A recent poll in the Bangor Daily News indicated that a majority of readers had cared for a wild animal at some time. I felt a sense of kinship with all those readers. There is something deeply stirring about connecting with a wild creature; something profound in what they have to offer. A case in point for my family was one lovely monthlong visit from Michael the raccoon.
One early June several years ago my father-in-law was in the final days of a 12-year duel with cancer. He had been the kind of man one imagines might live forever, if anyone could. He was charismatic, intelligent, deeply compassionate, physically indestructible and unflaggingly, joyfully enthusiastic about life.
When he lay dying in his home during that last week, it felt like the light was going out of the world.
The day before my husband, Jonathan, left for New Hampshire to be with his father, our kids and I found two baby raccoons in our driveway. We left them for a while, hoping they would find their way home. When we heard there was a dead adult raccoon nearby on Main Street, we feared the little critters were on their own, so we went to find them.
We found only one. He hissed, and we were properly intimidated by his tiny teeth. We coaxed him into a plastic trash can, put in some grass and leaves for shelter, and waited for Dad to get home from work.
Growing up in New Hampshire, Jonathan had two extensive relationships with raccoons — babies found lost or near a dead parent. His family took in the baby raccoons and cared for them. One lived with them for almost half a year and is still the stuff of many an affectionate family story.
About five minutes after he pulled into the driveway, Jonathan had coaxed the little fur ball out of the can and was holding him in his arms. He named him Michael. I’m sure he didn’t realize it, but it was not lost on me that he gave the little raccoon the same name as his childhood teddy bear.
Michael traveled with Jonathan to New Hampshire and provided an irresistible comic relief — a ray of sunlight into a sorrowing, waiting, watching household. By the time the rest of us arrived the next day, Papa was gone and the grief was terrible. Still — Michael’s presence was a thread of connection to the world of warmth and sweet laughter where life carried on.
Back home in Maine in the ensuing weeks, Michael was a welcome distraction in our saddened home. For Jonathan, in particular, he was an uncomplicated, uplifting little friend.
Michael stayed upstairs in our house at first, since dogs and raccoons do not mix well. He slept in a box in our bedroom. At least, that was the plan. Raccoons are charmingly curious and as nimble as cats. They climb and explore and nose around pretty much wherever they want. Michael found his way into our bed and under the covers — more than once. One morning Jonathan found him inside his pillowcase.
We knew this couldn’t go on. Once we got Michael off bottle feedings and on to solid food, we decided to move him outdoors to begin acclimatizing him to life in nature. We fenced off the barn to keep dogs out and created a cozy spot for Michael in the rafters. Sometimes we took him for walks around the pond. He waddled through the tall grass, poking his nose into the ground or the water’s edge. Jonathan spent more hours than usual puttering around the barn, keeping Michael company.
Michael’s first nights in the barn were difficult. We tried to make him as comfortable as possible, but nothing was as nice as a Tempur-Pedic mattress with two other warm bodies. He kept showing up on our back steps, up on the stair railing, crying to come in.
A month passed by, and we had to leave for a weekend. We left a friend in charge of feeding and walking Michael once or twice while we were gone. All went well, except when we got home Michael was gone.
We feared the worst. His defenses were few out in the wild world. We grieved.
Two weeks later, our daughter happened to be up at dawn and saw an enchanting sight out the window. A mother raccoon was waddling across our yard, trailed by three babies just about Michael’s size.
She was sure one of them was Michael, and we all agreed. Why not? It was as likely an ending to his story as any.
We missed Michael a lot — especially Jonathan. But truly, he had come into our lives at a time when we needed him most. Who knows about the workings of fate, or the balance of the universe? All I know is that Michael was like a magical gift, and I will be forever grateful.
Editor’s note: If you find an animal that you think might be orphaned, call the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. The DIF&W requests that you don’t take the animal home with you. Wild birds and mammals do not make good pets, and it’s against the law to possess them without the proper state and federal permits.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.