Higgins Journal

The life and times of a young raccoon

Copyright Alex Snow (1998)

Chapter Four: A Cage, and Anatomical Explorations

Picture shows small raccoon standing on hind legs inside cage with various logs in it.

30 May

I write these notes at the end of the day, sitting in bed. Higgins attacks my pen, which he loves to bite and tussle with. He had an active day, taking two feedings of 5 oz. and 6 oz. at 7.30 a.m. and 10.30 p.m.

We took a mid-evening bath. I put bits of dog chow in the bathwater for him to play with, and so he did, but no eating. He enjoyed some frosting from my carrot cake later, though. This guy has all the makings of a sugar junkie. He paddled about in my gin, too, as he's done before. He enjoyed licking it off his fingers.

A good trick for getting him out of the soffit is holding up a nice soft pillow for him to climb onto. Now he comes down frequently, instead of staying up there for hours. He seems to like being carried down like an Indian potentate on his cushion.

I obtained a cage from Mr. Natureman, the manager of a nature preserve, and put it on the front porch. It measures approximately 5'x4'x3'. I have used this cage for a raccoon before, and it works well. Mr. Natureman originally built it for an orphan 'coon he raised himself. I put in suitable furnishings: pine shavings, and logs of various sizes, including the all-time ideal raccoon log borrowed from another friend. She found it last year, and has not had a chance to use it for her intended purpose, for owls, as I have commandeered it for raccoons. It has a nice hollow interior, two "doors", one at either, and one "window" on the side.

Higgins inspected the set-up, sniffing around with alacrity. He seemed to enjoy climbing on top of the cage best. It being an exceptionally cold night for the end of May, with temperatures in the low 30s (Fahrenheit), I did not put him in it tonight. He snuggled down under an eiderdown quilt with me. I hope he does not pee on this one. The old one is at the dry-cleaner's. While he was in the soffit early this morning he peed, and it dripped onto the counter again. I'm so glad to have the cage, now I'll have less cleaning up in the house.

Our "monkey on a branch" game has become fiercer. Today I finally resorted to wearing gloves, to avoid having my skin torn to shreds by his teeth and claws. With the gloves it is really roughhousing. He grabs my hand with his teeth and shakes it from side to side like a demented cat with a mouse, while simultaneously holding on to my arm for dear life with all four feet, his front feet tightly clasped together.

I bounce my arm around, lifting him off the bed by five or six inches then down again, while twisting my hand about as if trying to get out of his grasp. If I slack off bouncing and twisting, he shakes and pulls all the more, and looks up at me pleadingly so I'll continue. We thrash around until my arm is exhausted, and he still wants more. He loves this game. Perhaps it is good training to be a predator, the old "hang on to the prey" ploy.

He has become more understanding about biting my toes. I did some exaggerated "ouching" and "eeking" last time he playbit my feet during the night. I think maybe he got the message.

He seems to be well pleased with his day, as he is purring happily. His vocalizations consist of purring when contented, trilling when exploring, and chittering when upset. He yips or gulps if wakened by surprise from sleep, and once or twice has screeched when frightened.

He snuffles a lot, which hardly counts as a vocalization. It is a sort of forced breathing out through those crescent-shaped nostrils. Sometimes he snuffles while pawing at my hair, sometimes while padding the bed linens, or while playing with toys. He has growled at strangers and pineapples.

He is afraid of the sounds of trains in the distance, nearby cars, and helicopters flying overhead. He's not too sure about the guy next door hammering on his window frames. Higgins is now able to see considerably further than before, a good 20 yards from the porch to the woods across the street. Today two cardinal birds attracted his attention: one red male and one buffy red female together pecking about in the woods.

His running has developed into bounding. When he rounds the side of the house and sees his favorite green ash tree, he breaks into a bound as though he is trying to cantor like a horse, but he can't quite make it to a gallop. He explored the front and side yards today, climbing high enough on the green ash to drag me up into it as I held the end of the leash. He still comes down face first.

He had lots of fun exploring the woodpile on the front porch, but got his leash wound around the logs and nearly hauled a couple of logs off the porch that way. I tried to play "fetch" with him like a dog, throwing little sticks around for him to run after, but he was much too smart for that. He went for the hand instead of the stick. Hands are much more fun, they are warm and move about. Sticks just lie there and do nothing.

31 May

Higgins took two 6 oz. feedings, all Esbilac. I can't figure out where he puts so much liquid. He ate three marshmallows, the little miniature ones. Oh! how he loves sweet stuff. He is still not interested in nutritious solid food.

His external ears seem larger each day. The backs of his ears are white at the tips and black at the bases. In the front they are white around the rims, dark brown inside. He still does not like the sound of paper scrunching. His tail has developed a faint seventh black ring at the base. I have noticed this effect over the years on several older raccoons at my back porch.

He inspected the new cage again today, chittering all the while. I put in some more "furniture" including his little cardboard house with towels, and a small litterbox containing ground clay and paper towels. The way he's been drinking lately he'll need this latter.

I let go of his leash in the yard. I stayed near him all the time, but he had freedom of movement, or so I thought. After exploring the bushes along the side if the house he managed to wind the leash, which was still attached to his collar, around the bricks banking a window well. I plunged in to extract him, right into the middle of a prickly holly bush. That'll larn me.

It is amazing to see the contrast between the kitchen-countertop warrior, fearless and furious, and the shy, timid, and bewildered neophyte who treads so gingerly on his tenderpads out of doors. He is cautious when outside, and only runs across expanses of patio or grass when he can see clearly that they are empty expanses. Whenever a dog barks, a human talks, or a car goes by, he stops and looks cautiously in the direction of the sound. Sometimes he seeks shelter with me.

He has shown no real signs of assertiveness outside except in his desire to climb the ash tree, which may represent safety. He picks up bits of clay and stones in the yard and rolls them around with his hands. He puts them in his mouth just like bits of food. He played for ten minutes in this manner with some cut-up apple, but did not eat any.

I have discovered that one virtue of roughhousing while wearing gloves, is that if I have to stop playing to do something, he'll go right on playing with the glove. He seems quite happy to pull and twist the glove, jumping on it and biting its fingers, and shaking it from side to side.

1 June

Higgins ate two 6 oz. feedings today (1 oz. baby cereal and fruit with 5 oz.. Esbilac) at 8.00 a.m. and 8.00 p.m. I discovered a damp spot in another corner of the carpet today. I do not know whether to move the litterbox to this new spot, or pretend I didn't notice! I collected the original eiderdown quilt from the dry-cleaners -- remarkably clean and fresh smelling! I hope the carpet cleaners will be as successful.

He has developed a new slant on the "monkey on a branch" game. Instead of lying on his back and pawing upwards, most of the time he now jumps on top of my arm (his head towards my hand) and wrestles with my gloved hand from a superior position. Now he looks more like a predator attacking his prey. He holds my arm still with his back legs and body, while pulling, tugging, and twisting my fingers with his forefeet and jaws.

He spent 45 minutes alone in his cage. When I returned to see him he was exceptionally glad to see me. He yipped and jumped up, hugged me and licked my nose. I guess he doesn't yet think of the cage as home.

His patterns of movement around the house are interesting. He sticks fairly close to me, playing in whatever room I am in. I have been avoiding the living room, as I do not want stains of milk, urine, diarrhea and so forth all over the furniture in there. I think Higgins has only been in that room once of his own volition. It is a closer room to the bedroom, where he has spent so much of his time, than the den in the basement; but he will cheerfully negotiate all of the stairs to the basement in order to play near me if I am down there.

He has set a limit on his world. He does not choose to enter the front part of the house, even though all the doors are open. This is surprising, as the front bedroom window is usually open even when it rains, as it is sheltered by the front porch, so all sorts of interesting outdoor smells and noises come in from that direction. He'll run through the dining room, in the central part of the house, on his way to the kitchen, but will not stop to explore or play there. The only time he has stopped in the dining room has been when I was eating there and he wanted to play in my food. He has also shown no interest in the laundry room or tool room, even though I go there often.

He stays mostly in the kitchen and bedroom at the back of the house, and occasionally visits the bathroom in the center of the house, especially if someone is running water there. He is fascinated with the toilet's flushing, and occasionally climbs into the bathtub to dig in the plug-hole. He likes taking baths in the washbasin. He also chews on toothbrushes. As I write he is chewing wildly on the rubber eraser from my pencil. He seems to like it better than rawhide.

Picture shows raccoon standing on toilet.

2 June

I could not understand why Higgins refused his morning feeding today, until I noticed that he'd had diarrhea. I threw out the feeding, plus the remaining Esbilac in the jar, and noticed that the bottom of the jar had a lump of milky junk stuck to it. I guess somehow it had gone sour. I feel rotten that I did this to him. I have taken such care to sterilize everything -- his bottle after every feeding, the jar I keep his 24 -hour supply of Esbilac in, the blender I mix it up in etc., etc., but somehow something went wrong this time.

Maybe it has to do with the weather; it has been hot, 85 deg. F today. I prepared a fresh batch of Esbilac plus a teaspoonful of baby cereal, and he drank it down a treat. He took 6 oz.. at noon, 6 oz.. at 10 p.m. He spent all afternoon in the cage on the front porch, and had diarrhea in the litterpan there, poor soul.

He chitters when I put him in the cage. I was surprised when I came home at 5 p.m. to find him hiding, fast asleep, in the blanket I had put in the cage. The cage is in the shade, but it's hot everywhere. I had been sweating buckets at the arts festival I went to this afternoon. Everyone roasted in the sun. I felt particularly sorry for the guy with a blacksmith's stall and a coke furnace. He was dressed in eighteenth century garb, including felt hat, and was roasting his socks off. I think the lemonade stands did more business than the craftsmen.

Recently Higgins has become interested in bodily orifices. One day this week I awoke to his usual digging in my ear canal. I yawned slowly. Quick as a flash, Higgins took advantage of this rare opportunity to investigate my mouth. Before my jaws shut, I felt him shove his snout and hands into my mouth. He began chomping as though he planned to bite my tongue. His ever-active paws began feeling out my teeth and the cavity beneath my tongue. One of his claws stuck in the tissue on the floor of my mouth. Now I have a lump growing there. I thought this dental exploration was a bit much, but more was to come.

After a feeding the other night, he began his usual nonchalant playbiting of my toes, though less ferociously than before, as he's learning not to hurt me. Suddenly he dashed along the inside of my outstretched legs and shoved his snout into my crotch, wildly sniffing and snuffling. I pointed out to him that those portions of a human's anatomy were called private parts for good reason. But his explorations were not yet complete.

In the wee hours of the morning last night, I was awakened by the strange sensation of tiny hands clawing at my buttocks and a wet snout thrusting into my anus. "Higgins!" I admonished him, "This is not proper!" I managed to distract him with the old gloved hand and "monkey on a branch" game. I swear this tiny creature knows my body better than any human has ever done, except perhaps my mother.

I am concerned about what Higgins is learning: not your standard fare for a wild raccoon. He knows how to pull open drawers by their handles, how to climb up drawer handles onto countertops, how to open the toaster oven, pull the stopper off the garbage disposal, and climb the window screens.

He shows some intelligence in the manipulation of objects. The two-by-fours placed to bar his entrance to the basement ceiling were arranged on the assumption that he would try to push his way into the hole, thereby pushing the pieces of wood into blocking the hole effectively. He pulled them out of the way. He also learned how to flush the toilet by depressing the cistern handle.

He finds his reflection in a mirror uninteresting, he seems to know it is himself. A couple of sniffs inform him there's no stranger staring at him.

He needs to learn how to find food and natural shelter. How will I teach him this? In spring, raccoons raid birds' nests. If I gave him a hen's egg , of which I have plenty, it would do him no good. Adult raccoons break open eggs with their jaws and let the contents fall, then lap them off the ground. A hen's egg is too big to fit in his small mouth. I need a robin's, cardinal's, or pigeon's egg. A raccoon mother would know where to find such things, but I do not.

This evening I ate a meal on the back patio, with Higgins on the back bedroom window-ledge watching me through the screen. He was most interested in the two wild raccoons that sauntered across the patio to the dog food bowl on the back porch. What really caught his fancy though, was the neighborhood black cat, who padded by to steal the skin of a salmon which I had laid out for all comers on the porch. When I miaowed at the cat, Higgins was most surprised. The cat grabbed the salmon skin leftovers and slinked away into the darkness with its trophy. Its owners are strict vegetarians, so no doubt this tidbit was a rare treat.

I did not neglect Higgins. I found a buzzing June bug and captured it in a jar. Higgins had a fine time jumping, pouncing, and feeling it on the bed. Didn't eat it though. After a feeding and a bit of playing, he snoozed in his soffit. A fitting occupation for a summer evening.

Those people are wrong who think that wild creatures are cute little furry animals who would make fun pets. Looking after a wild animal is three times as much work as looking after a domesticated creature such as a human, dog, or cat. The animals we have chosen to domesticate are those whose habits best befit human convenience. They are not, for example, fully nocturnal. Slowly Higgins is turning me, as his surrogate mother, into a nocturnal animal.

Last night I spent an hour or so of my beauty sleep time playing little games with him, then singing lullabies to soothe him to sleep. One lullaby doesn't do the trick anymore. It calms him down, but doesn't produce sleep. Last night I sang "Over the Sea to Skye," the "Hawaiian Lullaby," "Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes," Brahms lullaby, the "Hawaiian Wedding Song," "Down Yonder Green Valley," and "Greensleeves" several times each before he fell asleep.

Then he awoke soon afterwards, during the dark, timeless hours of slumber -- bright eyed and bushy tailed, all ready for action. I was so exhausted when the alarm clock buzzed, that after trying to feed him, I put him in his cage and went back to sleep until 11 a.m. Ah well, it is a weekend.

Being nocturnal were all well and good if I had no business to run. Since Higgins came into my life, my business has gone to rack and ruin. I spend my days washing linens and sterilizing feeding equipment and my nights waking to play games. But the loss of income is a small thing compared to the delight of watching his life unfold. There is no greater value than the value of a life, and so rarely does one have the privilege of sharing a wild animal's development. His wild life means more to me than all the contracts I've lost.

3 June

Higgins again refused his a.m. feeding, and did not seem to be hungry until 4.30 p.m. It's hot, perhaps that explains his lack of appetite. Or maybe it's because he ate soap; Old Spice Shaving Soap to be precise. I caught him at this in the bathroom today and remembered that he'd been playing with it yesterday too.

It is now I .30 a.m. as I write, and he just refused a second feeding. I decided to tempt him with something he showed interest in before, shrimp. He was delighted with this treat. He carried it around, rubbing it in his hands. Finally he began to chew on it. He chewed it all up into little bits and spat them out. Apparently the hard part of eating solid food is the swallowing. Now my bed is covered in little pink pieces of masticated shrimp.

Higgins spent about four hours in his cage in the a.m., and the same this p.m., with a snooze in the soffit and some playtime with me in between. He seems to have settled to the cage now, and does not trill or chitter much when I put him in it. He slept in the cage blanket this p.m. after dark. He is not fully nocturnal yet.

4 June

Higgins refused his a.m. feeding again today, and was not very hungry at 5 p.m. either. I poured some of his Esbilac into a saucer and, wonder of wonders, he lapped up about 2 oz. A FIRST! Previously, whenever I gave him liquids in saucers he just paddled in them. I have seen baby raccoons play paddling games in water bowls before.

There's always a water bowl on my back porch. One summer, a mother raccoon repeatedly brought her young 'uns to play while she ate and drank. The babies would push their way into the water bowl backwards, playing a kind of "bumpsy-daisy" with each other while keeping an eye on their feeding mother. As one shoved his buns into the bowl, one already there was pushed out. The latter would run to mother for reassurance, then push his way back into the melee again. At one point, five of them were pushing and shoving backwards and sideways into the bowl.

After his success in lapping from a saucer, Higgins made a complete dog's breakfast of the bowls of formula I put in his cage by tipping them into the pine shavings. He spent four hours, mostly asleep, in his cage this a.m., then two hours in the afternoon, and four hours this evening. He took a regular feeding of 6 oz. Esbilac at midnight.

He does not favor the ideal raccoon log, which I so thoughtfully provided. He prefers hiding under the blanket. He still trills a little after I put him in the cage, so he's not totally content with it yet, but he's quieter than before. I put some toys into the cage today: a rubber ball with a bell inside, and mousie, now minus one eye and one "Made in Korea" label as well as its tail. Higgins always acts happy and affectionate when I take him out of the cage, licking me all over my face and hugging me, which makes me feel guilty for putting him in there.

His explorations of the kitchen equipment continue. I had quite a start when I looked up from washing his bottle in the sink and saw two greenish yellow eyes and a black mask peering out from inside the toaster oven. He's getting a handle on these things, literally. The toaster oven does open easily, it has a lift-down handle, but he still had to figure out how it worked.

His exploration of orifices has now extended to the bathtub drain, and his favorite, the garbage disposal. He lies flat in the sink with his arms dangling down into the disposal, gleefully feeling around to find any interesting textures. I've been keeping the disposal well cleaned out with plenty of detergent, even pouring hot water down it to semisterilize it, so he doesn't find much. After feeling around for a while, he pulls out his arms and pops in his head, turning a slow somersault until he's upside down with his rear end and legs waving around in the sink.

He seems to be developing all the right moves for a city 'coon. This upside-down technique for garbage investigation is precisely how local raccoons forage in trash cans.

Tonight, after his midnight snack, he retired to his soffit instead of snuggling under the covers in my bed. Maybe it is too hot for the bed to be comfortable. Anyhow, I'm wise to his tricks now, and have placed a large pile of kitchen towels on the countertop right under the spot where he peed in the soffit.

5 June

My trick worked. The towels were still damp when I got up this morning. I've got Higgins' feeding figured out. He eats at night and when it is cool. When it is hot (today 88 deg. F), he's not interested. Today he had no desire for an early a.m. feed. He lapped about I /2 oz. Esbilac with an ice cube around midday, but mostly he played with the ice cube. He drank his usual 6 oz. at midnight.

Last night he sneaked into bed with me in the wee small hours and settled on the pillow above my head. He's slept in this position often before and I thought nothing of it. But he slipped down onto my head and I awoke feeling very hot. Here it is hot and humid in June and I'm lying sweating in bed with a raccoon hat on. Even at twenty below zero I don't need a fur hat so warm. This baby is like a furnace heating my brow.

So I moved away gently. It was a foolish move. He instinctively dug in his claws to prevent himself from falling. One of his claws went into my right eye. It looked messy for a while, but today it is just a red spot slightly smaller than the iris. I appear to have two eyes in one, a blue iris and a red one both in the same eyeball. I guess that's an occupational hazard of raising a clawed animal.

Higgins finally took advantage of his first-rate cage furniture. He snoozed inside his ideal raccoon log, peeking out the "doors" or "wlndows" now and then to check on the sunshine. I gave him a bowl of cold water with ice cubes, which he paddled in. He must have been in the cage six hours today, including three hours in the evening. I gave him some sliced pitted cherries and he doused some in his water bowl , but did not eat any. Just chewed and spat.

He practiced flushing the toilet today, just for the fun of it. After he left the bathroom, I thought he smelled awful good. I realized he'd been digging in the Old Spice shaving soap again and had covered himself with it. Fortunately he loves taking baths. His face seems to be elongating, the pudgy baby face is gone. It looks more like a fox's face every day.

He is active and strong enough that he could easily do a lot of tree climbing, but I'm afraid to let him loose in the yard for fear he climbs too high in a tree for me to reach him. His ineptness in climbing down things is a problem. He falls off the kitchen countertops onto the floor, same in the bathroom, because he hasn't figured out how to climb backwards down the drawer handles he went up on. If he were stuck high in a tree (the green ash is about 120 feet high) my ladder would not reach.

I can just imagine the fire department's response if I called to ask for a long ladder to get a raccoon out of a tree: "Lady, raccoons live in trees!" A mother raccoon can always clamber around on the branches to grab an errant infant by the scruff of the neck and carry him. I can't.

6 June

Higgins is eating less and less each day. I am worried about this. Today he lapped about I /2 oz. Esbilac from a saucer in the evening and took 2 oz. at midnight. Maybe its the heat; 90 deg. F today and very humid.

While purchasing Esbilac at various pet stores I find myself coming across more and more people who have raised raccoons. Seems everybody and his uncle has found a baby 'coon or two and raised them. All proffer advice. Try him on bread soaked in milk, try Tender Vittles moist cat food, and so forth. All this is interesting when you consider that keeping a wild animal as a pet is illegal in this county.

As I watch Higgins romping on my bed, I can't help noticing what a mixture of characteristics a 'coon has: the face of a fox, the mask of a ferret, the back feet of a human baby, the sitting posture of a bear, the purr of a cat, the trill of a chipmunk, the growl of a dog, and the intelligence of a monkey.

Tonight Higgins broke with his tradition of keeping the front bedroom off limits. He walked along the hallway, stopped at the threshold of the room, sniffed at the boundary, then suddenly scampered into the room. He climbed up the bed, the bench, the blanket chest, and the bedside table. A frenzy of exploration. I guess he felt daring tonight.

Earlier, we went walking in the woods opposite the house, much farther than we had gone before. Much of the way I carried him, as the weeds and undergrowth were so tall and thick it was heavy going for him. The woodlot has numerous briar patches. He went through the middle of every one. He climbed a couple of trees, both oaks, as far as the leash would go. He also spent a good while sniffing around the base of a squirrel tree, and playing with nutshells left over from the occupants' meals.

He was eager and happy to take this ramble in the woods. He only showed hesitation when when the foliage was too thick for him to see where he and I were going. Some of the time, when the path was clear ahead, he was leading me for a walk.

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