TONICA, Ill. — A close encounter with nature has become an unexpected blessing for a rural Tonica couple.
After helping a kit of orphaned raccoons this summer, the Swifts have found they have a new set of wild friends.
Robin Swift was walking around her farm in July when she heard an odd noise, which she thought was an injured bird. A closer inspection revealed an immature raccoon. Assuming the raccoon’s mother was nearby, Robin kept her distance from the wild animal. Later that day her husband, Randy, and son, Casey, discovered two tiny raccoons as well.
“They decided to come out into the open because they were hungry,” Randy said.
At that point, the Swifts figured momma raccoon had either abandoned her kit or had died. That night they provided the two young raccoons with some water and food. The next morning they found a third little raccoon in residence.
Thus began the Swifts’ summer of raising raccoons.
“You grow to love them because you take care of them,” Robin said.
Having experience with animals and knowing an Illinois Department of Natural Resources license is required for anyone planning to care for injured or orphaned wildlife in the state, the Swifts left the raccoons outdoors and free to leave, but the raccoons never left.
“I’ve raised a lot of animals living on the farm, trust me. And it’s a lot of work raising an animal away from its mother,” Robin said.
Since it was clear the raccoons weren’t leaving, Robin went to the Internet to research how to care for them.
She’d spend her days walking around the farm with the raccoons following behind her. She would scatter food around the home’s landscaping in order to force the immature raccoons to learn to forage and would make them climb trees to develop their abilities.
“I spent about three hours a day with them outside,” Robin said.
Assuming she would go outside one morning and find that the raccoons had taken off, Robin gave them only simple, descriptive names: Loverboy, who most wanted to spend time with people; Blackie, who has darker fur; and Hurt Foot, who showed up one day with a scar on one of his legs.
By September the raccoons were becoming self-sufficient and “moved out on their own.”
That was the last the Swifts saw of Hurt Foot, but Loverboy and Blackie soon began reappearing almost every night in their backyard.
“They’re like dogs at the door,” Robin said.
The couple would spend their nights eating outside with the animals as company. Despite being wild, the raccoons have the demeanor of domestic pets, accepting treats out of their hands, resting on the Swifts’ laps and never showing signs of viciousness.
While the raccoons are friendly with the Swifts, they are still a bit skittish — particularly Blackie — and those near them are advised to move slowly and quietly around the raccoons. A loud noise will send them scurrying off and hiding until the coast appears to be clear.
When the raccoon brothers don’t turn up, Robin tends to worry.
“They were like a gift,” she said. “I pray for them every night because I worry about them.”
One night Blackie came alone.
Randy said Blackie’s more-frantic-than-usual behavior made it obvious he was concerned about Loverboy being absent. Randy still laughs at the idea of taking the raccoon out into the nearby woods to attempt finding its missing friend.
When Loverboy couldn’t be found the pair returned to the Swift’s home, where Blackie — out of character — sat nervously on Randy’s lap. Eventually Loverboy walked out of the darkness toward the house.
“[Blackie] hopped off my lap and grabbed him and started hugging him,” Randy said.
As the temperatures drop, so do the Swifts’ expectations that the raccoons will show up, yet most nights they do. Since it’s been a bit too cold to sit outside the past week, the Swifts have begun letting the raccoons in for visits.
Loverboy comes in and quickly checks out the tart pan filled with water and small bowls of animal food. Blackie is more hesitant, slowly making his way into the living room and occasionally seeking cover under a wooden cabinet near the door.
“He’s a skittish one,” Randy said. “It’s amazing how those two are completely different animals. Their personalities are so different.”
As the Swifts relax in their living room, the raccoons grab dog treats from a small vase and investigate the home’s window curtains.
Robin admits they let the raccoons get away with behavior that wouldn’t always be allowed for their house pets, who coexist with the raccoons without incident, but there is some behavior that is “not acceptable,” such as the time she found three tiny raccoons hanging from the screen door or when one of the raccoons started grabbing Christmas tree ornaments.
After spending a little time with the Swifts and eating a bit of their food, Blackie is usually ready to hit the road and head back into the wild, but Loverboy tends to lag behind, often curling up on Robin’s lap. She said he likes to take a little nap after eating.
Since the Swifts began letting the raccoons inside, most nights end with Loverboy being nudged out the home’s sliding glass doors with the curtains closed to block the sight of his tiny face staring back into the house — it can be the hardest part of Robin’s day.
“It just breaks my heart,” she said.
Knowing that one day the raccoons won’t return, Robin often speaks about them like a mother whose child is about to leave home for the first time.
“I appreciate every moment they give us because it may be the last,” she said.
The University of Illinois’s Extension office website offers information on what to do when a human finds a wild animal.
“If you find a sick or injured animal, either leave the animal where you found it and let nature take its course, or call a wildlife rehabilitator for advice on how to proceed,” according to the website.
There are a handful of licensed wildlife rehabilitators in La Salle County.