A year ago Wednesday, a raccoon captured the imagination — and hearts of many across the globe via social media — for more than 24 hours in downtown St. Paul.
MPR staffers first saw the raccoon on a skyway ledge and followed her ascent up the UBS Plaza building. Her trek up the tower was documented by MPR News reporter Tim Nelson and photographer Evan Frost nearly nonstop as the nation watched.
Some observers said the nation needed a respite from hard news, while others said we needed something to collectively root for. Still, one year later, others admitted they weren't quite sure why they kept watching for updates but they did.
Whatever motivated the viral sensation, it sure was a fun day here at MPR News. Some of the staff looked back and recounted the day.
Tim Nelson, reporter: This story started when I saw the raccoon on the ledge outside the skyway between MPR and the UBS Plaza building. It was Monday afternoon. I thought it was unusual to see an animal like that perched on the side of an exposed concrete aggregate building, but figured it was a passing visit. I wasn't even quite sure what kind of animal it was.
Nancy Yang, digital producer: I had seen tweets about this thing — was it a raccoon? — the day before and had tried to find it on my own. But I looked in the wrong spot because I didn't see it and figured it had climbed down. But then the next day people tweeted about it again!
Max Nesterak, Morning Edition producer: I remember seeing the raccoon before we knew what she was. You couldn't see her face so it was this furball on the ledge of the skyway leading out of MPR. Was it a cat? A ushanka? Finally, she moved. I saw a little raccoon face! I called animal control to alert them that she was there. They said if she got up, she knows how to get down.
Nelson: I called the City Council office for downtown, animal control and the management company for the office building where the raccoon had hunkered down. The management company told me the raccoon was likely after pigeon eggs from a recess in the building's exterior wall. But nobody had any idea how it got there or how long it would stay.
Kyle Shiely, All Things Considered producer: The first time I heard about the #mprraccoon was when Morning Edition producer Max Nesterak sent out a tweet asking people to identify this furball on the side of the building. I didn't give it much thought. I don't think anyone did until the next day.
Nelson: The next day, I walked over there and discovered that they were putting together lengths of 2-by-4 lumber with wood screws, building essentially a 30-foot plank that they were pushing up against the side of the building — apparently in an effort to give the raccoon an escape route. Which the raccoon was having none of.
Tracy Mumford, podcast producer: Next I heard, it was a raccoon, and people were breaking out the ladder to rescue it. But it didn't want to be rescued. It went higher. And higher. And higher.
Yang: I was the digital producer on duty handling social media when Tim Nelson started tweeting about the raccoon. He told me earlier that he had called the city about it! I thought, what the heck? — and retweeted him with the comment: "All work has halted in downtown St. Paul today while everyone tries to figure out how to help this little critter. Save the raccoon!" I figured if we were worried about it, so was everyone else!
Ali Lozoff, director, regional content strategy: I saw [Current hosts] Bill DeVille and Sean McPherson pointing up at something in the sky, then turned the corner and saw folks taking pictures out the skyway window, and realized something was happening. Everyone was buzzing with excitement, but we didn't even have a hashtag for it yet.
Peter Cox, reporter: I think David Montgomery, now with CityLab, first gave the raccoon the hashtag #mprraccoon.
David Montgomery, reporter: I had a desk near the skyway leading in to the MPR building, and kept seeing people darting out and back. Eventually I wandered over myself to take a look, and alternated between following it in person and via social media.
On Twitter, Tim Nelson and a few others with MPR had been sharing pictures of the raccoon that were getting a little bit of attention. I thought it was a great little story — look at how cable news goes bonkers every time a llama escapes from a zoo somewhere — and wanted to push it out to more people. So I retweeted Tim's photo of the raccoon and appended a brief caption: "Will no one help the #mprraccoon?"
The hashtag was sort of spur-of-the-moment. I mean, it wasn't even on the MPR building. It was just that you could see it from the MPR building, and MPR people were the only people talking about it on Twitter at first. So without thinking too much I just called it the #mprraccoon.
Nelson: Within minutes, my floor-by-floor updates on the animal's climb was being retweeted hundreds, then thousands of times. I went from about 9,000 Twitter followers to about 17,000 in a matter of hours. Crowds started to gather on the street and around MPR to watch, and I started to get calls from Good Morning America and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC.
Nesterak: Thank god for Tim Nelson and Evan Frost. For the next 24 hours, I was refreshing their Twitter feeds on my phone constantly.
Yang: People replied to our tweet asking for updates! Other people started providing their own witness accounts! People offered their own suggestions for how to save the #mprraccoon! That day when I handed off the social media reins to the afternoon producer I made what probably sounded like an unusual request: Hey, could you keep people updated about the raccoon on the side of the UBS building? Thanks!
Tom Crann, All Things Considered host: It just seemed like a curiosity and I didn't give it much thought and got in the studio and got ready for All Things Considered and looked at Twitter as I do, and started seeing it more and more on Twitter. And I thought it was sort of, you know, to be honest, funny and ridiculous.
Steven John, newscaster: By midafternoon, it was suggested that it was time to include the historic event on the banner outside MPR HQ. Being the no-nonsense journalist that I am, I balked at first. But, realizing this was a story that needed to be told to a wider audience, I settled on: "St. Paul's downtown raccoon reaches new heights."
Nelson: The news of the day had been dominated by the summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and I think there was a lot of angst about nuclear proliferation and the potential for armed conflict, and this story was a welcome diversion for people as they waited to see if it ended in tragedy or triumph, albeit with much lower stakes.
Mumford: By the afternoon, I was getting texts from family and friends around the country who wanted behind-the-scenes updates on the raccoon's status. Clearly, the world took a productivity hit that day.
Montgomery: Of course, nothing else got done for the rest of the day. Other people started following the saga, first by monitoring Tim and others on Twitter. Then people started gathering in the park outside the MPR office to watch in person, and TV stations started live-streaming. I was still monitoring some of the livestreams into the evening, when all the local stations cut away for their 10 p.m. newscasts right as the raccoon was nearing the top of the tower! Meanwhile it also got picked up nationally, on social media and some news websites. I enjoyed watching the convolutions some reporters had to go through to explain why it was called the "MPR raccoon."
Elizabeth Shockman, reporter: By the end of the next day my family was asking about the raccoon, friends in the U.K. were asking about the raccoon. My pastor was talking about the raccoon for goodness' sake. Now, when driving into St. Paul with people that's what they ask about — which building is the one with the raccoon?
Megan Burks, All Things Considered producer: I was working in San Diego the day #mprraccoon made her furry ascent. I probably saw something on Twitter in the days that followed, but #mprraccoon didn't truly enter my consciousness until January, when I broke the news to colleagues, friends and readers that I was moving to Minnesota for a job at MPR. That's when this refrain began ringing in my ears and inbox: "You know it's cold there, right? And, they have raccoons!"
Bob Collins, former NewsCut blogger: Unfortunately, the raccoon was not a "we'll always remember where we were" moment for me and I have no recollection at all about where I was or what I was doing, although a check in the NewsCut archives tells me it was just another day on the blog — trying to gin up an audience for a story about some drunk woman at a country music festival in Minnesota who got her head caught in a tailpipe of some guy's pickup truck, a pitcher for Mounds View who wouldn't start the celebration of his team winning a baseball game because he'd just struck out his best friend for Totino-Grace, and the Tony Awards giving a special award to the drama teacher at the high school in Parkland, Fla., for barricading 65 students against a mass shooter.
We had so many people covering the raccoon that there was no need for me to write anything — this would normally be in my wheelhouse — and I remember thinking, "nobody's gonna read what I'm writing because it's not about a raccoon." I wasn't wrong.
That woman with her head stuck in the tailpipe couldn't have picked a better time.
Shiely: After the show I was walking out to my car and I could see the raccoon resting on the windowsill. With all the excitement and people waiting to see how it turned out, I was convinced the poor girl would pass away during the night and we'd be stuck with her up there all summer long. Thankfully she made it to the top, so that didn't happen. I just wish she could have waited until All Thinks Considered went on the air to get to the top, Tom could have announced it live.
Andrew Krueger, editor: Around 6 p.m., I positioned myself on the top floor of the City Walk parking ramp, with a view across to the UBS Plaza building. I put the telephoto lens on my camera and started looking up ...
— Andrew Krueger (@akpix) June 12, 2018
Just after 10 p.m., as the crowd on the plaza dwindled, the raccoon started crawling down the building. Yikes! For all the precarious positions it had been in all day, seeing the raccoon facing downward, paws spread out, clinging to the pebbly surface of the building — that seemed to be the most death-defying.
A little after 2:30 a.m., I finally decided to pack up my camera and call it a night. And apparently right as I was doing that, the #mprraccoon decided to make that final climb to the top! I missed seeing that climactic moment firsthand, but it was great to end the night knowing that, at the very least, the raccoon wasn't clinging to the side of the building any more. I left Tim Nelson and the few other people still around, looking forward to getting details on the raccoon's status later that morning.
Nesterak: It was late at night when she turned around and started to climb down and then stopped. I fell asleep knotted up with dread that I would wake up to bad news. Instead, waking up at 4 a.m., I saw that she had turned around and made it back up to the top with a champion's feast of cat food inside a trap!
Yang: I wake up at 4 a.m. for my 5 o'clock shift and the first thing I did was check Tim Nelson's Twitter feed. And my jaw dropped when I saw that she had made it onto the roof! I couldn't believe it! She had proved me wrong! When I drove in, I saw all the TV vans doing their live hits and it made me smile — all this for a little raccoon that could.
Jim Bickal, Morning Edition producer: We are always happy when there is breaking news during Morning Edition and the #mprraccoon did not disappoint. When she went on the air at 5 a.m., Cathy Wurzer reported that the raccoon had gotten to the top of the UBS tower two hours earlier and was presumably on the roof. She told us that a trap, baited with cat food, was on the roof and would keep us posted with any developments. A few hours later she reported that the raccoon had been caught in the live trap. And then she described photos of the raccoon in the trap that had been posted on Twitter.
I was impressed by how Cathy handled the story all morning. She knew people were curious and she kept them updated with the latest, but always with the right tone. In her voice, you could tell that she knew this was a silly, but captivating story.
Yang: The rest of the day people kept sending us artwork they had created of the raccoon and her amazing climb. They were inspiring and funny and beautiful. There were so many and they were so lovely that I felt the rest of the world needed to see how a raccoon brought us all together. So I pulled them into a little photo gallery. It was easily one of the best and most fun assignments I've ever had. Days later, people were still sending their artwork. I was totally OK with that.
Burks: All of those people back in California weren't wrong about the cold. But I still haven't seen a single raccoon here.