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The Distempered Raccoon by Carolyn Donovan

There was a raccoon wandering around my next-door neighbor’s driveway this weekend. It was the middle of the day, which seemed weird for a raccoon, being a nocturnal animal.

Cro-Urban Man

My neighbors were throwing small rocks at the raccoon, in an effort to move it away from their front door. They called out that they found it sleeping under the shrub next to their steps.

The raccoon looked disoriented. It was the middle of winter, after all, what would make a raccoon wander out of the underbrush next to the train tracks and stay unsteadily in a driveway? We were all a little afraid of it.

One moment please, I'll connect you to...somebody

I told my neighbors I would phone the city’s Animal Control office. I called 411 and asked for the City of Boston Animal Control office. I was connected to the Mayor’s hotline (it was a Saturday). When I told the telephone operator that we had a raccoon wandering around in the day time and I wanted Animal Control, she said “one moment” and promptly connected me to the Animal Rescue League of Boston, which is a non-profit animal welfare organization. After figuring out how to contact an actual person, I told the young woman who answered about our raccoon, and she was very reassuring about how it’s a myth that raccoons only come out at night, and that it will find its way back. Leave it alone and let nature take its course. I was reassured. It’s just a slightly disoriented raccoon; it will make its way back.

Was it hungry? Did it wake up from hibernation because of the warm weather and was just groggy?

Almost a jungle out there

We have had raccoons in the back yard. Twice the garbage cans had been tipped over, and once a cover had been pulled off. You need a lot of dexterity to get those covers off; you have to pull the handles away and down to unlock the cover, and then you have to pry off the cover with two hands. Very clever, those raccoons. We made sure the covers were secure after that.

Once this past summer I met three raccoons. We were both equally startled. It was definitely a mother and a kit, and one more, the age of which I couldn’t determine. I was about to take some stuff out to the compost pile (which is in a compost container and is extremely secure), and when I flipped on the back light, three sets of eyes stared back at me. The little one was actually on the porch railing. Each one had been startled into complete stillness for a moment, then took off like their tails were on fire. They were in such a rush to get away from me that that big one plowed into the little one like the Keystone Cops, and they tumbled over each other before taking off into the darkness behind the trees.

Even though we happily live in the city, there is something wonderful about having wildlife living in the back yard. Our condo complex is set up so that all of the townhouses on our side have unfenced back yards, and they all run together. The longest side of the back yards abuts Amtrak land, which is full of underbrush and other vegetation. I’ve seen chipmunks running in and out of a little hole in the corner. And while you may think that skunks are something to avoid, it is really charming to see them wandering through the garden at night, their stripes illuminated by the moonlight.

I know what you said but…

I more or less spent the afternoon watching the raccoon through the window, and it didn’t seem right. Why was it sitting in a small depression in the middle of the yard, slightly rocking back and forth? There was less than 10 feet between it and its natural habitat, didn’t it see it? Couldn’t it smell it?

I quietly came out and took some pictures while (sort of) hiding behind my neighbor’s car. While I can’t claim any significant knowledge of wildlife, I do know the reason they are have such a moniker is that they are wild, which means they view humans either as a threat or dinner. Raccoons have very sharp teeth and claws, and if this one suddenly came out of its stupor I did not want it lunging at me.

Poor thing

The raccoon sat there. I know this is anthropomorphizing the animal, but it looked sad. It just sat there, looking at me looking at it. Wouldn’t a normal raccoon run away from me? That’s what the three from the summer did.

At some point it seemed that the raccoon had disappeared, but then I found it curled up and asleep under my neighbor’s porch. Maybe it just needed a good snooze, and then it would be off.

And night sets

We left the house around 4 that afternoon, and I didn’t see the raccoon. Please, I silently hoped, let it have gone back to its habitation. Let it be alright, just weirded out by the recent weather.

We got back around 8pm, and the raccoon was in our driveway. It just sat there, in spite of the headlights and the fact that a vehicle weighing more than a ton was bearing down on it. Where was its sense of danger, of self-preservation? My boyfriend got out of the car and sort of shooed/scooped it out of the way with a large plastic snow shovel. It scooted, but only as far as the shovel put it. Was it suffering severe malnutrition, and couldn’t think straight?

Even my boyfriend said, “There’s something really wrong with that raccoon.” But it seemed too late in the day to phone anyone.

At this point, I was beside myself. There was something dreadfully wrong with this creature, and I didn’t do enough to help it. I wanted to believe the woman from the Animal Rescue League, because I didn’t want anything to actually be wrong with the animal. But I knew there was. I spent an hour on the web, looking up raccoon behavior, and then raccoon disease.

I found out the following:

  • Most raccoon activity takes place at night.
  • Raccoons do not hibernate.
  • Raccoons are generally afraid of people.
  • Raccoon rabies can wipe out local raccoon populations and is normally 100% fatal in raccoons that contract the virus.
  • Rabies testing requires the animal to be killed and its head sent for analysis, because if rabies is present it will be found in the brain tissue.
  • Raccoons are very susceptible to both canine and feline distemper, and they are normally 100% fatal in raccoons that contract the virus.
  • The systems of rabies and distemper are very similar.
  • My raccoon was showing signs of one or the other.

Bleak House

The next morning the raccoon was in the front yard of our immediate neighbors, with whom we shared our two-unit duplex. It was a sad, bedraggled mess. It had snowed, and the poor thing was pawing in the snow, like it was looking for something. It kept falling over onto it’s left side, like it was overcome with weakness. It kept getting up and slowly pawing through the snow. It started walking erratically, with no destination.

I burst into tears. Here was an animal that probably was suffering, and I could have at least shortened its suffering if I had not allowed myself to be dissuaded by an authoritative voice on the other end of the phone.

Press 1 for nobody, 2 for nobody else

It was 8:30 in the morning, New Year’s Day, which was a Sunday this year. I was going to find someone to take care of this animal if it took all morning.

I phoned the Mayor’s hotline again, this time I said I had a rabid raccoon in the front yard, and again I was transferred to the Animal Rescue League. This time, there was nobody on the other end of the line, just a request to leave a message as to the type of emergency. I hung up, found the City of Boston web site, found the Animal Control page, called the numbers listed, and got the out-of-order busy signal on both.

I called the Animal Rescue League again. I could barely leave a message on their emergency line, I was so choked up. I even apologized for my emotion. I was able to clearly describe the animal’s behavior, and left my telephone number. I did not have much faith that anyone would come to my raccoon’s rescue.

I looked out the window once more. The raccoon had toppled over to one side, and was not getting up. It made a feeble attempt, but it seemed hopeless.

Sad, sad tears

It was all more horrible than I can describe. I can only say that the situation was heart-rending, as in “Causing anguish or deep distress; arousing deep sympathy.”

My boyfriend was incredibly kind to me about how I was handling things; I come from a family where tearful emotion was ridiculed, and it’s actually taken me a long time to get over my shame about being the way I am. So I consider myself extraordinarily lucky that I’ve got a man to whom I can turn to and just sob (practically) uncontrollably on his shoulder while he wraps his arms around me tells me what a good person I am for caring so much.

(I would like to say that at the beginning of our relationship this was not a trait that one could see in this man and that there is something to say for relationship longevity – else I never would have discovered how terrific this guy really is.)

I hope that, if I ever take on any aspect of that raccoon – if I’m alone and ill and disoriented – that someone takes enough interest in my welfare that they make a phone call on my behalf. My boyfriend gently suggested that I not look out the window anymore, since the raccoon wouldn’t be any different than the last time I looked out and it would just upset me even more.

Finally, Rescue

The Animal Rescue League phoned me back. I will not go into the particulars, but 90 minutes after leaving my message, a white Animal Rescue League Wildlife Control van arrived, and a man who sort of looked like he should be playing hockey did an excellent job of removing the animal to a cage and gently telling me, who was standing on the sidewalk with tears streaming down my face and a bag of birdseed under my arm, that by the looks of things it was neurological and the only thing they could do “was ease him on his way.” I knew what he meant, but I appreciated his kindness towards me.

I was terribly sad that there was no way to ease the raccoon’s suffering other than euthanasia, but I was comforted by knowing that its suffering would indeed be ended. Of course, I held out a completely irrational hope that the animal merely had raccoon flu and a shot or two of antibiotics would set it to rights. (I phoned the ARL today and they told me, again in really gentle and kind terms, that the animal was indeed euthanized because it was the only way to ease its suffering.)

I am more or less at peace with my actions; I know that the animal was going to die whether I did anything or not, but that its death would have been long and painful without my intervention. My anguish made me a decent person. Or my decentness caused my anguish. Either way, I eased another’s suffering. And sometimes, that’s all you can do.

January 3, 2006


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Photography by
Carolyn Donovan