fuzzy’s Tale

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No matter how hard we try to prepare ourselves for inevitable pain, it still takes us by surprise and leaves us breathless. Gentle, sweet Fuzzy died last night. It was painless for her, she was on her way to her favorite sleeping spot after dinner and her heart just stopped. She fell in the path and never moved again. I found her this morning. She did not suffer. I cannot say the same for myself.
We all knew she had the congenital heart defect. We knew that she was nearly blind. We saw that she was not growing properly and remained the size of a six week old fawn. We watched her faint several times a week, but she always got up again. She was fat and happy and had even started to play a bit and would run to get her bowl of milk. We saw all this and we knew that she would not ever survive in the wild.
She in fact, did survive longer than I expected. I was even at the point where I worried whether she would try to jump the fence with the others when the time came. I needn’t have.
Fuzzy was never meant to live in this life. She was born with piebald genetics. Piebald’s are partially white or completely white deer, but not true albinos. An albino deer has no pigment and along with the white coat, it has pink eyes and nose. Even the hooves are pale and nearly pink. A piebald, can be pure white, but it will have blue eyes and a black nose and hooves. Piebalds are often mixed color, with natural coloring and white.
Fuzzy had only a bit of extra white around the ears and on her lower legs. Some of her spots were oversize, but at first glance, you would not notice. The problem with piebalds is that they have a host of disabilities that make it rare for them to survive. They are prone to heart problems, poor vision and partial or total deafness. Their bones may be weak or brittle and often are bow legged or severely pigeon toed.
Fuzzy had the bad heart. That was obvious early on. It is probably why her mother abandoned her. She may have had a twin and the doe needed to save her healthy baby and could not risk keeping a disabled one. As time went by, I also noticed that her vision was extremely poor and she was knock kneed in the back. The oddest thing was that she could not suckle and had to be taught how to drink from a dish.
But she thrived. She gained weight and grew, albeit at a slower pace. She learned to use her ears and nose to track me around the yard and never, never missed a meal…..until this morning.
All fawns are cute, but Fuzzy was really cute. She had thick hair that stood out and gave her the appearance of an expensive stuffed toy. That’s where her name came from. Her eyes where huge and still baby blue. She had big ears for her size and they swiveled like radar so she always knew where I was.
Wherever I went in the yard, she shadowed me. She liked to lay on the rug in the laundry room when it was hot and I always left the door open a bit when it was going to storm. Fuzzy never liked storms, and preferred to ride them out from the security of the house. When I was in my studio, she often wandered in the open door and lay near where I was working. Often, I would have a giant Labrador retriever on one side and a small spotted fawn on the other.
Oh, she loved people! Anyone who came into the yard was licked and nuzzled. She was my little ambassador. She allowed children to pet her back and tug her ears. She enchanted everyone who saw her and made them understand why I work so hard at a job I do not get paid for.
Yet all the time, every single day, I would remind myself, that this was not going to be a deer that could live in the woods. My best hope was that she would choose to remain in the yard with me and allow me to care for her. I would never deny her freedom, but I hoped she would choose me over the wild. Every time I looked in the mirror and saw my Pacemaker/defibrillator I wished that there was something that could save her heart also.
Maybe that’s what made her so precious to me. We both suffered from bad hearts. We both should not have survived, but we did. I thought about putting her down when I first heard the regurgitation and irregular heartbeat through the stethoscope. I debated with myself until I was in love with her and it was too late. I told myself, I could handle this. I would let her live out her days, as many as she had. As long as she was not suffering, I would stay the course.
We did stay the course. She had many days of sunshine, warm bowls of milk, cats to tease and sweet, green clover. I allowed her to eat all my hostas and my daylilies without admonition. I think she had the good life I wanted for her. She was never hungry or frightened or cold since the day she came to me. She knew only love and kindness. She had a peaceful death. Few wild animals get to experience that and I am grateful for it.
When I called the fawns to breakfast this morning, Fuzzy did not come. My heart sank and I fed the others quickly. As soon as they finished eating they walked towards the back with me. I kept calling out for her, hoping she had merely been asleep or in a faint. I searched the rhubarb and then noticed the other fawns standing in the path by the woods. I knew what was there. As I knelt beside her body, the other fawns sniffed her and then walked on. They had already said their goodbyes.
It was difficult, as I wanted to bury her as quickly as possible. The thought of flies on her body was unbearable, but my damaged shoulder and injured back will not allow me to dig with the shovel, so I would have to wait for James to come home. I covered her with a blue sheet printed with clouds. Somehow, it just looked right. Later James buried her by the garden and my life with her was over.
It was easy to take her from my presence, but it will not be so easy to remove her from my heart. I thought of her while I was feeding night bottles and as I put away her bowl. I will think of her when it’s storming and will probably leave the door open a crack out of habit. Perhaps most, I will think of her on the first day the other fawns leave the yard and explore their world. I will think of her and say a little prayer that in her next life, she will be strong and healthy and forever free.

The Letting Go

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The time of year for letting go has begun. It’s bittersweet and never fails to tug at my heart. Since late spring I have been releasing squirrels and bunnies and little birds, but they are gradually let go in the yard and I see them frequently till they get their bearings and go off on their own. They are generally with me only a short while and I do not normally form attachments to them. Besides, how attached can you get to a squirrel?
Tonight though, the weather was cool and clear and it seemed the perfect time to take Pickles the porcupine and two of the raccoons out to the woods. Pickles has been my joy all summer.
She came to me, only a hour or so old. Her quills had not yet hardened to sharp little pins and her placenta was still attached. She was found by a mushroom hunter in late April and he called me as soon as he found the tiny black baby alone in the woods. He knew with the cord and placenta, there had to be something wrong. I explained to him that when a mother porcupine has more than one kit (technically called a porcupette), she will cast out the second born, even if it is healthier than the first. She does not clean it up; she does not even look at it. She simply shoves it out of the tree or log or whatever she is using as a maternity ward.
He said the baby was crying and he didn’t know what to do. I told him to slide his hand under its tummy and bring it right over. He was here within minutes.
Now, all baby animals are cute, but porcupines have a real lead in the market. They have long bristly hairs on their heads, short little noses like a guinea pig and the softest paws this side of a raccoon. Being nearsighted, they peer up at you with shiny blue eyes and give little squeaks and pips. In short, they are simply adorable.
I got her cleaned up and the cord cut and dressed, the gentleman who brought her was absolutely amazed that I handled her easily with my bare hands. He had put on welders gloves from the trunk before he picked her up. I made a warm bottle and within minutes she was snuggled to my chest making little noises of pleasure.
No one thinks of a porcupine being cuddly, but they are. They are also vocal and extremely playful. She loved to sit on my shoulder or lap while I worked on the computer and our favorite game was “Tickle the Pickle”. I’d tickle her tummy and she would squeal with delight. When porcupines are unafraid or content, they do not raise their quills. They lie flat against their body under the long guard hairs. After playing she would settle in my lap or the crook of my arm and snore happily. That’s how I discovered that you should never sneeze while holding a porcupine. I picked quills from my sweatshirt for an hour.
Pickles lived in my studio as do most of the babies in the beginning. Her cage was on a shelf behind my worktable and she got lots of attention. She was allowed free playtime to roam the counters and shelves and it generally went well, till I discovered she liked to eat crayons. They were moved out of her reach, she started nibbling the paper mache’ parade dragon I was building.By the time she learned to open her cage herself, nearly everything was moved out of reach.
Several mornings, I got up to find her in the kitchen trying her teeth on my dining room chair legs. (Oh well, a parrot chewed the top rail, so what’s the issue?) The cats and dogs are all used to having porcupines running about the house, so we rarely have problems there, but there was one squirrel who was also notorious for escaping his cage, I had to remove quills from his nose and paws. He quickly learned his lesson about porcupines and escaping his cage.
When she was no longer happy with her indoor cage, I moved her to a larger one outside. It was my old parrot’s cage and had plenty of room for limbs to climb, shelves for sunning and straw in the bottom to roll in. She loved it till she discovered that she was supposed to stay out there all night. She started working the latches on the doors. Just when I’d think that I’d managed to fix it to keep her in, I would come home from Karate or Kung Fu and find her sitting on the rail by the studio door waiting for me.
Once she was weaned and had a constant supply of food in her cage, she was more content to stay there, but she still insisted on play time in the grass or cuddles and kisses. She was definitely the star attraction and charmed everyone she met. It was like she was the porcupine ambassador, helping me teach people about how useful porcupines are in the wild. Without them, many animals who could not reach tender twigs in the winter would starve. Year round, porcupines, clip little twigs and branches with their succulent leaves and buds and drop them to the forest floor, where deer and rabbits gratefully find them. They have few predators, except bob cats, cougars and fishers, these animals have discovered that porcupines have no quills on their stomachs and quickly flip them over with a paw. I would explain that while porcupines do sometimes chew bark off of apple trees, they do little damage to the homeowner. That is, unless he has left out hand tools that have absorbed the sweat from his hands. Porcupines love salt. They utilize it to metabolize the potassium and calcium essential for their diets. Leave out a well used axe and the handle will surely be chewed.
Because she was so gentle, we were able to show people that porcupines cannot “throw” or “shoot” their quills. A person or animal must push against the quill for it to stick in their flesh. I can attest to this personally as all it takes is a careless or abrupt move to pick up a quill. Fortunately, baby quills come out as easily as acupuncture needles and seldom hurt.
By mid July, Pickles was getting pretty large for her age. I actually don’t know if Pickles is actually male or female, their genitalia do not differ till about 6 months. She seemed like a little princess to me though, so I just always assumed her female. Some evenings, I would go out for a visit and she would be sitting in her cage on her hind legs with her nose to the wind. A week or so later, she would balk and raise her quills as he turned her back to me when I would tell her play time was over. Our time was running short. Pickles needed the woods. I began giving her more twigs and leaves and less sweet potatoes and corn on the cob. This did nothing for my popularity, but began her journey to freedom.
This week, I decided that it was time for two of the older raccoons to go, so the smaller ones might have their cage. I like to get them to the woods as soon as they are competent, so they have time to establish themselves before winter. I gave them extra rations to fill their tummies and early this evening, we packed up.
The coons were put in the carrier first with little problem. One thing you can say about raccoons is that they are always up for adventure. We put them in the back of the truck and their little paws reached through every opening to see what they could get into. Not so with Pickles.
When I approached her cage, Pickles looked at me suspiciously. I opened the door and she turned her back to me and presented her tail like a prickly club. I put my hand out for her to grab, but she ignored it. I started talking to her and tickled her tummy. That broke the ice and she allowed me to pick her up without much protest. I put her in the cage she occupied as a baby and was shocked at how tiny it seemed with her in it. She knew something was up and wasn’t sure she like it. Still, she was agreeable and calm as I closed the back of the truck.
Now I may have mentioned before, that one needs to release a raccoon at least FIVE miles away or they may decide to come home. To confuse them even more, we take the long way to our destination and make extra turns. I don’t think it does anything to confuse them, but it makes us feel better. We went to one of our favorite spots on the Boardman River. It’s far from busy roads and there is fresh, shallow water, cool dark woods and plenty of food sources. James carried the coons in their carrier and I carried Pickles in her cage.
As soon as we set the cages down the coons were ready to party. We opened the door and the large female came charging out, the little male held back until she came running back for him as if to say, “Hey! What are you waiting for? Let’s go.”
As they were doing their initial exploring, I took the top of the cage off of Pickles. She seemed confused. She tried to climb back in her cage and pulled at the top half. By now the coons were halfway to the river and back and on their way again at full speed, so I lay on the ground with my shy little picky pig.
We talked and she sniffed the ground, she nosed me a few times and tasted the grass. She took a few tentative steps into her new life. The coons came tearing up and climbed over me. One of them stuck his nose in my ear and they were off in another direction. Obviously, they were having no trouble adjusting. I got up and put out my hands for Pickles to climb up. She did…all the way to my neck. We walked into the woods. We checked the trees and the water. We laughed at the coons tumbling happily in the moss.
Pickles started to click her teeth in excitement. We were next to a large white pine tree, with many easily reachable branches, I knew this was it. We went to the tree and I gave her one last nose rub with mine. She looked at me for a moment with eyes that were no longer baby blue and reached out for the tree. Resisting the urge to pull her back, I held her feet while she got her grip. She climbed. I worried that she would fall. She didn’t. She climbed.
Finally Pickles settled between two branches, high in the tree. She could see the river, the woods and the sun beginning to sink. She turned her back on the noisy coons who were having a grand time in a nearby tree and she closed her eyes. The separation was complete. She was wild now and I was a creature from a different world.
There was nothing left, but to go home. I don’t think the coons even noticed.
When I went to feed fawns and possums and coons and everything else tonight, I caught myself reaching for a sweet potato. Looking out the window at her empty cage, I felt a stab of emptiness. It only lasted a second, then it was replaced with the knowledge that three animals who would surely be dead, are now healthy and returned to the wild. They are where they belong and so am I. The letting go has begun.

Old Friends and Peacefull Endings

I experienced an extraordinary act of love today.
This morning, I was on my way to an important event. Halfway to town I got a call on my cell phone. The caller sounded absolutely frantic and I could barely make out that she was already in my driveway and I was apparently her last hope. I said I’d be right there and turned around for home. I got there and indeed there was a care in the drive with a woman, a frail looking elderly gentleman and a very old golden retriever with a nose full of porcupine quills.
The dog grinned up at me, trying to see through eyes clouded with cataracts. He was holding one paw up and it too, was bristling with sharp quills. The woman explained that the gentleman was her father and this was his dog. It seemed that the dog had gone out early in the morning and found a porcupine behind the garage. Being the friendly sort, the dog tried to sniff where dogs like to sniff and porcupines don’t like to be sniffed. Feeling rejected the dog evidently offered his paw, which the “Picky Pig” did not appreciate.
They called their regular vet who said it would be at least $350 to remove the quills and since it was a weekend, there would be an emergency call fee. All totaled, it would be about $500 and there was no way the old man or daughter could afford this. She had brought me birds or animals before and remembered where I lived and hoped I could help.
I checked the old dog and he seemed calm and friendly, there were only about 40 or 50 quills and none were too deep or inside the mouth. Obviously this was an experienced porcupine sniffer. I carried the dog, while she helped her father up the front steps. I could feel the bones under the immaculately groomed fur. This was an extremely elderly dog that I doubted had many more months to live.
I gathered towels, antiseptic, “Numzit Teething Jell” and pliers. I doubted that a muzzle would be necessary. The dog seemed too good natured and well behaved for that. (I have been wrong on this one before) As I liberally applied the numbing agent to the old dog’s gray muzzle and nose, the old man began to talk.
He told me that he and the dog (I will withhold names to preserve their privacy) had been together for 18 years. He got him as a puppy when his grandchildren were young. They had been best friends through all the years and had run many fields together. The dog sat beside him when his wife died and kept his feet warm in the winter. They shared meals and secrets and had never spent a night apart. “That’s why”, the old man said “he would do right by this dog”.
My attention wandered at this and I pulled a quill to fast. The old dog bit my arm in surprise and I discovered that he only had about two teeth. I was grateful.
I asked what he meant by “doing right” and the daughter turned away pretending to be intrigued by the raccoon on the counter. The old man took a deep rattling breath and explained that he had terminal cancer and not long to live. He didn’t want to burden his children with his care, so he had decided to move into the Hospice House when the time came. The day before he would leave though, he would have his old dog “put down”.
It rather shocked me that he would do this to an animal he obviously loved so much.
He went on to say that the dog would never understand why he left him and fret, so he thought it better that the dog go with him at his side. This way the dog would never know a moment without the master he loved and the old man would know that the dog was at peace without him.
“We’ve had good long lives” he said with conviction.” We’ve run and hunted and chased a lot of sticks. We’re both tired and old. We hurt a lot of places and are ready to go with no regrets. He’s a good dog and I owe him a fair and peaceful end. I’m gonna give him that”.
I was astonished by the absolute love and compassion that this man felt for his friend. To be willing to suffer the pain of his passing to spare the same for his dog, was an act of absolute, unselfish love.
The quills were removed and I ran my hands across the dogs’ silky coat to make sure I had not missed any. I could tell that the dog probably had no more time than his master. . I hoped that these last days together would be filled with sunshine and warmth.
I was familiar with their regular vet and knew that he did not make house calls to euthanize animals. I gave the old man the number of a kind and compassionate vet who would. Making an excuse to get some dog treats, I pulled his daughter into the other room. I wanted to make sure that he would be able to afford the cost. Or I would find a way to help. She said he had money put by and the last resort, if I could not have helped would have been to have the dog put down today. I silently gave thanks that I answered the phone instead of letting it ring.
After several soft dog treats, I helped them back to their car. The old man offered me a wrinkled wad of well worn bills, but I refused and told him that the lesson he taught me about love was worth far more than money. They pulled out and headed off down the street. Suddenly they backed up and pulled back in the drive. That was when I learned that this man had compassion without bounds.
He rolled down his window and looked up at me with troubled eyes. “Do you suppose that that old porkie is ok? I’d hate to think of him hurt”.
I reassured him that porcupines are indeed a sturdy and resilient lot as well as ornery. The porkie would be fine and live to trouble another dog who managed to stick his nose where it didn’t belong. I was astonished and deeply touched that this man whose best friend in the world had been hurt was genuinely concerned about the animal that did it. I was humbled indeed.
My reward was a grin nearly as toothless as the dogs and a wave from a gnarly, arthritic hand. Bless them, I thought. Bless them both with a fair and peaceful end.
I’d be late for my event. There would probably be some flack for it, but I didn’t care. I was just so grateful that I had been witness to the love of an old man and an old dog. There isn’t a thing in the world that can compare.

Of Mice and Highly Educated Men

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I was looking at my little deermouse tonight. I’m not really sure how many years I have had him. Four,  I think. The night I caught him the cats had him cornered in the upstairs bathroom and when there was nothing left for him to do, he turned his back and started washing his whiskers. If he were going to die, he would do it with a clean face. I was so touched by his courage and acceptance, that I scooped him up with my bare hands and he has been on my desk ever since.

He’s had everything a mouse could want , including a squeaky exercise wheel and various soup cans for sleeping quarters. He’s gotten everything from Cheetos to mouse chow, peanuts to pumpkin pie. (by the way you lick all the cheese off the Cheeto first.) He’s had a good life for a mouse.

Tonight, I was giving him a cheese nip and noticed that he was much thinner than he used to be. His muzzle is grey and his whiskers sparse. He is getting old. How many mice ever get the chance to get old, I wonder? Still he runs in his wheel and tucks his food away in his soup can for later. Each time I sit down at the desk, he runs out to see if I have brought him anything. I suppose some morning he just won’t come out of his can any more and that will be the end. I hope so. He deserves to die peacefully in his sleep with his tummy full of Cheetos, not as a snack for some hungry cat.

But when he goes….I bet his face will be clean.

It reminds me of another mouse story.

Of mice and Men (highly educated men)

It seems like the phone only rings when I am either feeding something or washing a fuzzy little butt. Either way it is an interruption and hopefully I get time to wash my hands before I pick up the phone. On this particular day, I was feeding two fawns and washing another fawns butt (in one end and out the other) when the phone rang. I managed to tuck one of the bottles under my arm and wipe my hand on my apron before I grabbed the phone in the shed. (I have phones in the oddest but most convenient places around here) I wedged it between my ear and shoulder so I could continue feeding.

The professional sounding voice on the other end hardly waited for me to say hello, “This is DR Edward Hildibrand,” He said athoritively.  “My daughter has found a squirrel this morning and you HAVE to take it.”

This conversation was arrogant on so many levels, that I was already loosing patience. “Well, Dr Hildibrand, tell me how you found this squirrel and what does it look like?” After spending years chasing after supposed bear cubs that turn out to be old porcupines and retrieving a seagull, that the caller INSISTED was an eagle under her porch, I have gotten in the habit of asking for descriptions.

There was a tone of exasperation on the other end of the line. ‘We found it in the driveway this morning. It doesn’t have any hair and it’s about an inch long. You have to come and get it NOW, we are on vacation and I have things to do.”

Oh gosh, he was on VACATION, he must have really pressing, important things to do, but since he was a doctor, I’d give him the benefit of a doubt. “Well, sir, I said, I don’t actually come to pick up the animals. It’s standard for the person who finds it to bring it to me. “ I explained as concisely as possible that if I were to travel to pick up every animal call every day, not only would I not have any gas, but there would be no time left to take care of the animals I did pick up. I could tell he didn’t like the idea, he was on VACATION after all and that was more important. “Are you sure it’s a squirrel?” I asked, it sounded awfully small to be a June squirrel.

You could hear the ice form over the telephone line. As he spoke slowly enough for someone of my obvious low IQ to understand. “Yes, I’m sure it is a squirrel. I have a PHD for God’s sake. My daughter found it in the driveway and she won’t stop crying till we take care of it. I told her that you people get paid to come take care of these things.”

Ohhhh, A PHD doctor….on VACATION!  Wow, this was my lucky day! I tried to keep any trace of smugness from my voice as I said.  I’m sure you weren’t aware of this sir, but we don’t get paid to do this job and I’d really appreciate it if you could drive the animal out to me.”

Then he played what he thought was his trump card. He put his daughter on the phone. She sounded about seven. She was crying.  “My Daddy said that you would come and take care of this poor baby squirrel so we can go on our boat trip. He promised that you would do it!” I could hear her little foot stomp in her hundred dollar sandals.

“Well honey, I will take care of your little squirrel, if your daddy would just be kind and generous enough to drive him to my house. You see, I can’t leave right now because I am feeding some baby fawns. Would you like to see the fawns? They still have their spots and will drink out of a bottle for you.”  HAH! Ace in the hole.

I could almost hear her eyes get big and round as she told her daddy, in no uncertain terms, that they were going to get in the car and drive her little squirrel to the nice lady’s house and feed the baby deer.

He got back on the line. It was difficult to understand him with his teeth gritting so loudly, but I made out that they would be leaving shortly for my house. I had saved the coup de gras. Are you sure,” I asked slow enough for even a PHD on vacation, to understand, “That it is indeed a squirrel?  I want to have the proper formula ready and it would be different for, say, a possum or a chipmunk or a bunny.”

I’m sure there was spittle flying around his phone as he growled. “It’ a squirrel, damnit. I know a squirrel when I see one.”

“Ok,” I said cheerfully, “we’ll see you in about 20 minutes. Do you need directions?”

I could feel him roll his eyes and curse ever coming to a backwoods place with so many ignorant country people for his precious vacation. “No thank you. I have On Star.” He hung up.

OOOOOOH, ON STAR. Now I’m impressed

I busied myself getting an intensive care room ready for the squirrel if he should require it. Actually, intensive care means that I put a heating pad in the bottom of the cardboard box, but it sounds good. I mixed formula for what I assumed would be a red squirrel and watched Martha Stewart until I saw the shadow of a huge SUV with Detroit license plates block the sun from the window. I met them on the porch.

The daughter was adorable in her matching sun hat and shorts ensemble. It was pretty obvious that her sunglasses cost as much as my bib overalls, T-shirt and shoes, combined. She came skipping up the steps and plopped on my porch swing. Daddy came sauntering up next. He didn’t use the railing. I think he was afraid he might get dirt on his Geoffrey Bene shirt. (I don’t think my car cost as much as HIS sunglasses)  He glared at my slobbering Labrador who was eager to do his happy-lick-lick dance and shoved an L. L. Bene shoebox under my nose. “It’s in there” he sneered as he took out a bacterial wet wipe from his pocket and washed his hands.

“Thank you”, I smiled and looked to his daughter. “Come on honey, you can pet the deer while your daddy fills out the paperwork”. The child was squealing with joy as the fawns licked her face and hands. I got out my record book and asked him to spell his name. I entered it and he reminded me, twice, that I had omitted the DR from in front of his name. After I finished with the address and phone number (and he reminded me about the DR again) I opened the box containing the “squirrel”.

I looked up at his well tanned face, “What kind of doctorate do you have?

He puffed up and looked down on me. “Economics, of course. Why do you ask?”

“Because,” I deadpanned, “I wondered what kind of education you need to have to tell a squirrel form a mouse.”

I couldn’t help it. I started to giggle. I’ve never seen a man’s face get that particular shade of red, before or since. He stood there, opening and closing his mouth like a fish in the bottom of a rowboat as his little daughter bounced in the back door.

Is my squirrel ok? What will you do with it when it grows up? Will you let it go free like my daddy says you will? Can I see him again, can I, can I?” She was literally dancing with excitement around me feet.

I told her that even though it might have LOOKED like a squirrel,  it was actually a mouse. I reasured her that even if it was just a mouse, I would take care of it anyway. The only problem would be that the mouse would be so tame that it couldn’t be released back into the wild and someone would have to take care of it for the rest of it’s life.  At this exact moment, I looked downcast and said, “It’s too bad that I don’t have a little girl of my own to take care of a pet mouse  as pretty as this one will surely grow up to be.” As she was peering sadly into the depths of the shoebox, I asked, “How long will you be here on vacation?”

“Oh, we have the whole summer here. We rented a big house on Lake Michigan and we aren’t going home till August. Are we Daddy?”

The fish face turned ashen white as Dr Hildibrand realized what I was going to do next. It was like a train wreck in front of you. You see it happening, but you are powerless to stop it. All you can do is hope you get out of it alive.

I’d let him live, but not let him off easy.

I put my hand on the little girl’s shoulder. “If I feed the baby mouse milk until it can eat seeds and cookies and all sorts of mouse stuff by itself, would you like to come back and take it home with you to live? You must remember though, it can never be released to live in the wild or it will die and he will need lots of special mouse food and fun mouse toys.” At this, I smiled beatifically up at the good doctor.

He stood there with the look of a condemned man meeting the preacher at the cell door. His adorable, but spoiled little girl threw her arms around his legs and chanted “ThankyouDaddy! ThankyouDaddy! ThankyouDaddy!”  He let out a long sigh of resignation.

I like a man who recognizes when he has been beaten by a master.

We spent the next 45 minutes feeding the mouse with an eyedropper and putting together a mouse cage for her to take home till the mouse was ready to live in it. Finally I wrote my phone number on the inside of the little girls shoe so she could call and check on his progress. (Phone numbers written on paper can get lost you know). It was time to send them off in their gas guzzling SUV so they could finally go boating.

As I was waving good-by, I heard the lovely sound of thunder.

I hate raising mice, but sometimes, gosh, it’s worth it.

I am a Raccoon Whore

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 I have often said that the reason I don’t take raccoons is that it’s like loosing your virginity. You gave in once, why say no the next time.

I said yes once this summer, then again and now,well, I admit it….I am a raccoon whore. I just can’t help myself.

Number three is snuggled with her stuffed moose in my studio now. She is little and still on the bottle so she has more time to worm her way into my heart. It’s those soft little hands that hold my fingers. It’s the shoebutton nose and eyes in that adorable mask. It’s the little “Whoot” that she greets me with. Oh it’s all too irresistable. How can I even think of putting her outside with thoes other coons from the wrong side of the woods?

I’ll have to wait a few weeks after she hits the stage where she screams and poops and eats like a pig looking for an acorn in a mudhole. (Raccoon babies like to wear their food….for days.) When I’ve had to wash her every time she eats and clean her cage on a daily basis….when I’ve had to scrape coon slop and coon poop off the walls….when every thing I own is covered with tiny, dirty handprints….well, maybe then I’ll put her outside. But for now, please someone stop me before I coon again.

Do Not Disturb any Further

I was sitting with a cup of coffee this morning (sitting is a rarity this time of year) and heard voices in the yard. I looked out and there were two women and three children in my yard, hanging over the fence, trying to coax the fawns to come to them. I tried to be polite at first and asked them what they were doing. They said they were driving by and saw my gardens so they stopped at the curb to look at them. Then the kids noticed the ducks in the pond and they decided to get out of the car to see them. From there, they noticed the other gardens and saw a fawn in the back yard. “They just wanted to pet him” they said. “And isn’t this the “rehab Center” that SO-and-so brought the bunnies?”
My patience was slipping like butter in a hot pan.
I explained to them that this was private property and that I would never consider invading their privacy in their yards. One of them chimed in that “I shouldn’t make it look like a park then”.
For a moment, I considered going for my garden trowel and giving them the “trowel of Death” threat. But instead, I told them to leave and not come back without knocking on the door and getting permission first and I went in the house.
I had barely closed the door when one of the children knocked and asked if he coud go in the back yard to see the deer. All patience evaporated.
I am ashamed to say that I had some very ugly words with the mothers.
What the hell is wrong with people? Usually, my patience holds out till August. I ran out early this year. It seems as though people are getting more and more demanding every year. They expect me to take the place of Critter Control so they don’t have to pay to have possums, raccoons and skunks removed. They want me to drive to Rapid City to pick up a baby bird the cat brought in. They expect to bring their aunts and uncles and brothers friend from Alaska to visit the animals they brought ANY TIME THEY WANT. (Honest to God the brother’s friend thing was just last week and he was CREEPY)
THIS MY HOME! It is a sanctuary, not just for the animals, but also for my and my family It’s not public. I do not get paid for this and I do NOT have to put up with their shit. MY FRENDS come to visit (and then it had better be to visit me as well as the animals). THEY CALL FIRST. I LOVE having my friends come. I DON”T LIKE strangers running about my yard. If you don’t even know my name….KEEP OUT.
And yet, there has been the most incredible outpouring of support for what I do this year. For the first time many people have left donations for the animals they bring. The girls from the dance studio held a wonderful fundraiser for me this spring, that allowed me to continue what I do (even though they say it was just a good excuse for a party). These are the people who make it worthwhile. They are genuinely concerned for the animal’s welfare. I love educating them about the different animals and often invite them back to see their animal’s progress.
So I guess it all work out in the end. It’s all about balance. The good people and the bad. The animals that survive and the ones that don’t. The tears and the joy. It’s simply what I do and I love it.

I Will Not Feed My Children to the Cat

It’s baby bird season and it seems as though someone calls every day with some feathered beak that needs feeding. Every time I get almost everyone to the point of release and out of my studio, another half dozen come in. Right now, it’s mourning doves and cedar waxwings. I love the doves, they are quiet gentle birds. You feed them with a syringe and they are happy for hours. The wax wing is a different story.

I have a new mantra and I recite it several times a day and several times a night. I will not feed my children to the cat… I will not feed my children to the cat… I will not feed my children to the cat. No matter how much I want to, I will not feed my children to the cat.

It reminds me a spot a few summers ago, when I just could not keep ahead of the birds.

It all started when someone called me from the local resort and wanted me to come get some baby birds on the golf course (there are 5 golf courses at this particular resort). The caller claimed that her boss found these baby birds and wanted somebody to come get them NOW. I explained that I prefer people to bring the birds to me and if they did I would be happy to take them. She said, “well he’s on a golf outing you know”. I counted to 10 under my breath.

“Oh of course” I said with all the sarcasm I could muster. “How could I possibly think MY time was as important as a GOLF game?” I heard giggles on the other end of the line. She said she would get back to me. I returned to work in the garden.

Ten minutes later the phone rang again with the same voice on the other end. “Well,” she said, He can’t possibly get away from his game, but you can pick them up on the sixth hole.”

I took a deep breath and dug up bit more sarcasm, “Gosh, I hope they aren’t in the way on the sixth hole, because it will snow in July before I run all over a golf course looking for those birds. Believe it or not, I do have other things to do. Tell your boss, that when he comes in to pee or get another beer or has lunch, he can just bring the birds in with him.”

More giggles on the other end. “I’ll call back”, she said. I went back out to the garden once again.

Twenty minutes go by and I’m thinking that the birds are a non-issue now and the phone rings again. I know who it’s going to be.

“Yes?”

“Someone is going out to get the birds. The will be on a towel at the pool.”

“I hope they enjoy their day at the pool. I’m not coming to get them. It doesn’t work that way. It works like this…you find the birds, you call me, you bring the birds out to me and then I take care of them”

“I’ll call you back”

At this point I’d have done anything to keep her from calling back. I gave up. “Ok”, I said. You win. I’ll come and get the birds on my way into town. Have them in a box by a door.”

“They will be at the pool on a towel.”

“They will be in a BOX and someone will have them in their POSESSION or I will NOT come to get them.”

“Ok”. She said then nothing but a dial tone.

As frustrated as I was I figured that I could drive around to the backside of the pool, grab the birds and still make my appointment in town. I headed for the house.

“Ring… Ring… Ring”

I held my breath and gritted my teeth as I answered the phone. It wasn’t her. It was someone calling from a local tattoo parlor. They had a bird too. They couldn’t bring it out either. I started breathing so deep that I thought I was going to hyperventilate. Ok, two sets of birds. I could do that.

I changed clothes, slid my feet into a pair of cheap and uncomfortable flip-flops and ran out the door. I got to the resort and the access road to the pool was blocked off. I parked in handicap parking in front of the health club. (Hey, let’s be honest here. What were the chances that all the handicap parking would be needed at the HEALTH CLUB?) I left the car running just in case I needed a quick get away. Inside, I discovered that I was two buildings and a tennis court away from the outdoor pool.

My appointment in town was rapidly approaching. I set off at the best trot a 50 plus-year-old rather chubby woman could muster. “Oh Owwwww!” I forgot about the cheap flip-flops. “Ok, I’ll just slow down”. I finally made it to the pool and tracked down the person with the birds. All three homely fuzzy birds were in a vodka box lined with a very expensive golf towel. I carried them all the way past the tennis courts and through two buildings.” Damn cheap freaking flip flops!”

At last the car was in sight. So were a tow truck and two burly security guards.

“You realize that you can’t park here without a permit,” said first security guard.

“Yes I know, I was making a pick up” I said holding up the vodka bottle box with the birds in it.

“Then you should have used the sewice dwive.” Said security guard two with a slight lisp. I started to breathe deeply again, my right eye began to twitch. They probably thought they were turning me on. “You know. I could wite you a ticket for pawking here with out a puwmit.”

I was breathing way too deep and way too fast. I was getting dizzy. “Look”, I said. It’s 90 degrees and I have just run all over this stinking place in cheap flip flops chasing after some stinking birds that someone from here called me to come and pick up. I’m hot and I have a blister the size of Rode Island. You go wite ahead and wite me that ticket, but you better be prepared because I KNOW what I’m gonna do with these birds when you’re done!”

The tow truck driver, obviously and older and wiser man, took the security officers by the arms and counseled, “Boys, I don’t think you want to screw with this lady. Her bumper sticker says “Caution: Driver just doesn’t give a damn any more”. Let’s not find out what exactly that means. Then he winked at me.

The birds and I drove off peaceably and unmolested or ticketed.

I went to my appointment and by the time I got back to my car, all five birds were screaming their heads off for food. I turned the radio up and ignored them as I drove to the tattoo parlor. There they had a young blue jay waiting for me. I like blue jays; I wasn’t disappointed and could feel my mood lifting. As I walked out the door, the young man with enough metal studs in his face to confuse a compass said. “Thanks for picking him up. The cat was pretty pissed off when I took him away”.

Whenever a cat touches a bird, whenever a cat even looks at a bird, the bird dies. Oh not always right away and not directly from his injuries, but he dies anyway. Cats have a bacteria in their mouths that as soon as it comes in contact with a small animal or bird sets off a chain reaction of massive septic shock. It’s like being bitten by a poisonous snake, sooner or later; it’s going to get you. In the case of cat spit on a bird, The bird has a maximum of 24 hours to live.

“How long ago did the cat get him?”

“Oh, yesterday afternoon. But he’s been doing really good since then”

I was hoping he was talking about the cat, because the bird didn’t look like he was feeling all that great.

On the way home the blue jay keeled over in the box. One down, three to go.

Now, one of the problems with baby birds is that for a certain length of time, you can’t really tell what they are. At that stage, we call them UFO’s (Unidentifiable Fuzzy Object). You can make some good guesses at what they are, but it usually takes the appearance of some feathers to be sure. I suspected these to be starlings and they were the last birds I wanted to raise…. Or so I thought.

As soon as I got home the phone was ringing again. Someone else had two baby birds, but at least they were willing to bring them over. They also thought that they were starlings. “Oh well, I already have three”
Several hours later they finally arrived and instead of two baby birds, there were FIVE baby birds. Oh boy, EIGHT baby birds to feed. I started soaking kitten chow.

The easiest thing to feed a baby bird is soaked kibble, either dog or cat. I like kitten chow as it is very high in protein. I remember my mother always tried to feed baby birds we brought home bread soaked in milk. They always died too. I wonder how that tradition ever came about. Though birds DO have breasts, they have no nipples. No nipples…no milk.Birds do not drink milk, but that’s what everyone thought you should feed them. It didn’t take me long to figure this out and used to mix up boiled egg, grains, peanut butter and olive oil for nestlings, but dog or cat food is so much easier and I always have it on hand.

The first night was tolerable; I popped bits of wet kitten chow into their wide-open mouths about every hour till I went to bed. The next morning though, I could hear them from upstairs. It took my sleep-blurred mind a few moments to process exactly what had woken me up at dawn. I went down and fed them. By the time I got dressed, they were hungry again. I fed them till they stopped screeching and made coffee. They were hungry again. This went on from dawn to dusk. Every time they heard a noise or saw a shadow, they thought they should be fed. We started tiptoeing around the house and speaking in hushed tones.

Within a few days I could tell that none of the birds were feathering out like starlings. The set of five was developing soft gray plumage and the three younger ones were coming in blue black. Starlings are always black with whitish speckles. I’d have to wait a bit longer to see what they were. There was one thing I knew though; they were getting on my nerves.

Every time the five started to scream, it would make my skin crawl. I would go in to feed them and the noise would match the decibel level of an old lawn mower…in a small room. They would finish eating and I would somehow feel sad. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Then in a flash, it came to me.

When the great towers fell on 9-11, the television coverage of ground zero was constant. The world watched while they searched for survivors with heavy equipment and trained rescue dogs. Every once in a while they would stop all the equipment and listen for sounds of trapped survivors in the collapsed buildings. The only sounds were the whistles of the emergency locators on the gear the firemen buried in the rubble. The sound the birds were making was the same sound. The sound of lost heroes. No wonder it made me sad. Thankfully, the birds only made that sound for about a week. Then they moved on to a new screech that was more like fingernails on a chalkboard.

It wasn’t long before I realized that the gray birds were cowbirds and the black birds were grackles. Two of the most destructive and obnoxious birds in the wild. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. Usually only one or two at a time (they must have thought that the starling parents were real suckers and gave them the whole family). The cowbird eggs hatch with the host birds eggs, but the cowbirds grow much faster. They will take most of the food that the parent birds bring and crowd out the smaller nestlings. Soon all that is left is one or two very large, very fat cowbird fledglings. Grackles at least raise their own young, but travel in large flocks and are capable of emptying a bird feeder in the blink of an eye. They are noisy and far from pleasant sounding songbirds. Combine the two and you have an eardrum rupturing, nerve-shredding, head splitting experience.

I felt like Quasimodo with the bells of Notre Dame when he grabbed his head and cried “The bells! The bells!” With us it was “The birds! The birds” Evil thoughts started creeping their way into my head. A little voice was whispering in my ear. “Cats. Cats eat birds. Just call the cats…. Here kitty, kitty, kitty”

“NO! I WILL NOT FEED MY CHILDREN TO THE CAT!” I will chant it as often as I need to. “I will not feed my children to the cat”. They will be grown up soon and fly away. I can do this. Only a few more weeks.

The magnificent Eleven

The past few weeks have been rough ones. First a young bobcat took all five peacock babies (and the income they represented), then started on ducklings. There were a lot to choose from too. We had 11 that I hatched from a batch of eggs found at the state park and six that were brought at other thimes. There was the Rouen, Momduck and her brood of 8 and then one little woodduck, that I see only on ocasion that he darts from the bushes and grabs a bill full of chicken food and dissapears again. They spend much of their time lounging around the pool (the goldfish pond) in the front yard. I round them up every night and put them back inside the fence, but in the mouning they are out again.

After the cat ran out of peacock chicks, we noticed that two ducks were missing, (when you have 27 ducks in and out of the yard, it takes a while to notice if one is gone). Then each night, we would loose one or two ducklings. One morning I got up to find Momduck, wounded, letyhargic and covered in flies. I wasn’t sure she would make it, so I cleaned her up, treated the wounds and kept her in the house for a few days.

Meanwhile we proceeded to do everything we could to tighten up the fencing so they could not get out. I’m not sure there is a fence tight enought. The largest squares in one small section are 4 inches square and a half grown mallard obviously can squeeze his fat little butt and floppy feet through.

As Momduck recovered and was moved to the yard, I decided to tak away any dark spots for the cat to hide. My yard is lit up like a cross between Christmas in Central Park and Kennedy airport. It seems to be working we have achieved a stable number of ducks for four nights running. It’s a little hard to sleep, but we have ducks!

We only have eleven ducks in the pond, and Momduck (who looks a little ratty and hisses at the house cats, but seems fine) Of course, we also have 7 new little ducklings (loons killed their parents) waiting in the wings. That’s one thing about this place, you never seem to run out of ducks.

The eleven who are left all, of course have imprinted on me and follow me like a parade about the yard. It made me think of a batch of eleven that I raised years ago. I called them “The Magnificent Eleven” and this, my friends is their story.

The baby ducks came to me, all downy and soft. They were unbelievably small; it seemed as though you could still fit them in an eggshell. They were Mallards; about three days old and there were eleven of them. Their mother had been struck by a car while leading them across a busy road. I’ve never understood Mallards. They seem to pick the oddest places to nest. Never, it seems, near enough to the water to not necessitate crossing a street or highway to get from nesting area to the nearest body of water. Their choice of actual nest location can be a bit inconvenient also. I know of one hen that insisted on building her nest under the slide on a school playground. Not wanting to disturb her, the children gave up their slide for the remainder of the year and she successfully hatched her brood.

This particular duck had nested in the bushes of a Mexican restaurant while the drainage basin she obviously intended her ducklings to occupy was on the opposite side of a busy highway. She had managed to somehow guide all eleven of the ducklings across the road and back for two days. Each morning and each afternoon, traffic would stop, as the tiny parade would cross from the parking lot on one side to the neatly manicured grounds of the strip mall on the other. Cars would sit idling while the fuzzy; Ping-Pong ball babies would scramble over and up curbs and down into the basin.

All it took was for one driver to either not notice or not care what was transpiring. One witness stated that the car did seem to make an attempt to avoid the duck, but it was too late. Somehow, the driver only struck the mother duck in the front of the line of ducklings. She was killed instantly and without her sound cues to guide them, the babies scattered across the pavement.

Some brave soul got out of their car and herded the confused ducklings to the side of the road where another driver helped round them up and capture them. By 9:00 AM they were waiting in a box at a local realty office for me to pick up. When I arrived, there wasn’t much house-selling going on, every realtor and the receptionist had at least one fluffy baby duck cupped in their hands.

I brought them home and set up a brooder in my studio. It consisted of a large cardboard box with pine shavings in the bottom placed near the heater. At that time, my studio was in a converted garage attached to the back of the house. It originally had garage doors on each end, which we replaced with a large window and a sliding glass door leading out to the back door. In the wall near the door, was the doggy door. It was one of the inexpensive ones with the plastic flap and was drafty and inefficient. Well, maybe it was too efficient. Not only did it allow the cat and dogs to enter and exit at will, but also every bug, toad and chipmonk in the neighborhood.

The ducks grew quickly and reveled in all the attention that the family gave them. They especially liked it when I would cover a large area with newspaper and allow them to run around the floor while I worked. After a while, they would tire and group together in front of the old gas heater and snooze. On sunny warm days I would take them outside and they would follow me just as they would their mother. There, they would chase bugs and grab at anything that moved in the grass.

It was on one of those sunny days that I decided that God created ducks for pure joy. I have never known any other animals that go at life with such enthusiasm. They run full tilt through the grass, stumbling and rolling and getting up again. They peep and chase bugs with abandon. They play tag with each other. They sprawl full out to sunbathe. I spent hours watching them and laughing at their antics.

About this time, we started having problems with the septic system. We had only owned the house for a few months and decided to have the tank pumped, hoping that was the cause. We called the septic pumping company and in due time someone showed up. (For the uninitiated, a septic company is a bit like the Cable Company; they’ll be there between 8 and 5 Wednesday or Thursday. Friday, at the latest. They promise) I guided the service man to where we had determined the tank to be and went back in the studio to work. I never thought about the ducks.

In about an hour’s time, the workman had dug a rather large hole to get to the lid on the septic tank. I could hear an occasional word or sentence out there and figured that he must be talking to himself. Eventually I looked out the back door to check on his progress and saw him on his hands and knees looking down into the hole. In a circle, ringed about the hole were 11 little ducks. They were all looking into the hole with the workman. He stood and straightened up. The ducks looked up at him expectantly. He looked down into the hole again and all the ducks leaned over the side and peered into the darkness. All the wile this was going on they were chattering and quacking in the way that only ducks do. I went out the back door and started to shoo them off. The workman gently stopped me. “But aren’t they in your way?” I asked.

“No”, he said, wiping the dirt from his hands on the back of his overalls. “They aren’t bothering me, but I sure wish they would keep their advice to themselves.” I will forever carry the picture in my mind of that large, rough workman staring into that hole with eleven baby ducks watching his every move.

A duck has glands that secrete oils, which it uses its bill to spread over every single feather on its body. Without these oils, its feathers are not waterproof and the duck will become waterlogged and not only sink but be unable to insulate its body from the cold. A mother duck naturally transfers these oils to her offspring through bodily contact. Since my ducklings had no duck mother, they lacked these oils and had to content themselves with small dishes of water in their box until they produced enough on their own to swim in the goldfish pond.

Pond, may be an optimistic word for what we had at the time. It had once been the foundation for a very small house and the roughly 15 foot square area had been allowed to fill with water from the flowing well. It was about three feet at the deepest point and had grass growing in the shallowest. There were a few water lilies that I had purchased struggling in the icy cold water. A few old goldfish and one large koi lived under a rock ledge and where the ivy grew over the sides. That summer I had splurged and picked up about dozen bullfrog tadpoles at a nearby pet store. It definitely wasn’t conventional water feature, but I loved it and it certainly added a bit of dazzle to an otherwise sparsely planted yard.

The ducks could not have cared less about the aesthetics of my pond. To them it was a diner and playground all rolled into one. One warm day, I led my little battalion of ducks out the gate and across the yard. We got to the edge of the pond and I expected them to dive right in. Not so. The all stood at he edge and seemed to discuss the situation thoroughly. They walked up and down the side and discussed it some more. Just about the time I was thinking of shoving them in with my foot, one of them fell off the rock and into the water. I cannot describe the look of absolute shock on that ducks face. His little bill gaped open; his eyes were round and wide. He stretched his neck out and flapped his partially feathered wings as if trying to fly out, and then suddenly he seemed to realize what he was in.

“Like a duck taking to water” is certainly an appropriate expression. He put his head under the water and blew bubbles out his nostrils; he bobbed up and down and paddled his feet madly. He swam in circles and dived as deep as he could only to shoot to the surface and bob again. All the while he was doing this joyous water dance; he was quacking up at the top of his lungs. Ducks hate watching another duck have fun without them. Soon all eleven ducklings were flapping about in the pond, much to the consternation of the stately old koi. The fish disappeared as the babies zipped about the pond, gaining confidence with every turn. Amazed, I watched bubbles stream from their feathers as they “flew” under water. They all got to diving and swimming in a circular fashion about the perimeter of the pond that water was actually sloshing over the edges. So much for the water lilies. A few days later, I also learned that ducks eat tadpoles. It was a good thing that the fish were the size they were.

It got to be a ritual for me to walk them to the pond in the morning and in the evening, shoo them out and into the back yard. Within a few weeks, they didn’t need me to walk them any more, they found a gap in the fence and could go on their own. It wasn’t long and there was a chill in the air and fall was not far off. The nights were cool and the heater in the studio came back on.

I was preparing my Christmas line of sculpted fairies and often worked late into the night. I would be hunched over my work table and hear the quiet slap and click as the doggy door opened and closed…eleven times. I would hear the whisper of 22 flappy little feet as they sneaked across the floor of the studio. Soon all the ducks would be in a group settled in front of the heater. Then they would start a soft chattering to each other like gossiping women at a Laundromat. It would continue for awhile and one would suddenly stand up and “Quack! Quack! Quack” and flap his wings. I always felt that it was like one had told a joke and the other couldn’t help laughing out loud. Then I would turn around and say “Hey! You know ducks don’t belong in the house! Everybody, Out!” Eleven ducks would look embarrassed like a schoolboys caught being naughty and file back out the doggy door. Within 20 minutes, it would start all over again. Some nights I would spread newspaper on the floor and let them stay awhile.

The maple tree in the yard turned from green to gold and the sky filled with the calls of ducks and geese flying overhead. We live near a large millpond and flocks frequently spend the night there in their long migrations south. Each time a group of ducks passed low overhead, the babies would tilt their heads and look up with their dark, round eyes. Occasionally they would run, flapping their wings the length of the property below the flying birds. Sometimes they would lift off the ground and take short surprised flights, but they always returned home.

One day I returned home from a trip to town and there were only six ducks on the goldfish pond. The remaining ducklings were swimming in agitated circles. The next morning, there were only three, by night one. The lone male stayed on the pond for another week. I could tell he was lonely. He would quack loudly whenever he heard ducks on the millpond or saw them flying over. I was beginning to worry that something was wrong and he couldn’t fly well enough to leave. There wasn’t. Early one evening, a flock of ducks flew low over the house, two dropped out of the formation and landed in the fishpond. You could tell that they were the siblings of the remaining drake, by the way he greeted him. I took them corn and some crusty bread and they stayed through the night. The next morning, all my ducks were gone.

It was quiet on the goldfish pond. The water stayed clear and unmuddied. The goldfish and koi began to appear in the open again. One of the poor tattered water lilies even sent out a single Lilly pad, but no ducks returned. Snow and ice came to blanket the yard and all was cold and silent for months.

Spring came and in about mid April I saw a program on the local news about an odd duck. It seems that he had shown up at the sliding glass door of a used car dealer about a half-mile from the house. They opened the door and he walked right in and made himself at home near their heater in the office. The salesman on camera commented how strange it was that the duck would actually sit on newspapers and not makes a mess on the floor. They were sharing their lunches with him and putting him out every night, but he would be waiting for them at the door in the morning.

I got in the car and took a ride. It was my duck. As soon as he heard my voice, he came waddling out of the office. He seemed glad to see me an gave me a “What took you so long?” look as I put him in the car. He stayed for about a week, lounging by the fishpond, eating whatever tidbits I brought him. One morning, I looked out the kitchen window and there was a hen on the pond with him, by noon, they were both gone.

Ever since then, I have occasional visitors of mallards to the goldfish pond A few hens have raised broods nearby and brought them to the fishpond to swim and feed. I don’t know how many or who are from the original 11 as I have raised many Mallards off this place, but I like to think that as ducks fly overhead on their long migration path that some of them are looking down trying to spot a septic truck or a faulty doggy door.

Fuzzy

I think I am getting a lesson in compassion, patience and heart break, all at the same time. Of the five fawns, one has always been particularly beautiful and friendly. She has a light golden coat and two larger than normal spots on her behind. Her coat is extra thick and it gives her a fuzzy appearance. So, of course, that’s what we call her. Fuzzy doesn’t hang out with the other fawns and has never been able to get the hang of drinking out of a bottle. She eats grass, a little grain and all the wild violets and greens I can pull. After some work, she even learned to drink her milk from a bowl.

From the very beginning, there has always been something just a bit odd about Fuzzy. She hangs out at the back door for instance, but rarely walks in like the other fawns. She is always just there or lying in front of the gate so you have to stop and give her a pat as you go by. The first few days, she would do an odd head nodding thing and throw her head back as if she were smelling something familiar or listening to something very far away.

It was in those early days that my husband found her unconscious on the back deck. He thought it might have been a seizure and I then thought she must have had a head injury and that’s how she came to be alone in someone’s driveway on the day she was found. These things frequently work themselves out and the animal lives a long normal life. I hoped that for Fuzzy.

The days continued and turned to weeks and her behavior did not change. She never learned to suck, though she cries for her bottle. She grinds her teeth. This can be a response to nervousness, teething or pain. I checked her all over for any areas of obvious pain, but never found any. One night last week, while I was feeding everyone their bedtime bottle, Fuzzy dropped at my feet. I thought she was dying. I sat and stroked he soft ears and suddenly her eyes opened and she was alert once more. This must have been the seizure that Jim saw.

It wasn’t a seizure though. It was a definite faint. She just collapsed and was out for about 40 seconds. she seemed absolutely fine afterwards and went back to quietly drinking her milk. I thought back to see if I could remember her playing hard before she came in. I realized that I had never seen her play with the other fawns. When they bounce to and fro on long stiff legs….Fuzzy watches. When they race around the yard playing tag….Fuzzy stands quietly by. When the rest of the crew stroll through the house or watch television in the living room or annoy me in my studio…Fuzzy is never there. she is waiting by the back door for a friendly pat or ear rub.

The fainting has became more frequent. Fawns will sometimes play so hard that they momentarily pass out, but they stagger before they fall and their breathing is rapid, Fuzzys is not. I got out the stethoscope tonight and listened closely to her heart. I’m pretty sure I can hear the regurgitation of a murmur and the beat is as irregular as mine was before they put the pacemaker in. Fuzzy has a bad heart. This explains much about her behavior. This also explains why the other fawns avoid her. Their instincts tell them that something is wrong with Fuzzy and her weakness would be a liability to the heard. They will automatically protect themselves.

It would be so much easier, if I could do that myself, but I can’t. So, I lavish attention on her and slip her treats as often as I can. When she faints, I sit with her and stroke her and tell her that everything is just the way it should be. I hope with everything I have, that her heart will heal and she will grow strong and fast and beautiful. Just in case though, I tell her about Mother Bear, who watches over all the animals and the spirit of the deer and how she will return to it and be reborn with a strong heart and a whitetail mother instead of me.

It’s silly, I know, but I tell her of green meadows, deep, cool forests and nights where you can’t tell the fireflies from the stars. I tell her how good it feels to run fast and the joy of jumping fences. I tell her of handsome bucks and tender fawns like herself. I don’t tell her of bitter snows or coyotes or hunters. I pray that she will never suffer them.

And she always wakes up and looks at me with huge trusting eyes. I know that she won’t run in those meadows or jump the fences. She will probably never even play a game of tag in the yard. As the fainting becomes more frequent, I review my options. she can live as she is long as she has no pain or suffering, If she suffers, I will end it gently for her. I could put her down now and avoid the anguish of getting more attached to her and then finding her dead one day the yard. Pure economics favors ending it now and saving on milk and feed. I’m not an economist. I am a soft touch.

It will take patience to care for her and work around her when she is in the way. It will require compassion to know when the time has come to ease her passage. It will bring heartbreak, when the day comes that the golden fur is no longer warm and soft and the ears no longer need stroking. The heartbreak will last the longest. It always does.

Masked Marauders

Jyl Gaskin

I did something yesterday that I try never to do. I admit that it was a weak moment and maybe the pain pills had something to do with it, but abashedly, I have no real excuse. Even though my DNR listing and my phone , both firmly state that I DO NOT TAKE RACOONS…I did. I stopped taking them several years ago. Occasionally though, one will come attached to a little child with big eyes and I give in. A few years ago, people took to leaving them on my porch as soon as I pulled out of the drive way. (I think they were hiding around the corner,) waiting. I finally put up a sign at the front steps “Please do not leave raccoons on my porch. The freezer is full”. It worked They blessedly stopped.

Not that I don’t get dozens of calls from frantic people. I just firmly and gently turn them away….Until yesterday.

My friend Phill showed up with something in the back of his truck he wanted me to look at. I did. It was a snarly little ball of poop covered meanness. “No coons” I said. Phill put his hand to his chest where his “waiting to be replaced heart resides”. His eyes were downcast and he shuffled his feet. “Ok” he said, I guess I can dump him in the woods.

By now I was already cleaning out a cage and filling it with clean straw. I too the coon. God help me, I took the coon.

You might not think this is such a crisis. I can just refuse any more that come in, but it’s like this…Once you accept one coon it is like giving up your virginity. You got screwed already, why keep saying no? I feel a cloud of doom descending already.

Masked Marauders

The only thing that prevents the world from being taken over by raccoons is an opposable thumb. The present raccoon paw lacks them, thank God. If by some future quirk of evolution they someday develop them…. Mankind is doomed to be slaves to those cute little terrorists.

Cute as they may be, a raccoon in any location other than the deep forest is a pain in the neck I know, I know, they are such fun to watch rummaging through the garbage can at the park. Its true entertainment to observe them washing marshmallows in imaginary water on the deck. I have good friends who are enchanted by the family groups of raccoons that come to their back door to be fed on a nightly basis. All this, I agree is a wonder of nature, but let me tell you the other side. There is some poor underpaid and under appreciated park ranger picking up all that trash the can raiders sort through every evening. The sliding door on that deck is permanently smeared with marshmallow goo and the adorable family group will not only multiply exponentially, but also will also pick the putty from your window glass and peel the trim off your car.

Everyone knows the saying about giving someone an inch and they will take a mile. Give a raccoon a bowl of kibble on the porch and he will take over the garage, the attic, the crawl space and if he can get the door open without those darned opposable thumbs, he’ll have your bedroom too. (Don’t forget to leave a mint on the pillow, please) Invite one raccoon over for drinks and a snack and he will bring along ten beer swilling buddies and their large unruly families. Pretty soon their good neighbors, the Possum Family and the in-law skunk will be marching up the drive. “We’re here! What yall got to eat?”

Don’t get me wrong. I love Coons. Really. I love the round black eyes peeking out of the bandit’s mask. I adore the shiny pointed nose poking into everything. If I close my eyes, I can hear the sweet chirring and purring sound of a contented coon. Oh, and the paws! There is no feeling in the world like the velvet soft paws running across your hand as though they were reading Braille in your palms. A clean, well fed, happy baby raccoon is an absolute joy to snuggle and hold. Therein, lies the rub.

A clean, well-fed, happy baby raccoon lasts about five minutes. At six, they return to their natural state, a hungry, screaming, poop covered ball of squirming fur. Do you know why so many mother raccoons get hit by cars on the highway? They are trying to escape their children.

Like nearly all rehabilitators, I started out with taking orphaned raccoons. Like most rehabbers, I got sick of it. I gave up taking them in after my third heart attack. I wasn’t smart enough to give anything up after my first attack, thus my second. After the second, my doctor asked me what I did for a living. I told him I rehabilitated wildlife and coached high school cheerleaders. He looked me in the eye and said “For heavens sake, ditch the cheerleaders”” During my third heart attack, my husband stood by my bed and said “NO MORE COONS!” The nurses must have thought we were crazy. There may have been something to it though; I haven’t had a heart attack since. Maybe I could have kept the cheerleaders….

Once I started telling people I wasn’t taking in raccoons any longer, they reacted rather negatively. The typical conversation goes something like this….

“Hello?”

“I’ve got these coons here”

“I’m sorry, I no longer take raccoons”

“But they’re babies”

“They’re still raccoons”

“But they’re real cute”

“I’m sure they are, but they are still raccoons”

“But they have no mother.” Here the stories vary a bit, a car hit the mother, the tree they were in blew down, they dug them out of their attic, garage or chimney. Sometimes they try to tell me that their dog brought them home.

“That makes them orphans, but still raccoons. I no longer take raccoons”

“How come you don’t take raccoons any more?”

“Well, baby raccoons do three things. They eat. The poop and they scream. If they aren’t doing one thing they are doing another. Frequently they do all three at once. I’ve taken raccoons in the past. Hundreds of them. I’ve paid my dues. I no longer take raccoons.”

“But you have to take these”

“No, I don’t, they are raccoons. I no longer take raccoons.”

Well, what am I supposed to do with these damn things? They’ve pooped all over, they won’t stop shrieking and they’re driving us nuts!”

“Now, you understand why I don’t take raccoons any more.”

By now they are pretty belligerent and frequently threaten to have my job taken away. (Oh please? If it’s a JOB that means I should get PAID for it. Then if you take it away, I should get unemployment compensation. Yes…. Take it away. I could use the money) I try to make suggestions, such as calling critter control, or some of the others numbers listed under rehabilitators or with the DNR. If it is a matter of a family of coons living in an inconvenient place, I suggest that they allow them to remain where they are until the babies are old enough to leave the nest with their mother at night. Then quickly board up any access points before they return. Most people usually have a laundry list of reasons why these suggestions are as practical as vacationing on the moon. Inevitably, they get angry and make the statement I just wait for…

“Well, just what the hell do you think I SHOULD do with these raccoons?”

“I could make a suggestion sir, but it may be phsicaly uncomfortable”

They usually hang up at that point.

Raccoons are great animals for the beginning rehabber. They’re cute; they interact well with humans. Their teeth are very small and kind of dull when they are little and they are pretty hard to kill. That’s good for the ego in this business. You can make a lot of mistakes with baby raccoons and they come through it like cockroaches in a flood. You certainly can’t forget to feed them. They let you know …loudly.

As far as rehabilitation goes, give it up. They are like teenage rock stars. They have no desire to change. All they really learn in rehab is where you keep the marshmallows. They will be back for them….with 20 of their wildass friends.. Lock your door. Lock the cupboards. Seal them up in Tupperware. Remember? No opposable thumbs.

Perhaps the hardest part of rehabilitating raccoons is getting rid of them. Someone once told me in the early years that if you release a raccoon, make sure it’s five miles away. “FIVE” he emphatically stated. “FIVE MILES!” We nodded politely and thought he had been exposed to too much coon poo. I had a pet coon as a

child and when she was ready to return to the wild, she simply waddled off into the nearby woods. True, she came back and raided the garbage on a regular basis and stole all the change out of our unlocked cars (must have needed the money for pills and booze), but she did move out of the house. (well, as long as no windows were open anyway.). Five miles? That seemed a bit extreme.

Our first coon babies in Traverse City were Bud and Blossom. Two wonderfully fat babies who we raised in a box in the living room and lavished attention to make up for their tragic early life. (Mom and three others were squished by a semi) They moved to a large outdoor cage and we spent time playing in the stream and climbing trees to prepare them for life in the wild. A friend on the other side of the county, had ideal coon habitat on his land. We eventually released them there.

We made an entire day of it. We packed a picnic lunch for us and brought along a five-pound bag of kibble and a large package of marshmallows. We got to the small lake in the woods and all ate fried chicken (a raccoon’s preferred natural diet) and potato salad (another natural food according to coons). Then we went for a walk in the woods and played “hide and seek the marshmallow”. We hid them in trees, under rocks, near the water and in rotten logs. We had to split up, as they could find them just as fast as one single person could hide them. After we had hidden about 5 pounds of marshmallows and poured the kibble in a pile, we encouraged Bud and Blossom to go look for more marshmallows. While they were happily pawing through the leaf litter on the forest floor, we snuck away. My last sight of Bud was him sifting sand through sticky little fingers while he pretended not to watch what he was doing. We never saw them again.

After Bud and Blossom, the coons were on to us. I swear that mother raccoons scratched my phone number in the pavement with their dying breaths. “Call this number, choke…gasp…My children will be safe. Arrrg.” Not only that, they told all their friends. “Hey, sick of those little brats? Want to be free again? Here’s a card. Just drop them off at this address after dark” I had coons coming out my ears. We even came out one morning to see little orphan coons; their eyes barely open crawling across the road towards our front door.

The typical day would be, get up…. Feed the screaming coons…Wash the screaming coons…Clean the screaming coons cage…Go to the next cage…Repeat…go to the next cage…do it again. By the time you have gotten the fourth batch of coons fed, washed and cleaned, it’s time to start all over again with the first. If you are lucky, you may get five minutes or so of peace when everybody is asleep or at least gnawing on each other in silence.

You can forget going any place. I was still doing doll shows at the time and in the spring I nearly always carried a large picnic basket full of baby coons. We used to hide them under the table at the shows and I would crawl under there to feed them. Hotels were a real problem. We always tried to find ones that had direct access to the room form the parking lot. People look at you funny when you are running through the lobby to your room having a loud conversation with yourself to cover the coon-sounds coming out of your picnic basket.

Once, my husband and I got the chance to attend a food show at a very fancy and grand hotel. A food show! The cheesecake samples alone are worth going for. Well, it so happened that I had an early batch of preemie coons that I absolutely could not leave with a sitter so we brought them along. One died on the way and I didn’t think the other would make it through the night. Despite my best cheesecake fueled efforts, it did not survive. Now we faced a dilemma. There was yet another day of the show to go and we were in the middle of downtown Grand Rapids. Where do I get rid of a dead raccoon? It was a bit too big to flush and I certainly didn’t want to leave it in our room trash for some poor maid to find and track us down for. So I carried it, carefully rapped up in a room service napkin, in my pocket. Our plan was to sneak it outside and dispose of it there. My husband’s boss met us in the hallway. “Hey, guys, How about dinner?” he asks with a hand on our shoulders.

“Um, not right now, sir. We were headed down for more samples” stuttered my husband as he stared at my bulging pocket.

“Great!” the boss says, “I’ll go with you, just give me a minute to get my phone.” And he steped into his room.

I am franticly eyeing the drawer of an antique dresser in the hallway near the elevator and my husband is shooting me “Don’t you even think about it” looks. The boss come back and puts an arm around each of us to guide us to the elevator. The corps in my pocket is now stiff and cold. I really wanted to get rid of it.

From the moment we left our room, till we were in the middle of the food show, we were never left alone. We walked around the vendors tables, tasting prime rib, crab puffs and Osettra caviar with a dead raccoon in my jacket. One particularly persistent sales rep tried to slip his business card in my pocket and I nearly shrieked. My husband thought he must have said or done something inappropriate and headed our way with a look of outrage. I grabbed his arm and said “Oh honey, you look mad as a wet raccoon” and did the eye-shift-thing towards my side. Now he grabbed my arm and hissed in my ear “Get rid of the coon or I swear to God, I’ll find a lawyer in this very room” This was a hoard of people eating free food. I had no doubt there were lawyers by the dozen in there.

I excused myself from the group to go to the bathroom and prayed that it would not cause a femmine stampede in that direction. Luckily we were at a ‘triple fudge delight’ booth and I got away alone. It was quiet and peaceful in that marble and porcelain sanctuary. The lighting was soft and there was a cozy upholstered chaise with flowers on a side table. I splashed some water on my face and fluffed my hair. Looking discreetly for possible witnesses, I slipped the poor little coon out of my pocket, into the gold rimmed trash receptacle and covered it with a few crumpled paper towels. Needing a moment to myself, I sat down of the red velvet chaise. AHHHHH. Inhale…..exhale….inhale….exhale….

“Scouse me ma’am? Jou OK? I come clean later, if jou want.” There in front of me was One of the housekeeping staff! She wanted to clean the bathrooms. I’m sure she thought I was just another crazy American as I backed out of the bathroom and ran down the hall. Just as I got to the doors of the exhibit center I could hear a richly accented voice exclaim. “EEEEK! MADRE! Iss dead ratton in batroom!”

I jut kept walking. Maybe someone was serving alcohol samples.

Over the years we raised and released many, many raccoons. Some stand out more than others do in that long line of poo-filled years. I think foremost was the big light colored male that taught us the reason behind the “five mile” rule. It was early April when I go the call for two baby raccoons whose mother and siblings were killed on the highway. They were what we call “field coons” and had the characteristic light golden coloring and broad faces with big mouths. (As opposed to “swamp coons”, who are dark with very narrow pointed faces and a rather seedy expression.)

The brothers were cold and wet when I picked them up and immediately latched on the warm baby bottles I had prepared. They took up their place in the big wooden box between the TV and the woodstove. Of course they thrived and were soon happily accepting every tidbit that came their way. It was a cold spring and the roly-poly kits probably weighed about 5 pounds each when they finally went outside to the big cage. Several others (I think we had a total of 15 that summer) soon joined them. The “Boys” as we called them were family favorites by now, were afforded extra liberties loose in the yard with supervision and lots of treats. They basically lived the life of Riley. They knew a good thing when they saw it.

Late that summer, we needed to make room for more raccoons in the big cage so we decided to release the more mature ones. This meant three rather wild ones and the “Boys” After much struggle, swearing and bloodletting (ours, not the coons), we managed to get the five chosen sorted out and in the back of the truck. It was getting dark and we didn’t want to drive too far out into the woods. We knew of a small muddy lake about four and a half miles away and did the customary dog food dump near the trees. When we left all five were playing pat a cake in the mud. We blew them kisses and drove home.

Summer passed, coons grew and we released them accordingly to our favorite spots several miles away. I have to admit that I hardly gave my “boys” much thought and by early November we settled down for the winter. It must have been about then that one of the boys started thinking about that woodstove and all the nice treats.

Every night before I go to bed, I check to make sure that the house is properly closed up and the dogs have food in their bowl. At the time we had two small dogs, a Jack Russell and the Beagle, Jenny. Their bowls were always filled with kibble and they ate whenever they were hungry. By mid November, I began

thinking that we were going through a lot of dog food. A few nights I even thought I saw something scoot out the doggy door as I made my nightly rounds. Not one to ponder too deeply about anything, I went to bed. One night, about 2:30 in the morning, I awoke to the sound of Jenny grumbling under the bed. There would be a bit of growling, maybe a half bark and then silence for a time. It wasn’t quite enough to wake me completely, but enough to annoy the pajamas off me. Finally I couldn’t take it any longer and threw back the covers. I put my bare foot down on the floor and a tiny cold hand gripped my ankle.

I did not know that I could shoot straight up in the air and land perfectly in the middle of the bed, still on my feet. Neither did my husband. He was a bit confused by the activity and sat up groggily. “What’s going on?” he mumbled.

Now absolutely, undeniably, fully wide-awake, I was on my hands and knees peering over the side of the queen sized bed. “I think there’s a coon under our bed,” I said as calmly as I could.

“That’s nice,” he said as he rolled back over and pulled the blanket over his head.

I nudged him hard, “No dear, I really think there is a coon in the bedroom and I need your help”

“Why?”

I was getting exasperated and the dog was now threatening to find a quieter, saner home. “We need to Catch the coon dear” I managed to squeeze through gritted teeth.

Finally the man sat up and dangled his feet over the side of the mattress. That’s when I found out that the ever-present patience of my darling husband does have limits. He let out a blood-curdling scream as the coon now tested his ankle with his clammy little paws. He too, I found, was capable of making the single effort elevation to the middle of the bed. I cannot, in all responsibility repeat the actual language that was heard in the room that night, but it went something like this.

“*#%* #@**%$! There is a &#$%@ COON in our %#@*!!!

“I know, we need to catch him”

“WHY the #*&%* would I want to catch him?

“Stop shouting. The neighbors will think were nuts. Now help me catch this stinking coon!”

“They’ll THINK we’re nuts? Oh, it’s gone waaaaaay beyond thinking around here”

The lights blinked on next door. It was time to take action. I got off the bed and the coon snarled at me. He had a lot of teeth. A lot of BIG teeth. I recognized his right away as one of the boys. His recognition of me was in serious doubt. He snarled again. I climbed back up on the bed and counted my fingers just to make sure they were all still there. “Ok, I said I’ve got a plan.”

“A plan. How great” he said as sarcasm dripped from his lips.

“You go get the dog out of the bedroom and then close the door”

Can I be on the outside of the closed door?”

“No silly, I need you to hold the laundry basket”

“Oh boy. A laundry basket. At least I can defend myself against a raging rabid coon, if I have a laundry basket.”

The sarcasm was getting on my nerves and I was loosing patience. “He’s not rabid and the laundry basket is to drop over him when I chase him your way.”

“Oh boy. I can hardly wait.”

I couldn’t tell is this was more sarcasm or a truly hopeful statement. In our house it’s kind of hard to tell.

Actually it all went fairly smoothly. The dog ran shaking out of the room and hid behind the closed door. I poked a coat hanger under the bed at the coon and he scooted straight for my husband and the laundry basket. Then there was a lot of girl like screaming (which he still denies came from him) and he threw the laundry basket over the coon. Now, the coon was mad.

When a coon gets really mad he does two things, he bites or poops. This one did both at the same time… On the rug. I went over to try and calm it as James went off in search of something we could slide under the laundry basket so we could pick up the coon without loosing body parts. By the time he got back. The coon was calm and poking his fingers through the holes to caress my fingers. He even called out the familiar “WOOOOOT” sound that they use as babies to call me. He’d come home. He had his Mamma. He didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

By 4 AM the neighbor’s lights were back out, the dog was calm and I was feeding warm cereal and scrambled eggs to the coon now contained in a large pet carrier. Jimmy was back in bed, but I could still hear his grumbling. Our son had slept through it all.

The next day we made sure that we drove him more than five miles away. In fact we drove around for about a half-hour before we got there, so he would be really confused. We dumped the 30-pound coon out of the carrier and drove home. Just before we got there, Jimmy asked how many coons we let go with the boys.

“Five, Why?”

“We’d better get a lock for that doggy door for at least the rest of the winter.”

I did and locked it every night. Our dogs would just have to cross their legs till morning. They managed, bless their furry little hearts and no more coons came back…that winter.

Every once in a while, I get in animals, especially raccoons people tried to make pets of and discovered the hard way that it rarely works. Frequently they will lie and try to give me a song and dance about how they “found” this really friendly raccoon and were hoping I could take it. It’s a dead give away when the raccoon rides in the front seat on someone’s lap and has a personalized pacifier and collar. Sometimes, they are right up front and truthful. Usually they are downright desperate. I like that kind. They are grateful when I say yes. Such was Pumukli’s story.

Pumukli

I got the call about Pumukli in late July. The caller explained that she was calling on behalf of a Hungarian exchange student of some sort. Evidently the student was late college age and had been living with other exchange students in an apartment for several months. It was nearing the time when she would return to Hungary and she had a small problem. (Nobody even calls me unless they have a problem; it’s my lot in life.) The problem turned out to be a raccoon.

It seems that it isn’t illegal to keep wild animals in Hungary. Not even in apartments. These young people had found a baby raccoon on the road one night and decided that they would raise it as a pet. They had no idea that it was against the law, or otherwise not a great idea. They brought the coon back to their apartment and named him after a popular European cartoon character. I guess they don’t have raccoons in Hungary. These kids had no clue what they were getting into.

The raccoon, while cute and cuddly in infancy, was now 2/3 grown and systematically destroying the apartment and everything that these kids owned. Taking the coon back to Hungary was out of the question and they knew it probably could not survive if returned to the wild in its present state. They were hoping that I would take on the task of rehabilitating this animal. Oh, oh. This one was going to be Lindsey Lohan, Brittany Spears and every other rehab drop out rolled into one. I knew that this raccoon was not about to willingly give up a life of hotdogs, marshmallows and Pepsi, no matter how much group therapy I put it

through. This was going to be a tough case, especially the first time he started Jonesing for some jellybeans.

Pumukli arrived on the lap of a beautiful young woman with a sexy voice and a heavy accent. I was not nearly as impressed as my son and husband. However the driver of the car was nothing at all like your average American college student. He was in his mid to late 20’s, tall, dark and very handsome. He spoke almost no English, but that was ok. He dressed up the place just by sitting there in the driveway. He wouldn’t get out. I think he was hoping for a quick get away.

The young lady climbed out of the car and tugged down the front of her already low, black sweater. My son forgot his name. She sashayed up the porch steps in tight skinny jeans and my husband forgot how to breathe. Before he got too blue, I jabbed him in the ribs and sent him in for iced tea and my notebook full of animal records. Miss Hungary adjusted herself again and sat down. There, at her stiletto clad feet was a very chubby adolescent raccoon on the end of a leopard-printed leash. He looked at me like he was wondering if there would be any caviar and cookies with that tea.

She took her time telling the story of how they had found Pumukli on the road in the middle of the night. His mother and several siblings were dead on the pavement and this little guy was crying piteously. Her boyfriend, (the handsome thing I was still hoping would get out of the darn car) didn’t want her to touch it, but she just COULDN’T leave it there. So they brought it back to their apartment and fed it formula and gourmet cat food. Cat food wasn’t the only thing it had been eating, one of the students worked at an upscale deli in town and this little rascal had been eating better that ME!

The name Pumukli came from a mischievous little character that the students had grown up watching in Hungary. I’m not sure if it was human or animal, but must have been beloved by the entire country from what I gathered. The raccoon had a cage in the beginning, but quickly outgrew it and spent most of its time loose in the apartment. At first, it was only getting into little things around the place, like sock drawers and cookies left on the counter. Then it graduated to raiding the cupboards, disassembling the telephone and peeling the wallpaper of the kitchen wall. (It probably was printed with pictures of food). After that, Pumukli was restricted to the bathroom when no one was home and that is where he learned how to make water come out of the little spigots in the sink and bath tub. Lots of water…A basement apartment can hold several inches of water for a long time. This was when the landlord discovered that he had an unexpected tenant living in the apartment.

The landlord was a Michigan farmer. He knew coons. He knew what they could do. He knew that he didn’t want a raccoon living in his apartment, whether it caused an international incident or not. He told the students very plainly. “Get that Damn coon OUTTA here or you will be going back to Hungary in a hurry!”

Pumukli seemed to be taking the entire episode in stride. He probably figured that he was some kind of precious, exotic lap dog and all this would be worked out by his handlers. He was already eyeing my house like “Where’s the Jacuzzi?”

Mr. Tall-Dark-and Terrific, finally got out of the car and opened the trunk. I watched as he bent over to retrieve something from inside. I was wishing that the trunk were a bit lower, when he stood up and carried a large box to the porch. “This Pumukli, belong. You take him, pleze?” There was such hope in his eyes; there was such whiteness to his perfect straight teeth, there were so many buttons undone on his shirt… How could I say no, when he gave me his best “puppy-in-the-porn-store-window” look?

“Of course”, I said, “This is what I do” The puppy look left his gray eyes and darkness came over his expression.

“GOOD”, he said “Iss awful animal. Iss EVIL! Screaming all time. Poop all over. Destroy everytin. You take. I glad.”

Then he walked back to the car LAUGHING. I couldn’t tell if it was sinister, maniacal laughter, or if it bordered on hysteria, such as a man laughs after going through Hell and seeing a way out. I was starting to worry as Pumukli rummaged through his box of possessions looking for his fuzzy blankie.

As Tall-Dark-and-a-little-Scary started the car, Miss Hungary got to her feet and brushed a tear from her heavily mascarraed eye. Both my men searched pockets for nonexistent handkerchiefs. I’m sure they would have let her blow her nose on their shirt fronts, if she so desired. My husband told her not to worry, his wife (he probably forgot MY name there) was very good at these kinds of things and her adorable raccoon would be perfectly safe and gamboling in the forest very soon. (I’m surprised that he knew the word was gambol as opposed to gamble.) Then she said the words that put a high intensity beacon of light in both their eyes.

“Do you suppose,” She drawled like a Gabore sister, “Could I…would it trouble you, not…if I came see Pumukli again?”

I could feel the wind from her batting eyelashes across the porch. My husband and son fell over themselves trying to stay in her line of vision.

“No, No trouble. You come anytime” they babbled. “She will be glad to let you see Pumukli. Won’t you dear?”

At this point my husband happened to look up at me holding a raccoon that had just piddled on my sneaker. There must have been some slight indication in my expression that he might just possibly be taking his last breath. He quickly grabbed Levi’s arm and said, “Um, We’d better get that cage ready for the coon now….”

The car roared to life and pulled out of the driveway. It was not quite around the corner when the raccoon looked me in the eye and sized up the situation. He started to scream. When a coon screams it is usually accompanied by a lot of clawing and maybe a few bites. We hadn’t gotten to the biting yet, but I got a close up view of his painted, yes PAINTED claws. I tried to comfort him. That’s when I discovered that Pumukli only knew HUNGARIAN. Nothing I said comforted or even fazed him (Not that coons are big in the language arts, but they normally respond to a few simple phrases, especially if they deal with food.

I rummaged through his box and found his pillow bed, his personalized dishes, hairbrush (natural bristle, of course) lots of dog and cat ymmy treats and a pretty stinky stuffed dog. Pumukli grabbed the dog with one paw and my hand with the other. He was franticly trying to somehow manipulate my fingers; so I let him. Suddenly, he grabbed my thumb and stuffed it in his mouth. I steeled myself waiting for the inevitable bite, but it didn’t come. Instead, he was SUCKING MY THUMB! Pumukli was a thumb sucker. Ohhhh boy!

The first few days were a bit rough for the POOK (as I started calling him). He hated the cage, no matter how big it may be and when I fed him dog food and leftovers for dinner, he was appalled. I brought in another coon to acclimate him to the idea that he was in reality, a raccoon, but he didn’t believe it. He spent the afternoon hanging from the side of the cage making disparaging remarks about the other coon’s looks, hygiene and education. It was time to take action.

I went in the pen and held out my thumb. “Pookie Bear”, I sing-songed” Do you want to suck mommy’s thumb? I waggled it in his direction and he scurried up my leg and grabbed it with both paws. Soon he was purring happily in my arms and my thumb was getting soggy. We were going for a walk.

In my front yard, I have a small goldfish pond. It is artesian water, clean and very cold . This constant flow requires a runoff to accept the endless volume of water that runs through it. This is accomplished by a small muddy drainage ditch that we keep stocked with freshwater shrimp, crawdads, and lake clams. Throw in some hotdog bits, float a few marshmallows and you have raccoon paradise. I got on my knees and lowered Pumukli to the ground. I poked about a bit in the mud to find him something tasty. He took it in his paws and felt the mud and gagged. Oh boy, this was harder than I thought.

We started sifting through the mud again, it was going better. He found a marshmallow and thought that this might not be so bad after all. He waded in up to his armpits. Mud was squishing through his toes and water was tickling his ears. I started to back away. Just then a crow I’d raised flew over and shouted out a raucous greeting. Pumukli panicked. He ran straight up my leg and climbed to the back of my head. One
muddy paw was in my eye and they other was shoved in the corner of my mouth. I had to offer him my thumb, just so I could see.

About that time, a neighbor pulled in with his truck. “Nice hat” He drolly stated, “you might want to get the mud cleaned out before you put it on again though.”

He was right; I was muddy handprints from my ankles to the top of my head. Most of them, of course, were up the front. It looked like I had been ravished by a midget with dirty hands. I offered no comment to the neighbor as Pook and I headed for the shower. As I was dressing and Pook was rolling around my husband’s side of the bed drying off on the sheets, I noticed another car in the driveway. It was the Hungarian delegation. They had come to visit Pumukli.

Whatever delusions I had instilled in that fuzzy little head, pertaining to him being a wild animal, vanished as soon as he saw his Hungarian Princess. He was full of kisses and lay like a baby in her arms. She brought him treats and spoke rapid Hungarian to him as he gazed in rapt attention at her face. I sighed. What man wouldn’t?

I leaned on the car and nodded to Tall-Dark-and-obviously-Smirking. “Beer or cola” I asked.

“Budweiser!” he shot back. I was beginning to suspect that his English was better than I thought.

Coon and ex-mistress rolled around and played for about a half-hour and then she tidied herself and announced it was time to leave. The Pook tried to go with her, but she closed the car door before he got there. As they pulled out, the tantrum started. It continued till I surrendered my thumb.

I worked with Pumukli for several more days; I actually had him convinced that dog food was not coon poison and that grass and mud actually felt good on his tummy and paws. We had our first foray into the trees and he was beginning to tolerate the other coons, even though he still slept in his little pink bed instead of the “coon pile” in the hammock. Things were progressing, but each time his Hungarian Princess would visit, he would be a hysterical lump for at least a day. I was going to have to use some of that “tough Love”.

The next time their car pulled into the drive, I stopped her before she opened the door. I explained that while I knew she loved Pumukli and wanted the best for him, I need her to realize that she was not helping him by coming to visit. It confused him and he seemed to be trying to hang on to his old life whenever he saw her. I would be happy to keep her posted on his progress, but she could not come back again. The smile on Tall-Dark-And-Relieved face could not have been any wider.

“Tank you, so very most. I so am happy.” He turned to his pouting girlfriend and beamed. “Now! Now ve go home!”

A few weeks later I heard through the grapevine that they had returned to Hungary… petless.

It was time to release the last of the summer’s raccoons. I was not sure if Pumukli was ready go or not, but I would allow him to come along. If he went off into the woods with the others, he was ready. If he ran screaming back to the car before we left…. Well, he wasn’t quite ready. We loaded up coons, dog food and marshmallows. I let Pook ride up front, in case he got frightened. He sat on my lap absentmindedly working my wedding rings and buttons with his paws. We got to our favorite place to release raccoons by the river and got every one out. We played hide the marshmallows; we waded in the river, we checked out all the trees to climb. We even rolled over rotted logs to find tasty bugs and grubs. (I passed on eating any, the coons understood). Eventually the coons started wandering off and we slowly walked back to the truck.

There was a bloodcurdling scream like someone had thrown a coon in a woodchipper. I braced myself as 20 odd pounds of frantic coon landed in the middle of my back. It was the Pook. He wasn’t ready yet. All the way home he whimpered and sucked my thumb till it hurt. We’d try again in a few weeks.

I put him back in his big pen. He seemed lonely without the others. I tried to keep away from him as much as possible. He needed to break the bond with humans. It was a good sign that he no longer wandered up to non-family members to be picked up. I didn’t think he’s approach a stranger like some poor camper who could be scared out of his wits by an overly friendly coon. I also knew he could find his own food now and a secure place to sleep. He would be fine…as soon as he decided he was ready.

Twice more we took him on a trip to the woods. The second time was much like the first. He explored, he played. He was at home in the forest, but as soon as we headed back to the truck, he’d come crashing after us and climb up my leg. He really needed to go. My thumb couldn’t take much more.

Then the third time we took him to the river, the weather had turned cool. There was a crisp breeze in the air and the leaves had begun to turn. Pumukli seemed more anxious to get out of the truck this time and ran ahead of us to the water. He paced up and down the riverbank, peering at the far shore. I looked carefully and could see two young raccoons on the other bank, I suspected they were from our earlier release and Pook recognized them. Finally he climbed onto one of the many logs lying across the water from bank to bank and scampered over.

There was a lot of back arching and circling each other with ears flattened. We could hear the grunts, snorts and hisses. Butts were sniffed and noses touched. Then as easily as it began, it was over and the three coons headed up the hill. I was amazed and just to make sure; I called out “Pookie! Mommy’s leaving now.” He didn’t even turn. That fat striped behind was steadily disappearing from my sight. I started to leave and heard the leaves rustle. Pumukli had turned for one last look. We stared at each other for a moment and he turned away again. I watched and whispered “VISZONTLÁTÁSRA” The only thing I knew in Hungarian and I know I probably mispronounced it, but said it anyway. “Goodbye Pumukli, goodbye.”