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I was driving on a suburban road at night when I noticed an animal at a distance in the middle of the road. As I approached, I was able to see it was a raccoon. I stopped.

It was just standing in the middle of road. It wasn't eating. It didn't appear injured. It wasn't doing anything. Just standing there.

I blew the horn. It was startled but wouldn't budge. I flashed the high beams. Nothing. I lunged the car forward. Nothing. It just held its ground.

Driving at night in these parts I frequently encounter deer, opossums, rabbits, foxes and raccoons. They all run to safety as the vehicle approaches. This particular raccoon behaved differently.

What would possess a small animal to hold its ground as a giant object barrels towards it?

video of the incident: https://youtu.be/SUvHnoqOQfc

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What would possess a small animal to hold its ground as a giant object barrels towards it?

Some kind of illness or injury. The racoon in your video did not appear to be injured.

The raccoon's behavior in your video is far from normal. If you live in an area where racoon rabies is found (it's particularly bad in the eastern and southern states in the US), it's probably rabies or another serious virus (parvovirus or distemper.)

Behavioral change is one of earliest signs of rabies in raccoons. Acting in a way that is contrary to the norm is an indication of rabies. These changes include being too aggressive... ...more friendly and easy to tame ...[L]ooks [C]onfused and [S]low... ...the raccoon is walking in circles and its movements seem to have no purpose... A healthy raccoon always stays alert and does things purposefully.

Decades ago, I saw a rabid dog in a busy intersection, where it had stopped traffic. It was unmistakable: the dog was lunging at cars, foaming at the mouth, acting wildly inappropriately. But not all animals with rabies act like that stereotype. Bats don't necessarily look sick at all. Relatively early in the course, raccoons may simply appear disoriented.

Injured animals tend to be still even in inappropriately unsafe spaces. A juvenile oppossum was crouching under a neighbor's car in daylight, unmoving. The neighbor brought it to me. I thought it was just lost, but it didn't resist me in any way (nor was it aggressive.) On careful examination, it had two puncture wounds, one on either side of it's chest, and one was deep enough to have punctured it's lung (it had subcutaneous emphysema.) I was worried that it would be euthanized if turned over to a wildlife facility, so it was nursed back to health in my bathroom. Luckily, it didn't take to this human and was released uneventfully. I've seen injured rabbits and birds behave similarly depending somewhat on the injury.

How to Tell If a Raccoon Has Rabies.

Raccoons and public health

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  • How is this the correct answer? It's an answer, but the more likely reason is memorization as indicated by the other answer with more than double the score.
    – Escoce
    Mar 25, 2023 at 15:29
  • @Escoce - Votes, bah, seriously. If you are familiar with raccoons in suburbia (the user with the older answer is not: there are no raccoons where they live), you would know that raccoons don't freeze in headlights. Deer do. I've never seen an uninjured rabbit freeze in headlights. I don't know what moose, elk, bison and a great many other animals do. But I know what cats, dogs, deer, rabbits, birds (yes, in the road, eating road kill), opossums, coyotes, foxes, goats/donkeys/horses (roaming free in other states/countries), sheep and especially raccoons do. Mar 25, 2023 at 21:08
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    @Escoce, I grew up with racccoons all around me. I know a lot about them just from experience. The older answer, despite the upvotes, doesn't align with my experience. I've explained why in my comments to that answer. This particular raccoon, in my view, has a disease (most likely rabies). This answer is the most on target at this point. Mar 26, 2023 at 15:08
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    @MichaelBenjamin - I just googled do raccoons freeze in headlights, and this was the first hit (chuckling bc of how different this advice is from prior answer): "Headlights can also blind animals such as coyotes, raccoons, opossums, and cougars. If an animal “freezes” in your headlights, slow down and blink the lights on and off. Honk your horn repeatedly. Most important, reduce speed, and be ready to stop." It doesn't say they freeze, though. It's mostly about deer freezing. Still haven't found support for raccoons freezing or ambling kind of aimlessly. Mar 26, 2023 at 16:00
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In UK rabbits exhibit this behaviour (no raccoons here). They become mesmerised by the headlights. It's not so much an act of defiance but confusion. There are even idioms (from Farlex)

  • like a rabbit caught in the headlights
  • like a deer caught in the headlights

If someone is like a rabbit caught in the headlights or like a deer caught in the headlights, they are so frightened or nervous that they do not know what to do.

Sounding the horn will only frighten it more.
This knowledge can be used by hunters. Wikipedia says

Spotlighting or lamping (also known as jacklighting, shining, illuminating, pit-lamping, and the killing lamp) is a method of hunting nocturnal animals using off-road vehicles and high-powered lights, spotlights, lamps or flashlights, that makes special use of the eyeshine revealed by many animal species. A further important aspect is that many animals (e.g. foxes and rabbits) often remain to continually stare at the light and do not appear to see the light as a threat as they normally would view a human. It is possible to carefully approach animals on foot to a short distance if the bright light is continuously maintained on the animal to greatly improve chances of successful killing. Spotlighting may also be used as a method of surveying nocturnal fauna. Repeated, frequent spotlighting may have a detrimental effect on animals and is discouraged.

I suggest that instead of being aggressive towards the tiny creature ("Get out of my way") you douse the lights, and give it an opportunity to escape.

Perhaps they don't move away so easily, see When the road is blocked by animals, what's the proper way to proceed?

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    Try to see it from the raccoon's view. It's on this weirdly hard and exposed ground, and two bright lights approach from a distance. The creature is already outside of its comfort zone, and the approaching lights are totally outside of its experience. WTF is all this? Don't expect rational behaviour from it. You've already made it worse by flashing the lights and blaring the horn. Mar 21, 2023 at 21:33
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    With regard to your first comment, the raccoons here are familiar with roads and headlights. We both live in the same area. But not meaning to argue with you, just adding context. Thanks for taking the time to post an answer. Mar 22, 2023 at 0:31
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    @WeatherVane American ways of fronting? Animals in Norf America are confused? I don't expect raccoons to know about this, and neither do I, but maybe I'm just as confused :-)
    – gerrit
    Mar 22, 2023 at 10:02
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    Not addressing your answer, but rather your first comment: raccoons in a suburban roadway are not in a strange environment (outside of its comfort zone). They are very familiar with roads, and are one of the animals that eat roadkill at night, so roads are a common feeding ground, as are garbage cans, backyards, chicken coops (ask me how I know this! Oy!), freshly dug up soil (earthworms, yum), even attics (yes, ask me how I know this, too... that's what you get for having a house in the middle of the woods where I live(d).) Mar 26, 2023 at 16:12
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    @MichaelBenjamin thanks, but the accepted answer seems to cover this angle. Mar 29, 2023 at 18:37

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