I had no idea what I was getting into last summer when I figured that the best way to ‘beat the raccoons’ at their game of raiding my bird feeders was to start leaving them an alternative source of food. My motives weren’t altruistic, they were practical; I didn’t want to have to keep replacing expensive bird feeders when the big raccoons were pulling them to the ground to get to their tasty food treasures inside. The “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” theory worked. The raccoons gave up the hanging stuff for the puzzles I would leave them on the ground. I’d watch them come in shifts from my perch inside and it sure beat summer television! Before you know it, you grow attached! One particular adult female caught my eye because of her impressive nursing teats and I dubbed her “Big Mama.”
Raccoons, it turns out, are smarter than cats on the evolution scale and very clean. In the wild they will use a common latrine. They are fun and fascinating to watch because of their fastidiousness for hand washing, manual dexterity, puzzle solving abilities, and their larger sense that life is indeed a great big adventure. Raccoons can live up to sixteen years but don’t often make it to five. Man is the greatest threat to them (hunting, automobiles, trapping, dogs, encroaching on habitat) and the number of raccoon deaths associated with humans far outweighs other death causes like disease, malnutrition and natural predators.
Based on Big Mama’s tummy, I figured in about eight weeks she would be bringing her babies by to add my food station to the list of ‘things to cruise for when on the adult raccoon dining tour.’ Sure enough, somewhere in middle of last summer, Big Mama showed up with her cubs and I quickly dubbed three of them “Curly”, “Larry” and “Mo,” for obvious reasons.
Their antics on the deck were often hysterically funny: One swinging from the hummingbird feeder as the sticky sweet juice inside it poured all over him while his siblings tried to climb his precariously hanging body just to lick the sticky sweet juice from wherever it had poured on him. They toddled about and sprinted with amazing agility for such small bodies. They could vanish with one barely audible sound from Big Mama to up high into the crook of a nearby tree.
They began to get accustomed to my voice (giggling and laughing) and would run up to the screen door to investigate me. The smallest would put her hands up to touch mine, palm to palm; separated by only a screen – our own ET moments. They were adorable even when they plopped down and sat on the petunias in my flower boxes. As they grew Big Mama would leave them here to play and eat while she went ahead scouting other sites.
One day Big Mama disappeared; it could have been a car, a hunter, a coyote, or another predator. The babies were growing, but not full grown. They began to show up erratically and then not at all. “Part of a Divine Plan” I consoled myself, but inside I missed them and prayed they were okay. Months passed and fall turned into winter and winter into early spring. The sound of a raccoon raiding my bird feeder one night caught my attention. I jumped out of bed in one motion and was at the window with the flashlight before you could say ‘Jack Robinson!’
She looked up at me and I knew her immediately. Downstairs I went and opened the door, she slowly climbed down from the feeder, came right over to the screen door and put her hands up to mine-palm to palm- same as before. She was grown but young and small, and as she climbed down from the railing, I saw a glimpse of her underside – nursing teats! Little “Mama” and I became regular nighttime pals as I put out the recommended cat food and crunchies. She often looked tired, always came with the utmost manners and despite all I fed her she never could put on an ounce. I worried about her.
The weeks passed and July began to approach.
By now little Mama took food directly from my hand and nodded back at my cat watching from beside me at the door. I let her lead, never forgot she was wild, and for those of you germa-phobes, washed my hands more times than I can count. “How are the babies?” I asked her. “Are the many? Two? Three, four?”
Her reply was simple. “Many.” “Okay,” I thought. My friends began to ask, “any news yet?” Like expecting aunties and uncles. “Nope, no visuals.” I knew that she’d likely have the cubs follow her over at about eight weeks age, and tree themselves nearby while she ate and got them used to the flow here before inviting them to partake-the same way her own mother did.
Raccoons have a strong sense of community, and a mother raccoon with cubs is given celebrity red carpet deference at food sites for as longs as cubs are with her. By now, young little “Mama” and I were exclusive. On occasion she’d take a treat item (a whole egg or a piece of pizza crust) ‘to go’ and carefully bring it back to her cubs somewhere in the woods, returning back a half hour or so later to the deck to continue eating her supper in peace.
The other night before bed a particular set of noises on the deck caught my ear. I grabbed the flashlight, opened the second floor window and eagerly looked down. Crawling all over my deck were little Mama and not one, not two, not three not four, but SIX babies! SIX! Nearly too many to count!
I flew downstairs and opened the door an inch or two and waited. Mama came right over and licked my hand. I gave her some raisins and put more dry food out. The babies scattered in a zillion directions and were out of sight before I could track any of them. Mama stayed. I praised her for her beauties and told her no wonder why she has been so tired and slim no matter how much she ate. She visited for a while and then walked into the woods.
An hour or so later something told me to look out again and when I did I saw Mama over two stories up in the crook of a nearby tree helping her group climb down. I shined the flashlight and upteen pairs of eyes shined back. I went to bed with a huge smile and an utter sense of joy. Later that night I was awakened quite a few times as rambunctious raccoon cubs scoured my yard and deck and ate their first crunchies. Each time I heard them crunch it brought an even bigger smile to my sleepy position in bed. The best highs in life are always the natural ones.
If a raccoon shows up in your life consider its’ wisdom. In animal totemry raccoons and their beautiful mask markings represent the magical and often supernatural symbolism of masks. Masks allow us to be something other than who we thought. They can be transformational, magical, liberating, empowering, playful, mysterious, stoic and more. Zorro wore a mask (along with all the other cool super heroes and even several famous villains); Cinderella wore one at the ball; and every Halloween folks don them and let them selves go.
In life we all wear masks for an assortment of reasons. I have been wearing a healing mask for a few months (since right about the time little Mama showed up), tracking down the source of some symptoms and honing in on diagnosis. It has meant bravery, adaptation, perseverance, and dexterity in new ways. I have looked forward to the magical and transformative energy Mama raccoon brought me with each daily visit and the lifting of masks it provided. Some also feel that raccoon energy suggests the presence of longer cycles and transformation.
Along with her gentle presence and personality I love the overlay of energy and opportunity for further reflection her totemry brings to my life. By noticing the natural symbols that life delivers around us and by being willing to look deeper, we have one infinite opportunity after another to learn and to grow.
Important things to remember:
*If you find a liter of raccoon cubs and think they are orphans, leave them be. Wait and see! Most cubs are not orphans but kidnap victims from overzealous interventions.
*Remember not to touch or pet raccoons. If on the off chance you are bitten, it will be fatal for the raccoonŠthey’ll trap it, cut off its’ head and send the head to a lab for tests.
*Always use caution when a raccoon looks sick or acts strangely, but overreaction against all raccoons is unwarranted.
*Although raccoons are considered the primary rabies carrier in the mid-Atlantic, the Wildlife Rescue League’s Rescue Report states that: “a raccoon has never in medical history been implicated in a human case.”
*Never attempt to catch a raccoon since it may bite you in self-defense, which will guarantee its’ own death for rabies testing.
*Contrary to urban legends, healthy raccoons DO venture out in the daytime in search of food and also habitat if their home has been destroyed.
*Feeding raccoons is appreciated since their habitats are shrinking and they are being forced to adapt. Raccoons have amazing manual dexterity and can open jars, door knobs and more, so if you do choose to feed, plan it away from your house and make arrangements for someone to keep feeding them if you are going to be away.
*Watching raccoons can provide you and your family with hours of fun since everything is a new adventure to a raccoon.
If a raccoon shows up in your world, how lucky for you! Do some reflecting and consider the role of masks and their transformative qualities. Journal away! Namaste.