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Raccoon roundup. August 4, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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The other morning, our friend Ben saw something moving in the island bed surrounding the huge maple tree that marks the dividing line between our back lawn and our back garden, where our Cultivated Wild Meadow, Pullet Palace, greenhouse, raised beds, compost bins, rainbarrels, fruit trees, grape arbors, and etc. make their home. But even the tree is quite a way back from the sliding deck doors in the kitchen, where our friend Ben happened to be standing at the time, and, to quote James Herriot, “I am not at my best in the morning,” which is to say that there could have been an extraterrestrial moving around back there for all I knew. Clearly, I needed reinforcements.

I decided to start with the one closest to hand, our black German shepherd, Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special. “Psssst, Shiloh, come here! Do you see anything out there?”

No one could accuse Shiloh of lacking intelligence or not understanding commands, but “Come” is one that she hears only selectively, if at all. Unless, of course, one is asking her to come for some reason she considers worthy, such as to give her a treat or take her outside or share one’s own meager food supplies. But eventually, she deigned to head in our friend Ben’s direction. “Look out there! What is that?!”

The huge, upright ears swivelled back in my direction, and the head cocked in the characteristic “Oh dear, you need help” attitude. If she could have lifted a paw to her head and circled it in the classic “You’re insane!” gesture, she would have. Heaving a massive sigh at the absence of any form of refreshment, she left the kitchen ostentatiously and collapsed noisily, clearly exhausted by the lack of food, in the living room.

Oh well, no one ever said shepherds had been endowed with hunting instincts. Clearly, it was time to bring in the big guns. Heading to the bedroom, our friend Ben considerately roused the peacefully sleeping Silence Dogood with a well-modulated hiss. “Silence!”

“Mmpf?”

“Hey, Silence, wake up!”

“Urk?!! Ben, what on earth is going on now? You know I can’t sleep at night now that it’s so hideously hot and humid. Can’t you let me get an uninterrupted hour’s sleep in the morning, for mercy’s sake? What’s the matter with you?!!”

Hey, it wasn’t my fault that things had come up for the past three days that required waking her up before 6 o’clock. But that didn’t mean my life wasn’t in danger, and not from whatever was prowling around outside. A diversion was essential before I was snuffed out. “There’s something moving out there,” I proclaimed dramatically.

“What thing? Out where?”

“I saw it from the back deck door.”

“Maybe it was the neighbor heading out to get the paper,” Silence muttered, unimpressed, preparing to roll over and try for another hour’s sleep.

“It was under our maple tree, and it looked like a fox.”

“FOX!!!” Silence was out of the bed and lurching for the back deck door before Shiloh and I could even turn around. Like me, she was scared by the concept of foxes because of our beloved backyard chickens. We did everything possible when constructing our Pullet Palace to protect our chickens from alien invasion. We used stout kenneling panels to make the sides and roof of the chicken-yard enclosure surrounding the coop, so the chickens would have room to roam without fear of aerial attack from hawks or agile climbers like raccoons who could easily scale an open-topped fence. Not even a bear could get in from above. And we laid an 18-inch-wide strip of chickenwire flat on the ground beneath the kenneling panels, 9 inches to a side, to try to discourage anything from burrowing under. But foxes are renowned for their ability to dig—thus the term “foxhole”—and 18 inches of wire probably wouldn’t be enough to stop them. We’d only seen one fox in the whole time we’ve lived here, romping through the field behind our property several years ago. But frankly, one would be enough to turn our poor chickens into sushi.

“Ben, that’s a cat!” Silence declared contemptuously, looking out. Now I was in for it. “No… wait… it’s not moving like a cat. It’s red like a fox, but it has a ringed tail like a raccoon, or a longhaired red cat. There’s no such thing as a ring-tailed fox. But no, I swear it’s not a cat. Get our birding binoculars, would you?”

Dear Silence, such a propensity for pointing out the practical and obvious, even at that ungodly hour. The binoculars! Of course. Our friend Ben retrieved them and handed them over.

“Ben, it’s a little raccoon. No, wait—it’s two little raccoons! They can’t be more than a few months old, they’re just a third the size of our cat Linus. I’ll bet they’re digging for grubs around the tree, trying to find nutrients and moisture given this drought we’ve been having. Here, take a look!”

As usual, Silence was right. The reddish color we thought we’d seen must have been a trick of the early-morning light. The twin raccoon kits were adorable as they attempted to forage furtively in the “bush,” completely ignored by nearby birds who would never have treated their parents with such contempt. Silence and I asked ourselves, but where was their mom, anyway? Male raccoons tend to head off after mating, leaving the females to raise the young alone. But mama raccoons are usually diligent about their responsibility, taking the kits through their first season of life and showing them how to survive. These two were on their own.

Our friend Ben actually forgot about the little raccoons until a few days ago, when Silence was watering the houseplants in our home office. “BEN! Remember the baby raccoons? I just saw one of them break from the front-yard island bed and head around the side of the house!” Silence and I rushed for the deck door, convinced that we’d see them come up on our deck, as many an adult raccoon had before them, to our dismay. But there was no further sign of the little ones. Silence speculated that perhaps they’d headed into the waterless but still-damp creekbed of our stream, Hawk Run, to check out holes in the bank for crayfish or other edibles.

Then the next morning, I took Shiloh out for her 5:45 bathroom break. As I headed for the ring of trees Silence and I have dubbed “The Circle of Doom,” I saw one of the baby raccoons waddling furiously for one of the walnut trees surrounding the circle. Slowly but deliberately, it began to climb the tree. Following its progress, I saw the second raccoon already on a high branch of the tree, awaiting its twin. I told them calmly that we meant them no harm, and Shiloh, fierce watchdog that she is, ignored them completely. They didn’t seem particularly alarmed, either, regarding me with interest as I attempted to communicate, rather than showing the least sign of panic.

I haven’t seen them in the last few days, but after three sightings, I assume they’re out there. Are they a threat to our tomato, pepper, squash, tomatillo, and fruit crops? Probably. Inept as the yearlings are, they’re still bound to be hungry. Raccoons, like humans, are omnivores, and like us, they’ve proven adaptible to even urban environments; I’ve seen them on the wire fire stairs of inner-city homes, and our friend Edith had a horrendous (or at least horrendously expensive) encounter with a raccoon family that had taken up residence in her urban-suburban attic.

They have large brains and dextrous hands. (That would be the raccoons, though one could say the same about Edith.) It’s no challenge at all for an adult raccoon to reach into our half-barrel water garden, take out a snail, and extract it from its shell, as the empty shells we find on the deck when raccoons are spotted in the vicinity amply testify. Frogs, baby birds, birds’ eggs, fish, crayfish, shellfish, insects, earthworms and the like don’t stand a chance.

Neither does cat food, dog food, or any other food if a raccoon can squeeze through your cat door or otherwise worm its way into your house. (Yet another excellent reason not to install cat—or, yikes, dog—doors, since rats, ‘possums, and God-knows-what can take advantage of them as well as pets.) And don’t think they can’t open your kitchen cabinets or the fridge door; we know of one raccoon who consistently broke into a friend-of-a-friend’s home, opened the fridge door, and extracted the diet cheesecake, carefully opening the package, consuming the contents, and depositing the wrapper on the floor before departing.

Clearly this was a combination of the world’s most selective raccoon and the world’s most habit-bound human, or it couldn’t have happened more than once. And our friend Ben of course has to wonder if the raccoon was watching its weight, or hoping to become the next spokesraccoon for Weight Watchers, or if the rest of the food was so appalling that it made fat-free cheesecake look decadent by comparison. Or if those rumors are true about diet foods containing addictive chemicals that keep people (and raccoons) coming back for more no matter how awful the taste, look, and texture. But I digress.

Returning to the subject, I decided to find out more about raccoons. I had read Sterling North’s Rascal as a child, about a boy and his pet raccoon. I had seen Fess Parker in his coonskin caps as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett on TV (neither man actually wore one, FYI). As an adult, I had of course heard about rabid raccoons, how you should keep well away from the normally nocturnal creatures if you saw one lurching around in broad daylight like a wino who’d just polished off a couple of bottles of Mad Dog 20/20. (But some perfectly healthy raccoons, like our twins, will occasionally appear in daylight, so use their behavior rather than the time of day or night as a rule of thumb.) And Silence and I had seen the enormous size adult raccoons could reach with our own eyes, since  they’d sometimes arrive at our deck at night to eat our outdoor cats’ food and fish in our water garden. Definitely not something you’d want to tangle with in the house, even if it wasn’t rabid! 

Raccoons’ intelligence, dexterity, intrepid nature, problem-solving skills, adaptability, and omnivorous habits are certainly worthy of respect. But they can also lead to tragedy. Silence Dogood once told me of the heartbreak suffered by one of her coworkers who left her baby securely in the car seat, car door open, while rushing into her rural house with the groceries. She returned moments later to find her infant under attack from a large, hungry raccoon. The child survived the attack, but required extensive plastic surgery, and the guilt and shock almost killed her mother.

The lesson, which we humans seem so slow to learn, is that wild animals, and especially baby animals, may look cute, and they may act cute when we observe them going about their lives, playing and goofing off, but ultimately, they will be true to their nature. It behooves those of us who live or go among them to keep that in mind, especially when the creatures concerned remind us of something we already know and love: a kitten or puppy, a stuffed teddy bear, the Lion King, Tarzan’s chimp companion Cheeta. It’s one thing to try to find the common links between all life, and quite another to discard the essential differences between us to our own cost.

But again, our friend Ben is straying from the point, which is that I found some pretty amazing facts about raccoons in their Wikipedia entry. Like me, you may be interested to know that:

* Raccoons are now thought to be related to those much-larger furry omnivores, the bears. Both share many common behaviors.

* The smallest known adult raccoon weighed just 4 pounds, the largest, over 62 pounds. (The average is about 8 to 20 pounds, though 30 pounds is not uncommon.) They put on enormous amounts of weight to prepare for the lean times of winter, actually doubling their size, and try to consume as many calorie-dense foods like nuts as they can find.

* Raccoons can live 20 years in captivity, but seldom survive even 3 years in the wild.

* The raccoon’s ancestors evolved in Europe 25 million years ago, crossing the Bering Strait (like human beings) to come to the Americas.

* Despite many languages naming raccoons for their tendency to wash their food before consuming it, animal behaviorists claim that this behavior has only been observed in captivity, never in the wild. They say it’s a displacement activity the captive animals use to reproduce hunting along streams and rivers for fish and other aquatic prey. This would make perfect sense, except for one thing: Then why do so many ancient names for the raccoon refer to its food-washing? Surely names like the Powhatan and Proto-Algonquian for raccoon, from which our own word raccoon is derived, were taken from observations in the wild, not from pet raccoons or zoo specimens! Hmmm.  

* Humans and birds of prey are called “sighted” species because by far our strongest sense is our sense of sight. Dogs’ strongest senses, by contrast, are their sense of smell and hearing. But raccoons’ dominant sense is their sense of touch, typically expressed through their super-sensitive front paws. Their brains are specialized to focus on touch more than any other animals’ that have ever been studied, and they can recognize objects by touch alone. However, that’s not to say their other senses are lacking. Their eyes are well adapted to seeing in the dark, their sense of smell is excellent, and their hearing is astounding—they can actually hear earthworms moving under the ground.

* Raccoons are no dummies, either. They can quickly learn to open different kinds of locks, still open the locks when their arrangement was dramatically changed (such as turning them upside down), and remember what they’ve learned three years after a short initial training session. And they can tell the difference between boxes containing two, three, and four grapes, as well as “instantly” being able to distinguish between different symbols, according to research. (No wonder that refrigerator and cheesecake carton proved no challenge.)

You can read the Wikipedia article to find many more fascinating raccoon facts. Meanwhile, we wonder if our apparently orphaned twins are still hanging around. If so, Silence and I have decided to name them Crispin and Pippin. But turst me, we’ll enjoy observing them without attempting to make friends!

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