by Bonnie Brown
In 2003, after having received my Virginia Category IV (care provider) Wildlife Rehabilitator Permit and a series of rabies preexposure shots, I began helping Erika Yery care for orphaned raccoons at her home. Erika specializes in rehabilitating rabies vector species (bats, foxes, groundhogs, raccoons, and skunks); is the founder of Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehabilitation; and, in 2003 was caring for nearly 30 orphaned raccoons. Over the year, I found that each season brought different challenges. With spring came a seemingly endless number of tiny, helpless wild orphans. By summer, they were bigger, stronger, very mobile, and incredibly mischievous. New routines were established as groups were moved out of the house into outdoor cages. Fall marked the culmination of their care. It was then that all but the youngest would be released. For me, this was a bittersweet time. Clearly, each releasable raccoon is a success story: A little life that began harshly had been salvaged and prepared to reclaim its wild heritage. However, after months of caring for and about them, the idea of sending them off on their own into a forest -- even a well chosen one -- was a bit sad and unnerving. Of the many raccoons we released in the fall of 2003, none was harder to say goodbye to than an exuberant, bright-eyed, compact little guy we called Russell. This is Russell's story.
Russell did not arrive at Erika's the rambunctious, irrepressible charmer he later became. One long June night, an Alexandria couple had been kept awake by some forlorn creature's loud, pathetic crying outside their bedroom window. When daybreak came, the couple was surprised to discover that the crying was coming from a single, tiny raccoon. Later that day, with the baby still unclaimed by its mother, the tired but kind man brought it to Erika. Although we knew more of this one's circumstances than we do about many of the orphans, we did not know how he came to lose his mother and we also didn't know what had caused the bumps and bald spots on the top of his head. But we knew that the one and one-half pound raccoon was inconsolable.
After being carefully checked over, the new arrival was put in a cozy, towel-lined plastic bin in the living room with a heated rice bag for warmth and a soft stuffed animal for cuddling. From there, he could be easily monitored throughout the day and fed. Over the next couple of days, we understood why his rescuers had been sleepless. The little orphan alternated between crying loudly and whimpering softly. It was constant and it was heartbreaking.
Within a few days, though, the little raccoon stopped crying and began to take an interest in his new home and his new life. He relished his bottles. And he was given a companion. A few days earlier, Erika had rescued a baby raccoon found wandering alone at Lake Accotink Park. Although she was covered with flies (future maggots), she survived and was named Accotink (or Miss Accotink). The two little orphans were moved from their plastic bins to a small cage downstairs in the "animal room." They proved to be quite compatible, sharing a little nest box and often snuggling together in the little hammock that hung in a corner of their cage.
The little male raccoon soon began to distinguish himself as a high energy, inquisitive force to be reckoned with. Not all of the raccoons were bestowed with names but this one came to be called Russell, partly because he was from Alexandria's Russell Road and mostly because the name suited him. As the more boisterous, rabble-rousing side of his personality surfaced, Erika often called him R-R-R-Russell. I became a frequent defender of the little rascal and began calling him Good Boy Russell, though clearly he often wasn't.
All the baby raccoons were brought in their groups up to the kitchen where they were bottle-fed and given supervised playtime. Because there were so many baby raccoons living in the animal room cages, the kitchen playtimes of several groups overlapped to give each group as much time out of the cages as possible. We began to realize that no matter how many raccoons were present, Russell considered himself to be king of the kitchen.
In addition to being curious and intelligent, raccoons possess extraordinary manual dexterity and are terrific climbers. While these traits serve them well in their native habitats, they could be problematic in a kitchen. The orphans were given a changing variety of toys and other objects to entertain them (and to lessen their interest in reorganizing drawers, exploring cupboards, and climbing doors). One day, we set out a hard plastic circle cat toy which contained a ball that could be pushed around its circle through holes in the side and top. Russell, who believed that he had first dibs on any new toy, was particularly fascinated with it. Soon, however, he tired of pushing the ball around its track and wanted to hold the ball itself. His frustration turned to fury as he found it was impossible to extract the ball from the toy. It took many marshmallow treats to save the toy and the kitchen and restore Russell's good nature.
Just as his playthings were often the objects of Russell's energetic attentions, so, too, were his playmates. Although most of the raccoons that Russell shared playtime with were older and a good deal bigger than he was, this in no way inhibited him. Ambush and tackle became Russell's specialties. Play fighting is a favorite pastime among young raccoons but Russell's roughhousing resulted in such wild, tumbling skirmishes that I often felt the need to intervene. I would extract Russell from the fray and attempt to divert his attention.
As feisty as Russell could be with his raccoon playmates, he was amazingly gentle and indulgent with his human caregivers. He accepted my interventions with surprising tolerance and good grace. Being great climbers, raccoons like high places so Russell didn't seem to mind the many time-outs he spent on my shoulders. Often, he took these opportunities to rearrange my hair with his nimble little fingers. During these grooming sessions, we called him Mr. Russell, hair stylist. One day, I stopped by a grocery store on my way home. While in the checkout line, the man behind me politely mentioned that I had some "fluff" in my hair and asked if I'd like him to remove it. I said "yes" and thanked him. He then replied in a rather strange voice that he couldn't get it. When I put my hand up to my head, I discovered that a very gooey, partially-chewed mini marshmallow had been buried in my hair by Mr. Russell. Thus, I learned it was wise to run a comb through my hair before venturing out in public after supervising kitchen playtime.
Eventually, Russell, Accotink, and a group of three siblings were moved to a small outdoor cage with two connecting rooms. There they were able to climb, romp around, and, for the first time, splash in a small pool. Russell was particularly enchanted with the ice cubes and ice blocks he was given though it often annoyed him when these wonderful, cool new playthings began to disappear before his very eyes. He also enjoyed the room service and proved to be a discriminating diner. We were always amused when cleaning up after "egg night" because Russell apparently saw no nutritional value in the whites of the hard-boiled eggs he was served. We would invariably find that the yolks had been carefully removed and eaten while all the whites were left neatly intact.
Russell and his four companions were later moved to a large outdoor cage near Erika's house. It contained such amenities as a tree, branches, ladders, a hammock, nest boxes, and a shell-filled pool. Russell's special perch was the high ledge which overlooked the patio. From this vantage point, he could keep a close eye on both back yard and kitchen activities. Each morning, when I arrived at daybreak, I would be greeted by an eager-eyed Russell already stationed at his observation post.
Fall came and with it, release time for all but the youngest raccoons. A number of Erika's raccoons went to the Wild Bunch Refuge on Virginia's Northern Neck while several others went to the Blue Ridge Mountains property of a rehabilitator. Russell's group would be the last to be released. Erika hoped they would be able to go to the forested property of Larry and Charlene Collins, who live in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Front Royal, Virginia. Not only was this a great location for raccoons, but Larry and Charlene are exceptionally hospitable to the area wildlife.
The Collins property contains two raccoon release cages that had been constructed near a large pond on the edge of the forest. In previous years, Erika released raccoons there but had stopped doing so when black bears began visiting the area. With Russell's group in mind, she discussed the situation with Larry Collins who said that he could put electrified fencing around one of the release cages. The electrification would be turned on a few days before the raccoons came and would be left on for the week that they would live in the cage. While the release cage was being bear proofed, Russell and his group continued to live in their outdoor cage at Erika's unaware that their lives were about to change drastically.
In early November, Larry Collins reported that all was ready. A date was picked for the raccoons to be driven to their new mountain home. On a cold, rainy, gloomy November day, Charlene DeVol, who also helps Erika, drove Erika, me, the five raccoons, and a huge amount of provisions for the animals down to the Collins home. We installed the raccoons in the release cage where Larry and Charlene Collins would care for them until their release. Because the weather was so miserable, we only lingered long enough to settle the raccoons in their temporary quarters and to hand out some treats. We made plans to join Larry and Charlene one week later to do the actual release.
Erika and I returned the following week. Unlike our recent visit, this time, it was a perfect Indian summer day. At the release cage, we found all five raccoons were sleeping in one of the hanging barrels that Larry had installed as a nest box. We went in the cage to give the guys treats and to say goodbye to them. To no one's surprise, Russell was the first to pop out of the barrel and claim his treats. Also as expected, when the release cage door was opened, Russell was first to act. He came rushing out of the cage like a man on a serious mission. He immediately climbed up to the cage's tarp-covered roof where he ran around for some time, his shadow startling the other raccoons who were still in the release cage. Then he worked his way under the tarp and ran around there. Finally, he found his way down to the ground and ran over to the large pond. Following a quick dunk in the pond, Russell discovered the second release cage. After carefully inspecting it, he then spotted a very tall, straight tree and rapidly climbed to the top. Erika always gets anxious when they do this but Russell paused only long enough from the lofty height to view the area and then made a speedy, safe, and deft descent.
By this time, the other raccoons had all emerged from the release cage and were conducting somewhat more restrained explorations. We knew it was about time for us to be leaving. While Russell was pondering his next move, I picked him up to say goodbye and to offer him a last treat. Even with all the enticing distractions, Russell generously indulged me by not struggling to get down. However, I could tell by the exasperated look on his face that he clearly had places to go and things to do and that he wanted to get on with them. Reluctantly, I set him down and watched him race off to check out some brush that had thus far escaped his attentions.
Erika and I said goodbye to the raccoons and wished them wonderful lives. We left knowing that we would always remember Russell, both as the pathetic, whimpering little guy we'd met that spring and especially as the delightful take charge guy whose black eyes were now sparkling with anticipation as he surveyed his new domain and began his new life.