Raising and Releasing Orphans
My peaceful, imaginative moment of daydreaming next to the swamp was shattered as needle teeth sank into my flannel shirt (and my skin), accompanied by much ferocious growling.
It was early December several years ago, in that special time of morning just after sunrise, when the air is clean and the day's problems haven't surfaced yet. Had it been spring, the swamp would be bursting with activity. But at that time of year, in those hours before the first snowfall of the season, it was dead quiet. From my vantage point on a moss covered rock, some fifty feet from the water, the swamp was primeval. In my mind's eye, I watched a giant mastodon plod through the silence, bound for a drink at the water's edge. Not such a far fetched imagining, since the bones of a mastodon had been pulled from this swamp not so long ago.
My attacker growled playfully, pulling at my sleeve. I was on my feet in a flash, gritting my teeth and giving thanks for denim as 20 pounds of raccoon climbed my leg. I reached into my shirt pocket for what he really wanted; marshmallows. Slightly squashed and stuck together from being pocketed, the marshies nevertheless do the trick. Boone dropped to the ground and sat on the rock next to me, rolling back nike quickstrike on his ample hindquarters and biting the marshmallow he held with his velvety soft hands.
Boone was one of five infant raccoons that arrived at my door earlier that summer, double bagged in a supermarket paper sack lined with a red flannel shirt. "They were taken from a chimney yester the Conservation Officer said. "They haven't been fed yet."
From just the look of it, the sack could have passed for groceries. But the half hearted growls, hissing, trilling churrs, and the distinctive, inquisitive 'weeeep weeeep' sound coming from inside it were pure raccoon.
I was a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, but most of my charges had been birds. Everything negative I had ever heard about raising raccoons flash through my mind. One raccoon would be a handful; five would be insane. I was working on a book, and the orphaned baby bird season was right around the corner. Common sense began to over ride my natural love for raccoons. No, I thought, I certainly would not have time to play momma to these furry devils. "I'll take them," I said to the Conservation Officer, who knew all along that I would.
The Algonquin Indians called him arakun , which, roughly translated, means "scratches with his hands." The Lakota called him wayaicha , the little man. European col who never had seen such a creature and didn't know what to call him, reported the arakun was "much like a badger but living on trees like a squirrel."
By whatever name it is known, the raccoon's intelligence, curiosity, adaptability, and cunning personality have won him the admiration of most humans. Those same traits have also caused many to label the raccoon a pest, and to seek retribution for ruined crops and pilfered trash cans.
Procyon lotor, the scientific designation for the raccoon, means "before dog" and "washer." These names are misleading, for the raccoon is not the primitive predecessor to the dog, but is classified in a distinctly separate family. The idea that raccoons wash their food before eating is a misconception. They're more feelers than washers but they do love the water. The front paws or hands of a rac are much like our own. They have five long fingers on the front, and five toes on the rear. The hands of a raccoon are super sensitive, and a raccoon will feel an object in order to learn more about it. Since a raccoon prefers to feel for delec things to eat in a brook or pond, they are often nike shoes low top seen swishing their hands in the water, giving the impression that they are washing food. If no water is available, the raccoon will eat heartily anyway.
Raccoon hands are also capable of manipulating and grasping. That dex coupled with curiosity and in usually gets a coon into some sort of trouble. They have a reputation for being mischievous, though it may not be intentional. Then again, maybe it is.
Raccoons do possess an insatiable curiosity and a genuine sense of fun. This can be an admirable trait, or a major pain in the wherever, depending on your sense of humor. A gang of raccoons tearing up the tomato garden and having a grand old game of tag with your prize fruits can be a little unsettling. But really what are a few tomatoes compared to a whole night of good healthy fun?
And raccoons do have fun. We raised one we called Nike (as a baby, his favorite bed was inside my son's sneaker). Nike spent hours playing with Rob, who was about seven at the time. Rob taught Nike how to do somersaults. Rob grasped Nike under the shoulders and warned him to "get ready!" The raccoon would be just bursting with excitement, so that he made funny little "eh, eh, eh" sounds. Rob would then gently roll the coon over in a somersault. Nike loved this so much that he started doing them by himself. After he'd grown, it was something to see this big fat raccoon somersaulting across the lawn. Now there was a coon with a sense of fun.
Raccoons are thinkers, in their own way, and if they want something badly enough, they will figure out how to get it. People mistakenly think having a raccoon as a pet might be fun. Besides the legal implications (it is unlawful to have a raccoon for a pet), it is a bad idea that gets worse as the raccoon matures. A sexually mature raccoon becomes a potentially dangerous raccoon, and at the first sign of aggression, the novelty part wears off.
On several occasions, people brought me raccoons they had attempted to raise themselves, without the proper qualifications or permits. The complaints were usually the same. Raccoons kept in the house can be incredibly destructive. The smarter ones can learn to turn on water faucets or flush toilets, so they can play in the water. Cabinet doors are a snap to open, and some even master the refrigerator. Once, Rob left a sealed can of fishing worms within the reach of a raccoon. In the morning, the can was open and the worms (all 137 of them) gone.
As they mature, cuteness is often replaced by growing aggression and irritability. A raccoon is well equipped with sharp teeth and claws, and an angry raccoon is half cat, half bear. Because they are mammals, raccoons are also capable of transmitting rabies, and many areas have very strict regulations now concerning rehabilitation and release of raccoons.
The five raccoons in the paper sack were christened Boone, Bowie, Crockett, Annie, and Ma Barker. They fit in the palm of my hand, and had the hair standing on end look of a small kitten. They were bottle fed a specially made formula every four hours and burped like human babies. At first, they slept between feedings, but as they got a little older, they were moved to an outdoor pen. I raised them with as few restrictions as possible, trying to duplicate as best I could their normal stages of development, so that they would be able to adjust to a normal life in the wild.
The traditional nesting place for raccoons is a hollow tree. Raccoons also thrive in residential areas, living on garbage and raising their young in attics, sewer holes, drainpipes, and under the porch. They'll eat whatever is convenient, as they are omnivorous. Farm coons will raid the cornfield and the henhouse, check out the pigpen for lef slops, and maybe sample the garden veggies (more likely will just have a good time ripping up the plants). It is this adaptability that keeps the raccoon population strong.
Three to five is an average litter size. The cubs remain in the den until they are about six to nine weeks old, at which time the mother usually moves them to a ground nest a stump, rock outcropping, or similar shelter. She will leave them each night to hunt, returning to them by