by Bonnie Brown
Those who rescue and rehabilitate wildlife will tell you that while each animal helped is unique, every year, there are one or two whose circumstances and characters make them truly unforgettable. For me this year, one such animal was a tiny raccoon with a big problem. First, I will tell you how I came to know this special animal and then I will tell you her story.
Last year, I had the good fortune of being able to retire early from the federal government. After a few months of sleeping late, traveling, and compiling lists of household tasks to catch up on, I decided it was time to seek out some new meaningful activities. In March, at an introductory class in wildlife rehabilitation offered by the Wildlife Rescue League, I learned that wildlife rehabilitators need help caring for injured and orphaned wild animals. I volunteered. When asked what types of animals I'd like to work with, I said mammals, particularly raccoons. I then had the required series of rabies pre-exposure shots, got my Virginia Category IV (care provider) Wildlife Rehabilitator Permit and began helping Erika Yery care for raccoons at her home. Erika specializes in rehabilitating rabies vector species (raccoons, bats, foxes, skunks, and groundhogs); is the founder of Wild Bunch Rehabilitation; and, this year, cared for nearly 30 orphaned raccoons at one time in her home. One of these was the little raccoon mentioned earlier.
Late one July evening, Erika received a call advising her that a baby raccoon was at a Northern Virginia animal hospital. The baby was a female, about 3 weeks old, her eyes just opening. She weighed 13 ounces. As with many of the wild orphans, this one's history was unknown. We named her Burgundy after the section of Alexandria she had come from but nicknamed her the "little girl". Two other young raccoons arrived separately soon after. They became the little girl's new raccoon family.
We soon noticed that while the other two were quite active, the little girl was not. When she did start moving around, we saw that she was not using her right hind leg. Erika called Dr. Anne Hiss, who is both a rehabber and a veterinarian. Dr. Hiss examined the little raccoon and said that there was a good reason why she wasn't walking well -- her right hip was broken! Dr. Hiss said that the best course of action in an animal this young, including a puppy or a kitten, would be to let the bones heal. She said that young bones heal quickly and that we should bring the little girl back in a few weeks for x-rays to see how the bones had healed. During this time, the little girl and her companions were moved from their cage in the house to a small outdoor cage. The little girl continued to appear fragile while her two companions grew more robust. And though she had become quite active, she still greatly favored her back right leg. A few weeks after her first vet visit, the little girl went back to Dr. Hiss for x-rays. Seeing that there was still a problem, Dr. Hiss consulted with Dr. Anke Langenbach, a veterinary surgeon with the Dulles Care Group. The two vets recommended that the little girl have an ominous sounding orthopedic surgical procedure called a femoral head ostectomy (FHO). Dr. Langenbach volunteered to perform the surgery.
We quickly learned everything we could about the FHO procedure. We found that FHOs have been performed for many years on cats and small dogs to alleviate often severe pain associated with injured or diseased hips. In the procedure, the femoral head ( the ball part of the hip joint) is removed and the bone (the femur) is smoothed so that there is no bone-to-bone contact between the pelvis, which contains the now empty hip socket, and the remaining part of the femur. A false joint forms, consisting of scar tissue around the end of the bone, supported by the large muscle mass around the hip. Post surgical results (in cats and dogs) are affected by a number of factors. For example, younger, smaller, and more active, well muscled animals recover faster and more completely than animals that are older, heavier, and more sedentary. In addition, we were told that animals whose guardians provide them with an aggressive medical rehabilitation program following the FHO will have better function and less stiffness than those left to recover on their own.
It seemed illogical to us that such a procedure could work but Dr. Langenbach said that in most cases, a pain-free, active life could be expected. We were quite anxious about how things would turn out for the little girl, especially since we were unable to find reports of any raccoons who had had an FHO.
Dr. Langenbach performed the FHO on the now six pound little girl in October. Somewhat apprehensive, we arrived at the veterinary hospital to take the little girl home just a few hours after the surgery. She was alert and active. We were especially amazed to watch her walk easily across the exam table, using all her legs, including the one that now had no hip joint. Not all of Dr. Langenbach's post surgery report was good, however. She said that she had been surprised to discover during the operation that a large part of the little girl's femoral head had been eaten away. Dr. Langenbach did a culture and biopsy. After an additional anxious two weeks, we were very relieved to learn that the results of both were negative -- no bone cancer. Dr. Langenbach concluded that the little girl's initial problem had been caused by trauma that resulted in an infection which had ultimately been overcome by her immune system.
Following the surgery, the little girl was given pain medication and a course of antibiotics. Dr. Langenbach's post surgery instructions were to keep her quiet for a few days and not to let her climb for two weeks. We expected this to be a challenge but had no idea how big a one it would be given the little girl's ingenuity and determination. The little girl was moved back inside the house to a small cage downstairs in Erika's animal room. We hoped that in two weeks, she would be able to rejoin her raccoon family in their outdoor cage. The plan was to bring her up to the kitchen to be fed and given supervised exercise twice a day. The little girl, however, had other ideas. In the early days following her surgery, we were startled several times to see the little girl who was supposed to be in her cage downstairs suddenly appear in an upstairs room. When she first appeared in the living room, we discovered that she had figured out a way to get out of her small, no climbing cage. We put her in a stronger cage. She next appeared in the kitchen. Both cages had housed many raccoons without incident over the years. Erika suggested that we rename her "Houdini".
Dr. Langenbach had recommended that we perform "light, passive physical therapy" on the little girl, flexing and extending her hip twice a day in the weeks following the surgery to prevent adhesions and to encourage a fuller range of motion. We were warned that this would be uncomfortable for the little girl. Only a few months earlier, I had been pleased to learn how to bottle feed a baby raccoon; now I would learn how to do raccoon physical therapy. The little girl accepted the therapy sessions with her usual good nature.
The little girl went back to see Dr. Langenbach a week after her surgery. The following week, she rejoined her companions in their outdoor cage. She seemed pleased to be back socializing with her family, climbing continually, reclaiming her favorite hammock, playing with toys, and eating walnuts and other treats. Except for her scar, shaved fur, and still small physique, she looks and acts much like her companions. They have since been moved to a larger outdoor cage at Erika's and have been joined by two other raccoons their age. The five will be cared for through the winter. In the spring, we fully expect that the little girl will be among them when it is time for them to reclaim their wild lives and be released.
For me, this has been a memorable, rewarding year. And the delicate but resilient little girl has been a big part of it.
UPDATE: The little girl, which is how we will always think of her, spent the winter snug with her four companions in Erika's large outdoor cage. As she matured, the little girl remained small and delicate in appearance and continued to display an adventurous spirit, endearing good nature, and amazing intelligence.
Over the winter, the five raccoons were provided with cozy nest boxes, donated fur coats, tasty meals of mussels and other raccoon delicacies, and a changing variety of playthings. One favorite addition to the cage was a toddler's bucket swing which the little girl climbed into as soon as it was installed.
With the coming of Spring, release time for the now 9 - 10 month old raccoons drew near. One sunny, warm April day, they were taken to a release cage on private property that contains woods, a large pond, and hospitable humans. After being cared for there, one week later, on another fine Spring day, the door to the release cage was opened and the raccoons were free to leave. The little girl was the first one out of the cage. She immediately began to check out the nearby pond, trees, and brush.
As we watched, we thought of how far the little girl had come and we felt fortunate to have known such a special creature. Reluctantly, we said goodbye and wished the little girl and her companions good luck and a good life. Then we left them to explore their beautiful, new, wild world.