June 20, 2018
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Lovely Rita’s gone, but her baby raccoons live on

By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — It was amusing, for a week or so. The big old willow tree we had chopped down to 15 feet a few years ago had a new tenant — a raccoon that liked to lounge on its flat top, or with its head lolling back out of a hole.

I’d sit and work in my home office, roll my chair back and watch it, amused, its furry butt and ringed tail hanging over the top edge. We live in a city, but I grew up in The County and I view nature in proximity as a blessing, not a problem.

Our residential neighborhood is right off the 85-acre Fore River Sanctuary, an old woods with saltwater marshes and tidal estuary. We’ve seen deer, coyotes, a fox mom and kits, turkeys, hawks, owls and all manner of marsh birds with regularity. A few years ago a moose walked through the neighborhood before leaving its footprints in the woods.

Frankly, being able to walk out my front door and into the woods helps keep me moderately sane.

So when the raccoon showed up, I put a cinder block on top of our garbage barrel lid, warned the kids to stay away from the tree and kept a closer watch on our dog, Plankton. The tree was at the back end of our small yard, which is too wet to play in this time of year, anyhow. And it had been my wife, Corene’s, idea to leave much of the dead tree standing as a snag, for habitat. It has attracted woodpeckers over the years, including a pileated this spring.

For a week or so, we were able to watch Rocky as he slept through the days, saving his energy for the nocturne. On Memorial Day, our friends came for a barbecue, and Ben, another St. John Valley boy, saw a little head poking out over Rocky’s body.

Rocky was a Rita.

And that Monday was the last day we saw her. Her presence had been conspicuous, and so was her absence. Nothing on Tuesday. Nothing on Wednesday. We thought maybe she was deep in the burrow, taking care of her young.

Thursday I was in Augusta, working, and Corene called to tell me the baby raccoons were crying, letting go a high-pitched trill. They wanted their mom, and she wasn’t coming. I got home late Thursday night, and early Friday I heard the babies crying.

It was awful — plaintive and unending. I did a Google search for wildlife rehab experts and tracked one down in Turner. If Rita had been gone since Monday, and the babies had been calling for two days, she wasn’t coming back, the expert said.

This rehabber was too far away to help, but she suggested calling Caryl in Gray, just two towns away. Caryl agreed — Rita was gone, wasn’t coming back. She had likely been hit by a car, given our location, though Corene disagrees, noting that we haven’t seen a dead raccoon by the side of the road in our area.

The babies, said Caryl, would die if we didn’t get them out of the tree, to someone who could feed them and get them ready for the wild. She’d be happy to take them, she said, if I could get them to her.

I explained they were 15 feet up in a tree, in a hole that was Lord knows how deep. Did I know any tree care specialists, she asked.

No. Hell, I’m not really a fan of ladders.

But I grabbed the extension ladder and popped it up against the old willow. I put on some leather gloves, grabbed a canvas sack and headed up the ladder, expecting to grab one, maybe two kits. Alive, I hoped.

Up the ladder — grabbed the first little guy and was just about able to get my fingers all the way around the furry body. Hissing, he went into the bag. No. 2 followed. Then No. 3, even as he tried to get as far into the hole as possible (it turned out to be only about a foot and a half deep). And then, No. 4. He had remained at ease, actually upside down, vertical against the back wall and asleep.

The ride to Gray was quick, and Caryl was delighted. She was well set up for baby raccoons, with different enclosures for them during different life stages. They snuggled into an old raccoon-fur coat, and eventually would graduate back to the wild. The babies were healthy, said Caryl, and should do fine.

In a few weeks, we’ll swing by to see how they’re doing. Both Corene and I were sad to see them go — it’s our first brush with empty nest syndrome.

But it will be nice to visit.

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