Considering the fact that I live in one of the 5 largest cities in the United States, albeit on its outer edge, the variety of wildlife outside my door is somewhat surprising. My yard contains a few big old trees (though not as many as before the late hurricane) so I’ve got squirrels, of course, but I’ve also got rabbits, possum, a pair of shifty-eyed buzzards roosting atop the eaves of the house behind (to where, thankfully, I’ve never been invited for dinner), and I host a traveling wild turkey or deer on occasion. And then there’s the family of raccoons that visit my deck every evening.
Called by the Powhatan Indians the aroughcun, meaning “one who rubs, scrubs and scratches with its hands”, many effete moderns consider Procyon lotor, the North American raccoon, as nothing more than a marauding pest, a nocturnal mischief-maker whose nightly forays into neighborhood garbage cans or through an unsecured pet door and into an inviting cupboard are nuisances at best and outright burglaries at worst. But I’ve always had a soft spot for the critters.
One summer when I was 10 years old, I obtained a baby raccoon through the magical auspices of the free market–I traded another kid a knapsack for him. The little aroughcun had apparently gotten hungry and fallen out of his treetop residence after his mother had failed to return one night. Raccoons don’t normally venture out until they’re about 11 weeks old. My friend had discovered the frightened orphan chattering in a bush in the woods. He saved him, but he didn’t want him. I figured I could always get another knapsack. After the deal was complete, I loaded the disoriented cub in the basket attached to the handlebars of my bicycle (this was in the late ’50s, remember) and pedaled him home. My grandmother, after a brief period of extreme consternation, began feeding the raccoon warm milk from a baby bottle. He soon regained his strength and composure, and became a member of the family. He ate his food from a dog’s dish and washed his hands in his water bowl. I named him “Coonie”. Not very original. Given the black bandit’s mask across his eyes, I should have called him “Senator”.
Despite being nocturnal by nature, Coonie slept at the foot of my bed, and followed me around during the day. He’d come when I called him, clambering up my leg and arm and perching happily on my shoulder. My grandmother’s cat, as foul-tempered a feline as ever filleted a field mouse, whacked Coonie on the snout one day and attempted to avoid retaliation by scampering up a nearby tree. That cat’s complete and utter shock when the animal he’d mistaken for a dog raced into the branches after him was a beautiful sight to behold.
Raccoons are extremely intelligent. According to Wikipedia,
In a study by the ethologist H. B. Davis in 1908, raccoons were able to open 11 of 13 complex locks in less than 10 tries and had no problems repeating the action when the locks were rearranged or turned upside down…Studies in 1963, 1973, 1975 and 1992 concentrated on raccoon memory showed they can remember the solutions to tasks for up to three years. In a study by B. Pohl in 1992, raccoons were able to instantly differentiate between identical and different symbols three years after the short initial learning phase.
Coonie was smart all right, but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t teach him to use the kitty litter, a failure which finally resulted in his evening banishment to the empty dog kennels outside where the crafty little bugger spent his first hours hatching a plan for escape. Under the cover of a thunderstorm, he made his break. I never knew how he got out, but he did. There was thick forest nearby, but instead Coonie galloped directly for our screen door, hanging on the wire in the rain and chattering until we let him back in the house.
Coonie and I hung out all summer. He grew larger, but never meaner. Coonie didn’t have a mean bone in his body. At least I never saw one. I took him for rides on my bike, and sometimes he amused himself by chasing the cat. Then one day he disappeared. He had been playing outside, and suddenly he was gone. I found his paw prints in the mud at the edge of a cornfield near the woods. I never saw him again.
But I still think about my old buddy sometimes. Especially on warm summer nights when his relatives amble across my deck and peep in the window. If they’re anything like Coonie, they probably want to come in and watch the ball game.