Raccoon (Procyon lotor) babies have a lot to learn. As adults, Raccoons hunt and forage for a wide range of food, from songbird eggs to berries to the salmon a bear leaves behind. Raccoons hunt small rodents, crunch on snails, and nibble the mushrooms on the forest floor. Raccoons are brave, resilient, adaptable and notoriously intelligent.
Orphaned Raccoons in their housing, prepare for the wide and wild world. To help them recognize the real world when they see it, we’ve provided them an artificial river of concrete. We call it the Los Angeles river. No substitute for an ecosystem, but at least they know to look for fish in moving water.
Raccoons have lived in North America for millions of years. This familiar wild neighbor has nearly as many names as there are indigenous languages. We use the Algonquian name, derived from arahkunem – which is said to mean “scratches with hands.”(1) Locally, in Wiyot, the animal “with the painted face” is known as jbelhighujaji (pronunciation).(2)
For a glimpse into their place in the ecology of Northern California, a Shasta story has Coyote and Raccoon living together each with five children. When a jealous rivalry ends with Coyote killing and feeding Raccoon to his children, one of Coyote’s sons tells Raccoon’s orphans what happened – they decide to kill all Coyote’s pups but the one who told them. Afterward they flee with the spared pup into the sky. Coyote tries to follow but cannot keep up. The six young animals become the Pleiades, high above in winter when no raccoons are about, and down from the sky in Spring and Summer when raccoons emerge with young.(3)
Taking their first tentative steps into a world without walls. As kits, as soon as they began eating solid food, they were offered fish, mushrooms, plant material, small rodents, small birds, vegetables, fruit, eggs and insects, hidden under rocks and logs, hanging from branches. They know where to look for food.
It isn’t frivolous to consider the seriousness of raising orphaned babies of a species this complex, this storied, this ordinary, this mysterious. Here we are, as removed from “universal nature” as any species has ever been, yet it’s up to us to provide an education for these wild young things.
When we commit to the care of a wild orphan, we accept the responsibility for their wild education. To teach a wild baby to be wild requires an inhabiting imagination. We must see the world this young animal will see, and then provide the challenges that will teach the skills necessary to thrive in that world.
When we commit to the care of a wild animal, we are committing to the wild, to nature – we are accepting Nature’s terms – we are accepting, and in fact seeking, the blaze of reality. This is, as they say, a tall order.
Meeting nature’s terms does place the rehabilitator in an awkward position. Our towns, our cities, ranches, forestry, fisheries, in short, nearly all of modern society struggles to co-exist with the wild. Promoting co-existence with wild animals – this alone puts a person outside of most of society’s concerns.
To be an ally of the wild often puts a wildlife caregiver in opposition to the general dreams and desires of our human neighbors. Schools, shopping centers, highways, solar farms, windmills, none of these, no matter their merits, is a boon to the wild. Even though any of these promises to preserve the world, a wildlife rehabilitator doubts the proposition.
Experience, or maybe intuition, knows that people don’t preserve ‘the Wild.” The wild is the expanding universe and the cosmic sweep of galaxies, it’s the comet’s eventual return, the dividing cell, the grasp of the leaf cutter beetle, the gill, the hoof, the photosensitive tissue that finds these words on the screen. We see the strip mine, the copper mine, the mountain top removed for the coal beneath – the old forest destroyed – the old forest re-named “overburden.” Factory trawlers scraping the bottom of the sea, oil spilled from exhaust into the suffocating sky – it’s hard to believe that modern society will preserve anything.
Henry David Thoreau, in his essay “Walking,” offers what could be the wildlife rehabilitator’s complete philosophy, in eight simple words: “in Wildness is the preservation of the world.”(4) This statement is irrefutable. In some ways it is shocking that it had to be uttered. To rehabilitate wildlife, rehabilitators live by this simple truth, its utter grace and its razor sharp accuracy.
Everything emanates from the Wild. What else can the wild be if not the headwaters of existence? The wild could be called the real. We may as well say that in reality is the preservation of the world – not in law, not in hybrid automobiles, not in aqueducts, not in theology. The real presents itself. Wild allies follow as we can.
This year, at Humboldt Wildlife Care Center, BAX staff and volunteers have been caring for two dozen orphaned Raccoons. Our first litter of four, whose mother had been trapped and dumped miles away, came the third week of May. They were nearly three weeks old. Last weekend we released six youngsters who were ready to go. We still have over a dozen in care.
Each of these youngsters is learning to hunt, to forage, to climb, to hide when threatened. Each of these youngsters is fierce and determined. Healthy in mind and body, we release them into a carefully chosen site. Food must be present. Water, too. Cover against predators (Coyote is still looking for Raccoon) must be available. Room to roam – these animals must be able to disperse from this site, preferably adjusting to freedom and autonomy before encountering a backyard and the get-rich-quick scheme to be found in humanity’s garbage pails.
For the release, the six Raccoons were weighed, examined and put into transport carriers. We drove them to a remote location on a tributary of a nearby river. Once the carrier doors were opened, five of them sprung into action, heading for the river and swimming across to its other bank. Some climbed trees, others immediately searched for and found food (food we’d put there, but nothing like early success to build confidence!).
Forest riparian habitat is excellent for Raccoons. And it didn’t take this group long to figure that out. Now they’ve entered the real world. Will each survive and live long lives? No one knows. What we do know is that we’ve given these young wild kin the best chance we could.
One Raccoon hung back, not leaving the relative safety of the known carrier, poking her head out, ducking back in. Our team moved back and waited. Eventually, after many hesitating starts, she left the carrier and quickly disappeared into Reality.
All good things are wild and free. – Henry D Thoreau
Your contribution makes the care of orphaned Raccoons, and all of our wild neighbors who need our help, possible. Please donate. Thank you for being a part of our life-saving work.
All photos: Laura Corsiglia/Bird Ally X
(1) The Rice University Neologisms Database, ‘coon’, accessed 27 September 2014
(2) http://www.wiyot.us/language, accessed 27 September 2014