By Bonnie Brown
After the summer's high heat and oppressive humidity, the arrival of cooler September days was a welcome change. However, for raccoon rehabilitators, early Fall is more than crisp air, falling leaves, mums, and pumpkins; it is the culmination of months of late night and early morning bottle feedings, cage cleaning, worming, vaccinating, medicating, and providing learning and enrichment activities to the wild ones in our care. For the Spring orphans, Fall is RELEASE TIME. Our first group to go had at least two distinctions: at twelve animals, it was the largest group of raccoons we have released at one time and it was the calmest, gentlest, and, yes, kindest, group I have cared for thus far. I will always remember them as the Delightful Dozen.
In the 3 years since I became a Virginia Category IV (care provider) Wildlife Rehabilitator and began helping longtime rehabilitator Erika Yery, I've often been asked about the raccoons that come into our care. As more and more of the natural areas in Northern Virginia have given way to development, raccoons have adapted and truly do live right among us; however, they are invisible neighbors for most people. People are curious about the circumstances that cause baby raccoons to need a rehabilitator and how the babies come under the rehabilitator's care. Once they establish how we find the orphans, people want to know how we raise, care for, and return them to the wild. Using the Delightful Dozen as an example, here are answers to some of these questions.
The Six Siblings
Our 2005 Spring baby season began in March, when Erika Yery was contacted by a young woman about six baby raccoons. During a party in Annandale that the young woman attended, the homeowners' puppy chased away a raccoon from under the deck of the house. The evicted raccoon turned out to be a mother with a big family, six babies. The homeowners apparently felt they were unable to keep their dogs away from the yard to give the mother an opportunity to return and move her family so the young woman took the babies to her mother for temporary care while she made arrangements for them. The six arrived at Erika's in late March. The unusually large litter consisted of three males and three females, all weighing close to one pound. Although getting six babies at once, particularly at the start of the season, can be a bit unsettling, all were healthy, all were clean, all drank immediately from a bottle, and all were gentle and calm. As the six grew larger, they were moved together to increasingly bigger cages in the house and eventually to the large cage outside.
The Revival Babies
In early April, about two weeks after the six siblings arrived, Erika received a late Saturday afternoon call from a woman in Mt. Vernon. She had had a repairman seal her attic that morning after an adult raccoon was seen leaving it. She was not aware that an adult raccoon living in the attic in the early Spring is most likely a mother with babies. This particular raccoon mother was now separated from four tiny, helpless babies. Had we talked to the homeowner before the mother was run off and the attic sealed, we would have advised her that if the family were left alone, the mother would move the babies on her own to a more natural den when the babies were a less vulnerable six or seven weeks old. But now there were four babies, their eyes still closed (baby raccoons first open their eyes at about 3 weeks), and the woman was feeling particularly pressured because she was expecting a large number of attendees at a religious revival she was hosting at her home that afternoon and evening. The babies needed immediate attention so I drove to Mt. Vernon to pick them up and arrived as the revival was getting underway.
The revival babies, two females and two males, all weighed a half a pound or less. At Erika's, we warmed them up, checked them over, and gave them bottles. The following day, Erika persuaded the woman to unseal the attic and let the babies come back in hopes that the mother would return and reclaim her family that night. Although the mother had returned after the revival, the night the babies were gone, she apparently did not come back again. So the babies were delivered back to Erika's for us to raise.
The raccoon orphans come to us in all conditions. The six siblings were very healthy; others arrive near death. Of the four from the revival, sadly, one male died and, as the others got a bit older, it became clear that one of the females was incontinent. Raccoons are extraordinarily clean animals. In the wild, they set up latrine areas; in capitivity, they can learn to use potty boxes, litter boxes filled with newspaper. Because the raccoons sleep together in nest boxes, not only the incontinent one was always covered in urine, her siblings were as well. This sort of problem was a first for us so we took the sick one to our vet, Dr. Anne Hiss, who is also a wildlife rehabilitator. Because the sick little raccoon had no control of her bladder, getting a urine sample was not a problem. Dr. Hiss prescribed a several week course of antibiotics. Twice a day, the little raccoon had the bitter medicine squirted in her mouth with a needleless syringe, followed by a spoonful of strawberry yogurt. Happily, she made a complete recovery. She and her siblings became such ravenous bottle drinkers that we sometimes referred to them as the three little pigs.
The Beautiful Girl
A couple of weeks after the revival babies arrived, the Arlington animal shelter called to say that they had a young female raccoon which had been found in a yard. She weighed just under a pound. Because she seemed to have a special presence, we called her The Beautiful Girl. Raccoons are social animals so when single orphans arrive, they are put with others of a similar age as soon as possible. The Beautiful Girl joined the revival group.
All the younger orphans live in cages (or plastic containers for the tiny babies) inside the house. They are brought into the kitchen in their groups for bottle feeding followed by supervised playtime while their cage is cleaned. During this time, they get a chance to roll and tumble with each other, fish shells out of a bowl of water, climb in and out of a kitty condo, and play with a changing variety of toys and natural objects. Those are some of the sanctioned kitchen activities; they also test their developing climbing and leaping skills, exercize their dextrous little hands opening drawers and cabinets, and generally let their curious natures get the best of them -- or more accurately, of us. For The Beautiful Girl, the coveted item was a hot pink scarf that Erika had draped over her wall telephone. The Beautiful Girl would try to reach it by climbing a nearby louvered door or by leaping at it from a kitchen chair. One night Erika relented and let her have the scarf. The Beautiful Girl managed to wrap herself in it and proceeded to strut around the kitchen. Erika hadn't intended the scarf to be a permanent gift but from then until The Beautiful Girl moved to an outside cage, she was obsessed with reacquiring her beautiful fashion accessory.
Lazarus and Tick Tick
The last two arrived separately in late April. They were soon put together and quickly became so inseparable that it was impossible to even think of one without thinking of the other. First to arrive was a 15 ounce male that had been found in a yard and taken to the Alexandria animal shelter. From there, he went to Erika's. When he arrived at Erika's, he was cold, listless, and covered in fly eggs (future maggots). Erika didn't hold out much hope but quickly went to work warming him up and removing all the dreaded fly eggs. When he came back to life, she dubbed him Lazarus.
A few days after Lazarus made his miraculous recovery, a McLean homeowner found a 14 ounce male lying under a tree after some branches had been trimmed. She brought him to Erika's. Erika checked him over, removed dozens of ticks from his little body, and sent him back to McLean to be put out overnight should the mother come back for him. When the mother didn't pick him up, he returned to Erika's. More ticks were pulled out of his fur and he became known as Tick Tick. Put together, Tick Tick and Lazarus immediately formed a tight and mischievous bond.
Summer in the Big Outdoor Cage
Erika has an outdoor cage with two large rooms for the animals and a foyer area for supplies. The rooms have a small interior connecting door. The cage's amenities include numerous wide shelves, large branches, ramps, hammocks, nest boxes, and potty boxes. One side is built around a tree and has a large wading pool into which we add rocks, stones, shells, and tub animals. There are also hollow logs to climb in and on and a changing variety of toys to play with. The cage also contains a rope ladder, a tube that is hung from the ceiling, old firehoses, and a bucket swing. In addition to keeping these complex, curious animals mentally occupied, the environmental enrichment also helps them develop skills that they will need in the wild.
The six siblings were the first to be moved to the outside cage. They were soon joined by the revival group (the three little pigs) and The Beautiful Girl, and later by Tick Tick and Lazarus. Although we are careful when combining the groups, typically, before long, all the animals are eating together, playing together, and sharing nest boxes.
We soon established a daily routine. In the mornings, when I arrived just after dawn, I would confine all the raccoons on the pool side of the cage. The other side would be thoroughly scrubbed and a light morning meal put out. The animals would then be let over to the food side to dine while the pool side was carefully cleaned. Then the interior door would be opened, allowing them access to both sides. On those hot summer mornings, we began a new mutually enjoyable activity. We'd partially fill the pool with buckets of water and ice blocks. Once the cage's interior door was reopened, I would finish filling the pool with a hose through the wire mesh. The raccoons seemed to think that standing or playing in the cool, gentle spray from the hose was the best fun imaginable. Tick Tick and Lazarus thought it was even more exciting to do cannonballs into the pool, thus allowing me to get cooled off as well. The raccoons would then sleep through the hottest part of the day. In the late afternoon, the feeding and cleaning process would be repeated.
Time to Say Goodbye
As the summer began winding down, we started preparing for release. We always carefully plan our releases but with twelve animals to go at one time, extra thought and preparation was required. During the months we had been caring for them, all had been wormed and vaccinated for feline and canine distemper and parvo. Shortly before release, we vaccinated them for rabies. One lovely September Saturday, we got the twelve into carriers (no easy undertaking), loaded them into two SUVs, and drove them to the release area. Because the group was so large, we put them into two release cages in the woods that would be their new home. For the next few days, they were cared for in the release cages.
A few days later, on another beautiful September day, Erika and I went back to release site and carried the six down from one cage to the release cage that was closest to the stream so that the whole group could be reunited and let go together. After visiting with them, we opened the window of the release cage and watched as twelve raccoons cautiously appeared and marched down the ramp and stepped tentatively onto the ground. They soon began exploring their new world. We watched them splash in the stream, run deftly up and down nearby trees, and play on top of the release cage. It was a happy release. The release cage window would be kept open for some time and supplemental food provided to help them with their transition.
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, sending them off on their own into a forest -- even a well chosen one -- is always a little bittersweet. This had been a very special group of twelve gentle souls. As we left the release area, we said goodbye to the Delightful Dozen and wished them well. We saw several masked faces watching us from the nest box above the release cage as we drove away and left them to begin their new lives.