We did not mean to do it. But sometimes things just do not go according to plan. Sometimes there is no plan. Sometimes you just go with what is happening and deal with it as well as possible – or so it seems at the time.
In May 2010, Robin was live trapping raccoons from the building in which his company has its offices. After trapping three adults and releasing them in wooded areas, he heard little noises in the wall of his office. A sewer camera was used to find the source and a hole cut through the wall so the two little kits could be rescued. He took them to the area where he had released the adults in hopes that a mother would return and care for them.
The next morning, after a freezing night with snow (8 May), we both went to see if the mom had returned. The kits were still in the box as Robin had left them. They were suffering from hypothermia. Only a finger would wiggle slightly when we touched them. We had a choice, as we looked at the two tiny creatures that had been rescued from inside an office wall.
Do we let them die or care for them? They may have been three weeks old; one did not have his eyes open yet. We, and his brother, would be the first living beings he saw when his eyes opened.
We held them in our hands to warm them and I rushed into a restaurant asking for “some warm milk for baby raccoons!” The manager immediately got up from his lunch and went into the kitchen, returning in very quickly with warm milk, “no charge”!
Using an eye dropper, we fed these little guys; one did not have its eyes open yet and each was about the size of the palm of our hand. Warmth and warm milk did the job and they started to be able to move. What to do? We named them Frick and Frack and took them home. Our experience had begun.
We look at the experience of raising these guys as an honour and a privilege. They taught us so much.
Baby raccoons need to have their mom for most of the first year of their lives. There is a belief that their moms teach them things. Our experience has been that they know instinctively most of what they need. But they are small and vulnerable until they are most of a year old. They need protection.
We became “mom”. We fed them kitten replacement formula and, later, organic goat milk from a baby bottle. We cuddled them to give them comfort. We helped them with toileting. We gave them food, warmth and security. We did the things their mom would do – as well as two humans can.
It never occurred to us to put them in a cage. They had a box with cloths in it for cosy comfort. They outgrew the box and we put them and their box in a “playpen”. When they outgrew their playpen, the bottom of a new composter, we gave them the run of the kitchen. They would go back in the playpen to sleep in their comfy basket. We would close the door on the composter at night and open it in the morning.
We kit-proofed the kitchen as they grew and when they outgrew the kitchen, we kit-proofed the rest of our three rooms. This was not a small task. Months later, I still would find items that had been hidden so the guys would not break them. A few dishes were broken in their explorations but nothing important.
We learned a great deal from these determined, challenging and very sweet little guys. We miss them terribly. The first four months of a kit’s life is a quick lesson in child development. Watching them strive to achieve – over one barrier after another – the top of the china cabinet!! And looking down at me with an expression of sheer delight, “HAH, I DID it!!!”
And paying attention when they expressed their needs – for more space, for different food, for cuddles, a safe, comfortable napping place, a more raccoon type sleeping nest, rearranging a clothing shelf, time and again, until this human got the message – “this is MY sleeping shelf!”
We were “mom”. They followed us through woods and fields, just as they would have followed a raccoon mom, so close on our heels they kept getting bumped. We saw their instinctive searching for food, always alert to their surroundings, watching for trouble; going a short distance from “mom” but always aware of where to run for protection. They gave us so many lessons!
Of course there was the night when I stood up and screamed, “It’s 3 am and I haven’t gotten any sleep yet!!!” They were at an age where they took turns sleeping and bopping across the bed, and whoever was in the bed, slipping under the covers and putting their cold noses on some part of “mom’s” anatomy. We blocked the bedroom for a while and later they settled down to sleeping midnight until about 9 am – just like the “moms”. Like most kids do!
But there were so many wonderful moments. I would sit and inspect their beautiful hands as they played/worked and as they slept on my lap. Those wonderful hands would get into everything – because that is their design. Full of nerve endings, the kits learned as much about their world through their hands as through their eyes.
Frick had a cough for a long time. We worried about it – and so did his brother. One day, playing in the living room, as I sat reading, Frick coughed and coughed. Then, as I watched in concern, Frack came over and sat down next to Frick, put his arm around his shoulders and looked right into his face, “Are you all right, little brother?” I got tears in my eyes.
One early evening, out in the country, we had taken the guys for a walk. Later I thought another walk would be nice so I took one of them out of the car. He climbed back in as I tried to get the other one to come out. Frack became quite aggressive in saying “NO!” I let them stay in the car. After consideration, I realized it was getting dark and they KNEW! “This is not a good time for little raccoons to be outdoors!” was the message they were giving me. Instinct counts for a great deal.
We learned to listen to our kits. They had much to teach us.
Only in retrospect did we realize this may not have been the best way to help two little guys who would inevitably be returned to the wild. We accepted from the beginning that we would return them to the wild. We believed they needed to grow up to be wild raccoons.
We knew from research that raccoons live only three years on average in the wild and 15-20 years in captivity. We still believed, and believe, it is better for them to have the life they are meant to have. If we lived WAY in the country, we might have let them maintain our home as a base – a place from which they could go out into the woods and fields and come back until they transitioned themselves, or did not, into a fully wild life. We live in the city.
As they grew, we saw the instincts of a raccoon determining their behaviour: the need to explore their environment, to overcome every challenge, to seek food between the cracks in the floorboards, to wrestle with each other, learning how to live and grow – as raccoons.
Their development was similar to the development of human infants – but much faster! By three or four months of age they were becoming teenagers. They wanted autonomy but they wanted the security of mom and home.
While they were learning to be raccoons, they were also learning to be house raccoons. They asked for more space. They asked for different food. They used the litter box. They came running when someone came home – just like a cat or dog would.
In our attempts to help them learn to be wild raccoons, we made the mistake, when they were about four months old, of leaving them in the woods overnight. We had left them in this woods, for just a few hours, a couple times – leaving them at 7 pm and picking them up at the same spot about 11pm. They were waiting up on the branch of a large tree – the “waiting tree”.
This time, we left them for 24 hours. When we went to pick them up – no kits! We were worried and went back the next afternoon. We walked through the woods and called them. NO KITS! I went back the next day and waited and walked and called and searched. NO KITS. We were sad but hopeful. Maybe they met other raccoons and joined them, found a raccoon mom.
I went again the next day and spent most of the day, waiting and searching. No kits.
A week after we left them, we went back “one more time”. There was one little raccoon on the branch telling us in no uncertain terms how annoyed he was, but very glad to see us. He was in such a hurry, this sure-footed creature fell about 6 feet onto Rob’s head. Sweet, gentle Frick came back.
Once in the car: no way he was going in a cage. Frick needed a lap and he would have a lap! In the dim light of the car, I could see the lack of sparkle in his eyes. He looked shell-shocked. I could feel wounds all down his back. He had been bitten from head to tail. The physical wounds were almost healed.
Clearly, he had been holed up somewhere, healing. Instinct told him how to survive. But experience had taught him to come back to the “waiting tree” to find his “moms”. He insisted on being held. He wanted his ears scratched, his tummy tickled. He wanted mom to give him security, safety, healing from the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was about a week before his sparkle came back. We loved him and he healed.
We have never seen Frack again. We went again and again to the “waiting tree” but no Frack. We were very sad. Did he get killed by the same creature who attacked Frick or did he run off with other raccoons. We would like to believe he is still alive out there – but we really doubt it.
What would have been the better thing to do? I thought we were only going to keep them until they were weaned and then we would pass them on to someone(s) who would carry on from there.
We never found the raccoon rescue group which we had thought existed. Researching on the internet, we phoned and left a message with what we hoped was that group. They phoned back and took personal info. The only result was a phone call from “the government” telling us we needed to go to the hospital to be checked for rabies. We felt abandoned and betrayed.
The kits were getting bigger and more active. They needed to have room to move. We had only three rooms and a small backyard. And a neighbour who went ballistic when I took the kits outside to climb the big tree in our yard.
I watched them carefully because I did not want them to get out of the yard, did not want them to get hurt. I, also, did not want them to get into my flower and vegetable gardens. The neighbour brought us info on pest extermination.
We were increasingly concerned about the fate of these two guys. It is against the law to keep them in a home in Montreal. I was terrified someone would see them and grab them as I carried them between car and house. I would protect these little guys with my own body; they were my babies. They trusted us implicitly. We were their moms, their protectors.
Finally a friend gave me the name of someone she thought could help. We took them to a transition house in the burbs. A big cage – about 6 feet by 6 feet, with three levels and a ladder to climb, a sleeping hole – a wonderful raccoon cage.
They were used to more room and we still felt they needed real outdoor time. So, after about a week, we took them to the woods – with the resulting loss of Frack and the traumatic experience for Frick.
After Frick recovered at “home”, we took him back to the transition house. From there, he went to a farm in southern Quebec where he would winter over with other rescued raccoons of his age. In the spring they would be released in various areas which are considered as safe as possible.
Our two guys could have been in that transition house from the time they were weaned, had we known about it. They would not have become house pets. We would not have become so bonded to each other that I felt like a mom abandoning her child when I left him that last time. Three times, he chased after me, made himself into a pancake to slide under the fence, and tried to get in “his” car to go with “mom”. I finally had to ask someone to keep him in the cage until I got away. I wept.
We still miss those guys. We will never have that experience again. We do not feel it was the best thing for the kits. For us, it was a rich and incredibly rewarding experience. We watched two little guys develop into beautiful healthy teenagers. In four months, they tied themselves around our hearts. They were sweet and sassy, determined, challenging, and totally lovable.
I searched for a home in the country that I could afford, to no avail. It would have had to be isolated so I could have taken them to the country and let them come and go. They could have had a home base and a wild life.
We will not, however, do it the same way again. We had our monumental experience. We do not recommend it to others – unless you are in the deep country. We still believe that wild animals need to be allowed to live the way nature intends, even if they only live three years. We had those guys too long. We became too bonded to each other. It was not the best way to handle it but we were unable to find a better way. We did not let them die of hypothermia; perhaps that could be what nature intends. We did not let them starve. We did what we could.
We think of them every day. Frick and Frack live in our hearts and our daily hope for them, “Have a good raccoon life.” Wherever they are.
What I Learned from the Raccoons
Gentle Frick survived: The smaller, gentler of the two, Frick still has a sweet disposition in his transition home, even though Mom abandoned him.
They do what they are genetically programmed to do:. They looked for food, were aware of their surroundings, on guard and Frick had enough sense to hide until he healed enough to go to the “waiting tree”.
They LOVE challenges; they are determined: They delight in achieving their goals: The expression on Frack’s face when he made it to the top of the china cabinet said it all!
To explore is to learn how to find food. They have to investigate, open everything that is closed, see what is inside – and will work until they find a solution, a way in; no secret places for raccoons!
Each one has a distinct personality. Frack was the more aggressive but he never made a sound, unless Frick bit his ear too hard when they were wrestling. Frick was vocal; he chirped and chittered, purred and hummed, depending on his activity. I could always hear him coming, “HMMMMere I come.” When we found him on the waiting tree, he made noises we had never heard before! “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting and waiting! I am SO glad to see you! Here I come! Catch me, mom!”
They want approval. They did learn to adhere to some behaviours – stay off our laps when we are eating was a big one. “NO” had meaning to them. When I was gone all day, Frick came running when I opened the door. “Here I am! Lap time!” When it was time to go somewhere, “Come on, guys, let’s go!” would bring them out of whatever hiding place they had found.
But not at the cost of being who they are. They let us know when they needed more room to move, when they wanted to play longer, take a longer walk….
They enjoy cuddles, affection. Lap time happened every afternoon before naptime. They came for tummy tickles and ear scratches until they fell asleep on a lap, next to us on a comfy chair or behind a neck up on the high back of the chair. They liked to be next to hair.
They know how to ask for what they want – if we know how to pay attention. They showed us in their own ways and eventually we humans got the message.
I'm right here, mom! 22 September 2010