by Erika K. Yery
July 16 will be my 20 year anniversary rehabilitating wildlife, as on that day, 20 years ago I found a new born baby raccoon after a storm and not being able to find anyone willing to take him from us, we raised him, and so it all began. Little did I know what was in store for me, lots of pleasure and also much pain and disgust with the human race. Would I do it all over again? Frankly, I don't know.
It is illegal to keep wildlife as pets, also illegal to raise them without the proper permits. Wild Animals belong in the wild and do not make good pets. When the Rascal event took place, rehabilitation of wildlife was not was what it is now. We did the best we could under the circumstances at the time.
How did you get into rehabilitating wildlife? That is a question that has been asked repeatedly during the years I have been rehabbing. I finally decided I would document it before I totally forget all the details as that summer day in 1983 changed my life forever.
July 16, 1983 a normal day, going to work, coming home cooking and eating dinner as a tremendous storm started brewing and heavy rain came pouring down. After a while, it stopped and became very calm, muggy and overcast as my friend and neighbor Lotte Freed called to ask me if I wanted to go for our daily walk. I was hesitant at first at it was very wet and not inviting to go through the woods across from Ivy Hill cemetery our usual route. As faith had it planned, I was talked into it and on the way; back home, I noticed something tiny and pink lying on the path, right next to a huge oak tree. I picked it up and there was this very cold and strange animal covered with ants and not moving. I cradled it in my hands and took it home, thinking it was a newborn dog or cat or possibly an opossum. At home, I tried to warm the little creature and our first thought was to give it something to drink. I had neither baby bottles nor eyedroppers. Therefore, my husband Richard started calling pharmacies to ask if they sold preemie baby bottles or eyedroppers. At that time, we did not have all night grocery stores or drug stores and the only drugstore open was on Glebe Road in Arlington County. Richard drove there to no avail; they had neither eyedroppers nor preemie bottles. Meanwhile I started calling neighbors and friends and finally one came up with an eyedropper. I started feeding the tiny creature warm milk, the first mistake, and kept it warm all night. I had to go to work in the morning so I asked Richard to find a woman that I knew worked with animals, named Sandy Green. Several years before, we attended a benefit for the Alexandria Animal Welfare League and the speaker was Sandy Green, a wildlife rehabilitator. She explained about wildlife rehabilitation and showed slides of various critters she had in her care. I did remember that and though if it was a wild animal she might be of help. After many phone calls Richard finally tracked Sandy down and she met him after work to look at our new addition. She took one look and exclaimed: it is a raccoon! So my new life began and it has never been the same since.
The big rabies scare started in the early 1980's as the first cases of rabies became evident. Hunters had trapped raccoons in Florida to restock West Virginia and Virginia for coon hunts and rabid animals were released during that period. After a few years, the rabies numbers went up and the authorities started trapping and killing raccoons supposedly to stop the rabies spread. In most jurisdictions, rehabilitating raccoons and other rabies vector species (raccoons, fox, skunk, groundhogs and bats) was not permitted. If a rehabilitator cared for any of these animals, (often they were turned in by a friendly neighbor) the authorities would come, confiscate the animal and kill it. The rehabber lost the rehabilitator permit and was lucky not to be fined. Consequently, most rehabbers would not take any of these animals during this period. I was not privy to the underground that existed at the time as it usually does when something is not allowed. Animal loving and caring people would not permit to have a healthy animal killed just because some might be rabid, which was very unlikely. We had hoped Sandy would take the little raccoon, but she could not as she lived in Fairfax County, one of the places that did not permit rehabilitatating raccoons. We did not know other rehabilitators, and the few we found, were not willing to help us in this dilemma. So we decided we would do the best, until we found a suitable home for him.
Rascal a male raccoon weighted 3-1/2 ounces, and was 5 inches long. His eyes were closed. About 2 ½ weeks later his eyes opened up slowly and he was about 3 weeks old. Raccoon's eyes open at 21 to 23 days, so Rascal was only about a few days old when I found him. We still fed him regular milk and it is a true miracle that he survived as cows milk does not have the right nutrients and usual makes raccoons sick and often will kill them. Lucky, Rascal was a very tough fellow and soon he started eating other foods, drinking water and creating havoc in the house. We did not keep him in a cage, but he mostly stayed in the bedroom when we were not home as that was a place where he could do the least damage. He started to open a drawer and sleeping in it amidst pajamas and underwear. During the night, he would crawl into bed with us and sleep quietly until we got up. He also liked to crawl into a Kleenex box, preferably partly full, ripping up all the Kleenex to shreds and finally falling asleep in his newly made bed.
It was not long before he started climbing drapes and lampshades, and had fun with whatever he could find. One day he decided to give my work pager a bath and I dont need to tell you what my boss said when I told her that it was broken because a raccoon dunked it in water!
A real scare came one day when Rascal could not be found. Last seen, he was in the bedroom and with all doors and windows closed, so he had to be in the room. We kept calling him and searched every drawer, closet and other possible hiding places, to no avail. After a while we heard a slight scratching and after we removed all the bedding, there was a tiny hole in the mattress and Rascal was sleeping peacefully inside the stuffing of the mattress.
As he got older he noticed the telephone. Whenever we used the telephone he would jump up and grab the cord until the phone fell down. To correct that problem we got him his own phone, which he took with him when he crawled into his dresser drawer in the bedroom to take a nap. Rascal also liked flowers and whenever he found an arrangement in the house he would start playing with the flowers, taking some along into his sleeping quarters and often eating a few.
September came; our usual vacation time and we did not know what to do with Rascal. So we decided to just take him along. The 7-hour trip to Buxton in the Outer Banks of North Carolina was uneventful as he slept most of the time, except for the worry we had that we might be stopped as we heard that it was illegal to transport wildlife across state lines. We were constantly worried that Rascal might be confiscated and killed.
The rented beach house, right on the ocean, was a great place and Rascal immediately had a good time investigating every nook and cranny and finally falling asleep. The following morning we decided to go to the beach and since we could not take him along we though that the bathroom would be the safest place for him to stay while we were out and there was nothing he could destroy. We returned a few hours later and immediately opened the door to check on Rascal, but he was not to be seen. The windows and doors were still closed and so was the door to the cabinet under the sink. We opened that door and Rascal was not in it either. What a shock, there was a small opening around the pipe that led from the sink through the cabinet and down to the outside world. These beach houses are built on stilts and Rascal somehow squeezed through that tiny opening and escape to the outside world. We ran outside and there he was under the house playing in the sand with seashells and other treasures. To our great relief, nobody did see him.
The following days went without major mishaps until at the end of the trip when he disappeared again and was found in the mattress again. He ate a hole into the mattress and crawled in to sleep while we were out. Needless to say it was quite a feat repairing the mattress as I hardly could tell the owners of the beach house that a raccoon did the damage.
Vacation time over, Rascal now three months old, became more and more active and wanted to play and party all day. By evening he was so tired he would usually sleep all night after the lights went out. Rascal loved to play in the bathtub and also enjoyed climbing into the kitchen sink, turning the water on and of course, never turning it off. He had to be constantly watched as he liked to open doors and drawers in the kitchen and taking out pots and pans and crawling into the cabinets for a nap.
Gardening was another hobby Rascal enjoyed. Whenever I was digging in the garden he would watch and start digging everything up that I had just planted. He had to be watched constantly, and even with both of us checking on him, he would innocently walk close to the fence and all of a sudden climb up and jump over it.
Rascal soon became an expert climber, and more than once I had to climb one of our big trees bringing him down. One sunny late November day, Richard decided to let Rascal climb the large tulip tree in our backyard. Rascal had a wonderful time and climbed higher and higher and refused to come down. As it got later it became cloudy and cold and Richard wanted at least get a coat, but could not leave because Rascal might have used the opportunity to come down and disappear in the neighborhood. After I got home we finally coaxed him down with several large marshmallows.
Christmas came, and Rascal now about 6 months old, really loved the Christmas tree. I did not want to put up a tree, but Richard insisted and Rascal was all for it. Despite several attempts trying to climb the Christmas tree and pulling off various ornaments, we survived that season too. Rascal loved the walking and barking stuffed dog he got for Christmas and several stuffed animals. He started to sleep with a large stuffed raccoon and gradually started to pull out the stuffing until only the shell of the toy was left. I kept restuffing the toy raccoon and Rascal kept unstuffing him, a favorite past time for him.
During January and February Rascal became very restless and constantly went to the door to be let out. He started to play much rougher, but never tried to bite or act aggressive. He was not friendly to strangers and would hide whenever somebody came to visit, a good sign that he was becoming wild. He was a striking looking animal, weighing about 12 pounds and still full of mischief. Soon spring would come and I constantly worried how to return Rascal to the wild. We found a veterinarian that had wormed him several times and also checked on him at a regular basis. Rascal got vaccinated for distemper and rabies and was in excellent health. We only had to find a rehabilitator that would take him and slowly prepare him for release into the wild. He had to learn how to hunt and become a truly wild animal.
The lucky break came when Sandy Green moved to Fauquier County and had no longer restrictions in working with raccoons. She was very experience and agreed to take Rascal make him really wild and eventually release him in a save place.
Easter was the last time we spent with Rascal, and a few days later we took him to his new home. We took a large cat cage with a platform and sleeping box and set it up in the woods for him. He had previously spent some time in that cage in our family room, so he was used to it. It was a very sad moment, petting him one more time and walking away. I felt relieved that he was so busy sniffing the air and looking up in the big trees with squirrels jumping from branch to branch that he paid no attention to us when we left.
The next day, as we put away all his toys, food dishes and other items related to his stay with us, it was very difficult not to cry and fall apart. After a sleepless night, I went to work and just could not stand it anymore. I called Richard and begged him to bring Rascal back. Lucky for all of us he refused.
Sandy gave us regular updates on our friend, and after a few weeks she called and told us that she released him in a secure spot.
Rascal, named after a raccoon in the book by Sterling North changed our life forever and although I would have been better off if I had not found and raised this wonderful and mischiefious animal I am grateful for the experience.
By the way, the following year the word got out that we had raised a raccoon, and we ended up with two. This time in a more professional and correct manner. Every year since, more and more of these wonderful bandits show up at my door, and are raised and released in a safe refuge.