by Erika K. Yery
Every year when New Year’s Day rolls around my mind travels back to 1988 when the New Year started off with a bang. New Year’s Eve 1987 was a very cold day followed by a bitterly cold night. We fed the various opossums and raccoons that came up from Ivy Hill Cemetery where they seemed to den. After an eventless evening, we saw the New Year come in and went to bed hoping for a better new year.
My first task on New Year's Day was to go out on the patio, fill the water dishes, and add birdseed and peanuts for our daytime visitors. When I opened the door, I saw, to my great surprise, an adult raccoon lying on the first step leading from the kitchen to the patio. I wondered if I hadn't had too much holiday cheer and was seeing things that were not there. When I took a step closer, I knew what I saw was a rather thin adult female raccoon. After a frantic call to my husband Richard, we carefully approached her and tried to check for any sign of life. We got no response. Her eyes had rolled back and there was only the slightest pulse.
At that time we were licensed rehabilitators but novices when it came to raccoons and did not have all of the materials and information that we have now. It was just a few years following an outbreak of rabies in the area and although we had our preexposure rabies shots, we were very uncertain about what to do. Of course, no veterinarian would examine raccoons and we did not have the expertise to properly treat a very sick animal.
The raccoon did not move and seemed near death so we carefully wrapped her up and carried her into our unheated garage to at least get her out of the elements. It was clear we needed help if there was to be any chance at all to save the life of our New Year’s Day guest. Finally, Richard remembered a veterinarian at the Fort Myer Veterinary Clinic that liked wildlife. Luck was with us. He was on duty and came by within the hour. After checking the raccoon, he seemed very pessimistic about her survival. We knew warmth was essential so we carried her into the heated laundry room and set up a comfortable bed. The veterinarian gave her a dextrose injection and we discussed what to do next. We had no idea what was wrong with her. We decided to be extremely careful so as not to endanger our five juvenile raccoons in the adjacent animal room.
Rabies and canine distemper can have more or less identical symptoms and we knew about distemper. It is a highly contagious viral disease of carnivores. Aerosols of nasal discharge are the most common avenue for spreading the virus. At that time, it was thought that canine distemper could spread via the air to animals housed as much as 20 to 30 feet away. Assuming it was distemper, we had to turn the heat registers off in the animal room and allow no contact whatsoever.
Over the following days, Richard spent most of his time on the phone calling every veterinarian he knew or had heard of to get advise and help. He had no luck until finally, on January 15th, he contacted Dr. Hanna Siemering. She said she was willing to see our patient. At this time, the raccoon had taken neither food nor water and there was only the slightest movement to indicate that she was run down and her chances of survival were practically nil. By that time we had named her Angel as we were sure that she would be one soon.
We were determined to save Angel, but we knew it would be a long-term effort if she were to make it. We got a large dog cage which barely fit into our TV room, added a sleeping box with a heating pad, put in water and various delicacies that raccoons like and hoped for the best. To no avail, Angel was still not eating or drinking and barely moved. Then on January 17th, Angle raised her head for the first time and started moving around on very unsteady legs. Finally, we coaxed her into drinking a tiny sip of water. A few days later she started standing up. There was a slight tremor in her left paw and she appeared very groggy and still showed no interest in food.
Richard started to take care of her since it required a complete change of clothes, a shower and covering or washing our hair before we could go into the room with our other raccoons who, of course, had to be taken care of as well. I don’t know how we did it but somehow we managed these first weeks. It was imperative to protect the other raccoons from the virus if it were distemper. We never did find out what really was wrong with Angel but we are quite certain that it was canine distemper. January 24th was the big day. Angel raised herself up in a sitting position and ate most of a 14ounce can of dogwood. The following day she had her first bowel movement and started to urinate in her litter box. By mid-February, she seemed stronger and started moving around more and eating well. She also let us know that she was a wild animal so we had to be very careful while cleaning her cage and changing her food dishes.
The weeks and months went by with Angel getting stronger and showing less of a limp. She started to rough-house with Richard. That entailed a stick that she would carry around and Richard would pretend he would take it away, or shaking a stuffed sock and throwing it around her cage. I stayed away from her as much as possible because we were still concerned about a viral transmission and I was taking care of the other raccoons.
One morning in April, Richard went into the TV room to feed Angel and to clean her cage, and surprise--no Angel! He though he was not seeing right and called me. The door of the cage was securely locked, but Angel was not in her cage. Angel was gone! After the initial shock, we decided that she had to be in the house. We went from room to room but not a trace of Angel. Finally, I started crawling along the floor looking under beds, sofas and other furniture. I went to the dining room last and there, behind the buffet, was Angel sound asleep. To describe how we got her out and back into the cage would be the subject of another story. At any rate, by noon she was back in her cage and we started threading wires through all the bars to eliminate another escape. I still cannot imagine how she could have squeezed though those spaces with bars set two inches apart.
We started to feel badly about Angel being confined to a cage but she was just not steady enough on her feet for release. The summer went by and fall arrived. The five guests we had through the winter had grown into adult raccoons and had long since been released. Several litters of baby raccoons were raised and had grown and were ready to return to the wild. Was Angel ready to make it on her own? We were very worried and spent sleepless nights thinking and talking about it. Friends with many acres of beautiful woods, adjacent to a wildlife preserve, gave us permission to release Angel on their property and promised they would watch for her in case there was a problem.
Finally, we could put it off no longer. Richard opened the cage door. Angel walked into the carrier without a problem and off we went to the release site. We were prepared to have to pick her up and bring her back home as we were not sure that she was ready to return to the wild. After a long walk through the forest, we put the carrier down close to a swamp with frogs jumping and other activity in the water and carefully opened the door of the carrier. I grabbed my gloves and a towel and held the carrier door open, ready to put her back in and take her home once more.
Angel walked out of the carrier, went straight ahead toward the swampy water and never looked back. We stood there in utter disbelief until she was out of sight. After over nine months, Angel was back in nature where she belonged and only the slightest limp hinted that she once was almost an Angel!