. The borrowing and using of semiotically neutral phenomena that already exist in the natural world, superimposing meaning onto them, and turning them into meaningful signs and symbols (e.g. “Owls represent wisdom”).
  3. The borrowing and using of semiotically ambiguous social phenomena, superimposing meaning onto them, and turning them into signs and symbols (e.g. “Today’s political divisiveness indicates the imminent collapse of American society.”)

There’s more but these will do for now. All of these intersect and overlap with each other in numerous ways, and this is what I would call “storytelling” or “mythmaking.” The story of the MPR Raccoon is largely a combination of #2 and #3, and is actually part of humanity’s age-old tradition of using symbols from nature, particularly animals, to tell stories. 

mpr raccoon
(photo: Evan Frost / MPR News)

Next, let’s talk about the kind of story we were telling ourselves through the MPR Raccoon event. It was, of course, a story about an epic struggle and journey, a story human beings particularly love precisely because life does often seem like an epic struggle. And even if for our entire lives we never travel beyond the city we’re born in, we love myths and tales about epic physical journeys (for example, Frodo and Sam traveling to Mordor) because they are such evocative metaphors for the journeys we figuratively travel in life.

The simpler the symbol or symbols involved, and the simpler the myths, the more different people can graft their own experiences onto them. This is one reason, among others, why the old myths endure so long. Being so elemental, they are open to diverse interpretations, allowing people of different cultures, eras, and experiences to borrow them as signs and symbols for their own semiotic needs.

Conversely, the more complex a symbol or set of symbols, the less individuals can typically make the story be about themselves. Events that occur in society are often extraordinarily complex, making them more difficult to adopt as one’s “own” story. Just recently, for example, there was a story about asylum-seeking families being separated at the border. It is very easy for people to think of such a story as having nothing to do with them. Even though it does. (Incidentally, you could “read” the raccoon’s climb as an allegory of the migrant or refugee’s journey). With such contextually complex real life stories, it’s understandably difficult to see how that story is actually about  me—how, in a family being torn apart, a part of me is being torn apart. But until humanity can reach that point where it can see, in complex real life stories and symbols, its own stories being told—until that point it needs the simpler myths and symbols to spark and inspire its evolution. 

Now consider the story of MPR Raccoon. It has all the makings of a myth that can be easily embraced by the masses. First of all, it is visually striking. There is something undeniably and profoundly moving, in those video images of a small creature, merely a tiny black silhouette when seen from afar, clinging to the side of an immense building against the backdrop of a blackened sky. It’s like seeing images of climbers braving Mt. Everest. We know she is hungry, thirsty. We know she is tired. She starts going back down the building after having nearly reached the top. Why? Was it fear of the unknown, of what might be at the top of the building? Was it exhaustion and the instinctual feeling that she would have better chances of making it by going the other way? But, no, she stops and rests and then starts climbing back up again. What to do? Will she make it? Will she plummet to her death?

mpr raccoon

In many ways, that damn raccoon might as well have been telling the story of my life. Up and down, here and there, and back again. And I know… I know that she was telling the story of your life as well. Through her struggle I saw your struggle.

In truth, of course, our little raccoon wasn’t telling any stories—neither to us nor to herself. Whatever had driven her to climb so far up the building in the first place, once she was in no-man’s-land (or no-raccoon’s-land), and once she started becoming hungry, thirsty, and tired, it was now a desperate struggle for survival, nothing more and nothing less. There is no objective meaning to the situation other than a living creature being driven by its instinct to survive, and using its innate intelligence and physical abilities to try to do so. Actually, this in itself is already majestic; it doesn’t need us humans projecting our subjective thoughts onto it. And, as mentioned, this epic struggle for survival is something that happens everywhere constantly without half of Twitter getting emotional. But the sheer simplicity and the visual poetry of those photos and live video feeds provided the world with an opportunity to come together in a collective, ritualistic theater of catharsis. Thousands of different stories were being told simultaneously in that moment as this creature clung and climbed for its life. And even as there were many individual stories about “me,” there was also a grand, overarching narrative about “we.” This was not just a raccoon on a building. This was Frodo making the arduous journey towards Mount Doom. This was Dorothy finding her way home across the Yellow Brick Road.  This was a collective nation—yea, a world—emotionally and spiritually hungry, exhausted, crawling towards salvation while being precariously threatened by imminent failure at any moment.

Many of us went to sleep that Tuesday night with these stories and visions playing in our heads. Wednesday morning, June 13, we wake up and rejoice to news that the raccoon made it. And thus did the stories of triumph begin filling the Internet.

• Nevertheless, she persisted.
• Never give up!
• If this little raccoon can make it, then so can we.

Since the raccoon made it, all is well. People can breathe a sigh of relief and get on with their lives, at least for now until the next collective drama presents itself. But I’d like to take this opportunity to bring attention to something very important, and it involves what we would have done if the raccoon had died.

The making of myths in itself isn’t inherently good or bad. It can be either or both, depending. In this situation, I believe it was mostly good. Because just as the raccoon’s struggle was emerging from its primal instinct to survive, so too does humanity’s urgent compulsion to tell stories emerge, so I believe, from our own instinct to survive. We continue to tell ourselves stories after millennia of doing so because, for the most part, they have helped us do just that—survive.

mpr raccoon
Climb. Rest. Repeat. (photo: Tim Nelson / MPR)

But great care should be taken, because even though this ability to tell stories that we’ve evolved has tremendous power for good, it also has the equal power for bad. Consider, for instance, what would have happened if that raccoon had not made it. Did you see the kinds of emotional, stressed, anxious, hopeful tweets people were tweeting? There were so many of them. People were even viewing the raccoon’s journey as an allegory for the American people right now and our struggle for a just, sane society. If that raccoon had fallen to his death, can you imagine what kinds of stories people might have told themselves?

• After all that, she just fell to her death. And that was it.
• Her struggle was for naught.
• What will come of me and my struggle? Our country’s struggle?
• Does the same fate await me? Await us?
• Is there any meaning or justice in existence?

I am genuinely relieved that the raccoon made it, for her sake certainly (for all living beings’ lives indeed have value), but even more so for the sake of people who were watching and captivated. I am relieved for them because not everyone realizes that the power we have to create stories and meaning can be molded to adapt to any situation. And herein lies one of the keys to getting through this hell that is life, sometimes—the ability to mold your/our story of survival and endurance no matter what actually happens, to not depend on particular results and outcomes because so often those are beyond our control, but to rely on our own ability to adapt to whatever results and outcomes may come. This is how people who go through unimaginable heartaches, loss, failure, and suffering are able to endure. They tell themselves the right stories. This means that even if our raccoon heroine had fallen to her death, we could have still extracted a story of hope and triumph from that. Her display of such physical endurance for hours on end was alone a triumph. By extension, with other unhappy endings that occur in our lives, we have the power to create redemptive meaning out of them through the power of storytelling.

And so today I genuinely celebrate MPR Raccoon’s survival and triumph with you all. But I also invite you to take the opportunity to reflect on this power that we have to tell stories that can be used both for our benefit and to our detriment. Our storytelling capacity is so ingrained in us that it is like an appendage, and it behooves us to use this appendage wisely and well, just as MPR Raccoon used her own God-given appendages to spectacular, inspiring effect. Use it wisely, and we will survive and thrive like everyone’s new hero, MPR Raccoon. Use it unwisely, and we will fall, fall, fall, towards our collective oblivion through a cold, black, uncaring night sky.

Fan art by Scott Spinks (via scottspinks.com)

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.