Rachel the Raccoon
Growing up on our makeshift farm in rural Wisconsin, my siblings and I had many pets. We had rabbits, ducks, geese, goats, chickens, horses, two dogs and one cat. But, being that we were out in the country, there were also many predators. Raccoons were the most prevalent and they used their human-like hands to open levers, hatches and locks which we thought we had securely fastened the evening before. Many of our farm animals, the geese, ducks, chickens and rabbits were fair game for these masked bandits and unless the cages were locked down like Fort Knox, come morning, feathers, fur and blood would be everywhere. My dad grew to hate the raccoons.
But, it wasn't always that way. When we first moved to the twenty-five acres of rolling woodland, ponds and fields in 1969, we were amazed at how tame and daring the raccoons were. One night our dogs had not finished their kibble and the two bowls were hoarded by at least twenty raccoons and their families. We turned on the outdoor lights and watched them through our sliding door window as they held the kibble in their hands and enjoyed the free meal. There were old and gray raccoons who seemed irritable and short on patience. There were mothers with a trove of small babies following behind like circus elephants in a parade. And it seemed like each animal had its own personality, just like people.
You've undoubtably heard that you should never feed the bears or other wild animals in a State Park I am sure. Well, we broke that rule by feeding the raccoons and it would come back to haunt us a few years later.
To the raccoons, our home was a convenient grocery store. I am sure that the bowls of dog food were like the bulk snack barrels you'd find at Whole Foods. The geese, ducks and rabbits were the fresh meat section and inside the garbage cans you'd find all the miscellaneous items; peanut butter jars, pancakes and syrup, beef stew, lasagna, and many other remains of meals from the previous week.
One night we awoke to the sound of our geese honking in a fevered pitch. You could tell they were in panic and were being attacked. My dad grabbed his .22 caliber rifle and a flashlight and we made our way down the hill to the pond, cutting a path through the darkness with the bouncing light of an Ever-ready flashlight. Once there, it became very quiet. We could see goose down and feathers around the pen. There was carnage and my dad was furious. Shining the flashlight at ground level, it appeared that the bandits were gone. But, as my dad aimed the beam upward we saw two eyes glimmering back at us from high up in a nearby tree. "Hold this and fix it on those two eyes," my dad ordered aloud. I felt bad. I was angry about the vicious death that some of our geese had experienced, but I didn't want to add another death to the evening. "Can't we just scare it off?" I asked in a trembling voice. "No, it is too late. This is what happens when you feed wild animals!" my dad shouted. I could tell he was not happy about the situation either. I always thought my father loved nature. He was a sportsman and only killed when it meant supplying food for our family. This was waste. Killing because this animal had learned to associate our small farm with an all you can eat buffet. My dad leveled the gun butt against his shoulder. I closed my eyes and heard the sharp crack and echo of the rifle. Almost immediately I could hear the crashing and thrashing of limbs as the limp and very large raccoon fell to the ground with a heavy thud. It was over.
When the sun rose the next day we had put the experience behind us. There was no counseling, no therapy for what I had been part of. No healing words. Death and life were part of living on a farm and whether it was butchering or birthing, it was part of life. To talk about what had happened would anger my father because I think he wanted to forget the experience as much as anyone.
About two days later, I was sitting on the patio deck listening to 45 rpm records on a sunny and warm summer afternoon and heard our dog, Toto, barking down by the goose pen. As you can imagine, my curiosity was ahead of my feet as I ran down the hill to the pond. Running as fast as I could, I eventually made it to Toto barking wildly at a small, softball-sized clump of gray fur. It was a baby raccoon. Frightened and showing its teeth to our dog, growling fiercely to keep Toto a few feet away, I knew this was an orphan and the result of the death a few nights before. Within minutes I had scooped the small fur ball up into our green fishing net and was running up to the house. By the time I got up to the top of the hill, I was out of breath and the raccoon had gone from growling to a kind of baby cry. It was afraid and alone.
We soon found out that this baby was a girl and named her Rachel.
I can remember my dad shaking his head as we hugged the soft fur ball. "You cannot raise a wild animal like a domestic one!" he said. But, I think he knew there was nothing else we could do at this point. The damage was done, the genie was out of the bottle. Soon, Rachel had a rag-lined easter basket for a bed, a pacifier to chew and suck on and a small, doll bottle which we used to feed her baby formula.
The following weekend my dad built an outdoor pen with enough room so that she could climb and run around the enclosure. On Saturdays we'd give her leftover pancakes and syrup, a feast she always enjoyed. Playing in the sweet syrup with her paws and licking the plate clean within minutes. After she had had a few hours to digest her meal, we'd bring her in the house and let her run around the family room, climbing up furniture, sliding under chairs and chewing on our very tolerant dogs. It was fun for us, but we never considered that this was truly a "wild animal." She was not a dog or cat. She was living in a cage for most of her time. She was not free.
Years later, on a cold and snowy day, we brought Rachel in our house again for the usual Saturday routine. By now, Rachel had gotten quite large due to the human food diet and lack of exercise. She would pant as she ran around the family room, grabbing our ankles with her small hands and wrapping her body around them in a sort of wrestling maneuver as she sunk her sharp teeth into our skin. She'd bite down just enough to inflict pain, but never enough to draw blood. She played hard and we ignored the fact that this animals still had a free sprit, even though she had been caged for years and essentially raised by humans. That all changed on this cold winter day. Rachel was tired of being a caged pet and even though she only knew us as her family, something was missing.
My dad's words came true that day - you cannot raise a wild animal. With what seemed like stored-up energy from fat-lighter in a fire, she lashed out at each of us. She growled and snarled, her white fangs visible, and making threatening charges if we tried to get closer than a few feet. For safety, we climbed up on our kitchen table as she frantically roamed the room with an almost rabid demeanor. We were truly frightened of her at this point and as my mom entered the room we warned her of the change that had occurred. "My baby Rachel wouldn't hurt me" she said as she reached down to grab the growling mass stretched out in an attack mode along the floor. What happened next was not a pretty sight. Rachel laid into my mothers hands with a kind of anger we had not witnessed before. Maybe it was fear? Maybe at some point she had realized that she was not part of this family and was really a captive? Maybe she knew it was time to escape?
My dad grabbed a large broom and with the door wide open and snow blowing into the house, he pushed the fat mass of teeth and fur outside and slammed it shut. There was silence. We were all in shock, my mothers hands dripping bright red blood onto the white linoleum tile floor as she stood there with a dazed look of confusion.
Rachel circled the house about three times before disappearing into the woods below. We left the cage door open and put fresh food and water in it every day in case she was hungry and did not have shelter. But, our guess was that she would probably starve in the cold of winter due to the fact she never was taught how to hunt or find food.
We checked her cage daily from then on. But she never appeared until one spring day a few months later. Drops of water from the melting snow were falling everywhere. So much so, it seemed almost like it was raining. A continual "tap, tap, tap," of the drops hitting the top of Rachel's cage could be heard as I approached. And there she was, curled up in a ball inside her makeshift den, asleep and still. I didn't try to wake her. Even though I wanted to pet her and let Rachel know we missed her. But, we had made this mistake before. It was time to leave nature alone and hopefully, seeing her this many months later meant she had made it through the winter and would survive. The next day I checked again and she was gone. That was the last time we ever saw Rachel.
That whole experience taught me something very valuable. That wild creatures cannot be tamed. They are free and have not been "domesticated" like wolf to dog or lion to cat. They live what we as civilized humans miss. They know true freedom, not controlled by anyone or anything. Relying on themselves to survive and not leaving anything but their tracks and scat where they have been. It is all we can do to understand their ways and not attempt to change it to that of ours.