As Helpless as Lemons
Like most raccoons in Northern California, we were born in May. At two weeks old, all four of us were the size of lemons.
We were about as helpless as lemons, too. Our eyes and ears still hadn’t opened. All we knew was our mom’s warm milk and the feeling of one another’s heartbeats. I bet you could almost see our hearts thumping through our pink skin. We had the tiniest bit of light silver fuzz, with none at all on our bellies (you could even see our belly buttons!). We didn’t look anything like the big kids we’ve grown into. We weren’t clever, naughty, or ready for challenges . . . yet.
We were clueless, but we were fine. We were safe in a nest in an attic, right where the ceiling came to a point. Just before we were born, our mom tore out the itchy insulation to make a nice safe nest (raccoons can squeeze and scramble into small places). She gave birth right there, and there we stayed. It was tight and cozy, like a tree nook. Raccoons are never far from trees!
Our nest was the only place we knew, but millions of raccoons live all over the United States (except Alaska and Hawaii) and in parts of Canada and Mexico. Most of us live in habitats where there is plenty of water (forests, swamps, and marshes), but there are plenty of us in cities and suburbs, where we can scavenge for food. In Toronto, Ontario, there are as many raccoons as there are people!
Anyway, our mom had made a hole in the attic wall to get in and out. We raccoons are experts at finding places to live (such as our attic or crawlspaces under houses) when our natural habitat is destroyed because people have built houses, buildings, or roads. Many of us make our nests in chimneys because they feel like hollow trees.
Lots of times we outsmart the humans. Some of them don’t like that at all.
Anyway, on our two-week birthday, we knew something was very wrong. Our mom had gone out for food and hadn’t come back in three whole days. Female raccoons are very good moms; they don’t just abandon their kits (that’s what you call raccoon babies). If they have to move us to a new den, they count us to make sure we’re all there, and they come back an extra time to be sure they haven’t left any of us behind. We rely on our moms for a long time. When everything goes right, we nurse for twelve weeks, then stay with our moms for almost a year. We even den with her over our first winter. But things didn’t go right for us.
We huddled for warmth in our little fluff pile, but we got hungrier and thirstier. We were so cold, we were almost numb. We already felt like a team, four hearts thumping in one small heap, but in our tiny hearts we knew there was a big problem. Our mom must have been trapped—or worse—out there.
Lots of people think that raccoons are a big nuisance. We get into garbage cans and make a huge mess. We’ll eat any kind of leftovers—pizza crusts, potato chips, bits of meat left on a chicken bone, you name it! That’s what makes us omnivores and scavengers. Hey, when our natural habitat shrinks, we have to get food somewhere, and as we’ve lost more of our habitat, we’ve gotten even better at finding food. And we don’t know how to clean up (or why that’s so important to humans)!
The family who lived in the house hadn’t known there was a nest in the attic until they heard us crying: eep, eep, eep. These people, like most humans, didn’t want to hurt us, but humans don’t always know what to do when there are raccoons living in their attic. I guess they figured it out, because they called a wildlife rescue group and clinic called WildCare. The staff told them that someone was on the way.
Gloved human hands pulled us out of our nest one at a time, wrapping us in a soft cloth. We wiggled and wriggled, squealed and squirmed, and pawed and scratched at the air with our claws. But the human hands were gentle, and we settled down and let them touch us. And anyway, we really had no choice.
We were young, but we knew the truth. If humans can touch a wild animal of any age or size, something has gone terribly wrong.
One by one, they set each of us carefully into a cardboard box that had air holes. We’d been high up in the attic, just as other litters are high up in trees. But suddenly we were low . . . on the ground . . . in the human world.
We were still together in our cozy pile, but our life would never be the same. The top of the box closed. Now the humans were in charge.