Higgins' Journal

The life and times of a young raccoon

copyright Alex Snow (1998)

Chapter Six: Sprites and Gremlins

Picture shows raccoon climbing down tree trunk headfirst.

20 June

My heart missed a beat this morning as I looked for Higgins in his cage -- and saw that he was gone. A light drizzle was falling and I wandered disconsolately around the yard calling his name, fearful that he was lying squished by a car on the nearby road. I had given up hope and returned to the empty cage, when all of a sudden out of the corner of my eye I saw a movement in the top of the blue spruce -- and -- yes! it was that familiar little face peeking out at me.

He was hiding from the rain in his favorite dry spot. The cage does not get wet when it rains; it's sheltered by the porch and juniper bushes, but its sides are open to wind and perhaps he feels safer up in a tree than down on the ground. He seemed very happy to see me, came clambering down from the tree headfirst, jumped onto my shoulder, and pushed his nose into my mouth (raccoon French kiss?). Then he licked my face all over. His whole body was fragrant of spruce; he must have been up there a while. He ate little, 4 oz. Esbilac and some boiled egg, but seemed content.

He seems to be predominantly right handed. He uses his right more than his left in climbing, playing, and eating. This may account for his ability to turn or unscrew things. He just pulls more forcefully with his right paw than the left, hence turning things to the right. For example, I keep a hot water bottle in the night stand beside my bed (no water in it) with the bottle top only loosely screwed in. On several occasions he has unscrewed the top and run off with it to play.

Tonight's capers provided another instance of raccoon imitativeness. While I was feeding Higgins apples, chicken, boiled egg, and dog chow in the kitchen, a wild local raccoon appeared on the back porch and began dousing dog chow. I carried Higgins to the door, where he could watch this large raccoon eating its fill.

Eventually it wandered off. Immediately Higgins began struggling to get down. He promptly ran over to the dog chow and water bowls, in which he had taken little previous interest, and imitated in exact detail the motions of the wild raccoon. He picked up a piece of chow, dropped it in the water bowl, scrabbled about to find it again, and chomped it down. He did this for several minutes, then ran off sniffing the older raccoon's trail.

This afternoon I took the latest sample of diarrhea to the vet's and obtained the same results from analysis as before: nothing. However, since the diarrhea has continued for so long, we decided to give him a cunning potion of neomycin sulfate and methscopalomine bromide; guaranteed to kill whatever ails you, provided it's bacterial. Now why didn't I think of that before? I gave him a tiny drop this evening. His appetite seemed to lessen, but he's as energetic as ever if not more so.

He is big enough now to reach up to all sorts of things that were previously safe from his depredations, such as the tablecloth on the kitchen table and drinks on the patio table. As I write at the patio table, he's staring down at me from the roof of the house. He seems to be cleaning out the gutters. I have no complaints about that!

21 June

Higgins was up in the blue spruce again this morning, even though it was not raining. I gave him two doses of miracle antibiotic today, but haven't seen any bowel movements. I gave him a limited amount of blueberries (5) and a little apple along with his boiled egg, dog chow, macaroni, marshmallows, and formula. He seemed thirsty, drinking about 3 oz .in the morning and 6 oz. in the evening. He drank water as well. Tonight Higgins is cleaning out the gutters again. Maybe he finds and eats insects there? He also eats wild and cultivated cherries from the trees in the yard.

He took a bath in the toilet again today. His sleep rhythms are not yet routinized and he is still awake during parts of the day. This evening from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. while I cleaned my car in the road not far from his cage on the front porch, he trilled at me constantly, wanting to be let out. I appreciated his feelings but I really didn't need paw prints all over the car. That's partly what I was trying to clean off!!

My theory about raccoon snuffling is that it is a means of clearing a smell out of the nose in order to smell the next scent clearly. Snuffling involves blowing air out of the nostrils then inhaling again. It's the exhaling you hear as snuffling.

22 June

Higgins ate relatively little today, mostly macaroni and cheese, and boiled egg. His paw pads are pink and rough from climbing around outside, tenderpads. The black skin is almost worn through on the ball of each foot.

He discovered a new twist on our "monkey on a branch" game this evening. Somehow, while wrestling, he grabbed ahold of his left leg and tail and rolled forward until he turned a somersault. This seemed to surprise him, so he did it again, and again, rolling over and over and over. He seemed to enjoy this immensely.

I feel sorry for him spending so much of his time on his own, most of the day in his cage and most of the night in the trees. I wonder if he is lonely. He is missing all the camaraderie of brothers and sisters and all the care and attention of a real raccoon mother.

23 June

Higgins ate little today, mostly boiled egg, and 6 oz. Esbilac. This evening he laid a huge pile of turds in the litterbox, normal-looking ones not diarrhea, so the wonderdrug must be having the desired effect on his digestive system. The volume of solid waste he produced leads me to wonder if he is finding food outside at night, as he has eaten little in the house.

Having a raccoon who lives in the house at least part of the time is like having a mischievous elf who mysteriously appears and disappears in odd places. You walk into the bathroom, for example, attracted by a strange bumping sound, as though one of the linen cupboard doors were opening and closing by itself. For a second all is quiet, then as you look around, the door begins to bump gently open and shut by an inch or so as if little invisible ghosts were entering and leaving the cupboard.

A few seconds later, sounds of a pattering of miniature feet come from beneath the washbasin. Suddenly the middle one of three drawers beside the linen cupboard begins slowly to open all by itself, and just as suddenly slams shut. Clearly this is the work of gremlins, hobgoblins, or maybe fairies, since it is midsummer.

Without warning, bottles of aspirin and liniment in the top drawer begin to rattle, the drawer pops briefly open, and the end of a large comb quavers into view then disappears inside. Within seconds the linen cupboard door is bumping open and closed again. Gingerly, you open it further, half expecting to see some ghostly sprite from Middle Earth.

But, lying there contentedly among the folded bath towels with his legs padding against the door lies the fat furry tummy of Higgins Honeybear, who is playfully grabbing his feet and tail and rolling gleefully around.

The gremlin in the kitchen is noisier. Long after you are sure that Higgins has fallen asleep after a meal, serene peace has fallen on the house, and you are concentrating on some delicate operation like measuring a well-deserved gin and tonic, suddenly -- whizz! -- the bottom of the four kitchen equipment drawers zips open and you glimpse a brown shadow flying inside. A troll? A leprechaun? A pixie?

The tiny sprite flies up inside the space behind the drawers and scratches with miniscule fingers at the knives and forks. You hear spoons bounce and bash against bottle caps and wine corks. Then skewers and measuring spoons begin to jingle and jangle. Bam! The sprite has flown into the paper drawer. It slams open and shut. You glimpse a box of baggies unruffling into disordered folds and creases. Rrrip! The waxed paper detaches from its roll. Crack! Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. The aluminum foil is crackling into rumpled pieces. The drawer opens a sliver and a piece of crinkled foil shoots out as if spit out in distaste. Zoom! The mischief-maker streaks out of the bottom drawer again, scattering tea towels and napkins in its wake. Out of the corner of your eye you think you see a blurred shadow flee the kitchen.

In seconds another gremlin is making mayhem in the bedroom. By the time you reach the doorway, the bedroom is in chaos. Socks and gloves tangle awkwardly on the bed, their fingers and toes all jumbled. A hot water bottle lies crumpled on the rug, its stopper rolling in dizzy circles. Beneath a chest of drawers a rubber mouse squeaks in alarm, its bell tinkling. A hairbrush teeters on the edge of the dresser, falls off, and thuds on the floor. The curtains sway unnaturally from side to side, a jagged tear appearing suddenly in the fabric.

In a high corner of the ceiling a visiting spider, seeing the supernatural at work, scurries out of the window in fright. Then in a flash the roll of paper towels left by the litterbox for emergencies unrolls itself and a swath of paper flies around the floor wrapping itself around bed legs and briefcases, shoes and slippers. Thumps and bumps emanate from the dark shadows under the bed. Then all is quiet. An amorphous lump ascends the bed under the sheets and heads for the pillows.

As peace descends, you walk in, to see little Higgins Honeybear lying comfortably between the pillows cheerfully licking his paws and staring at you in surprise, his innocent eyes giving the lie to the destruction all around. "Who me?" he seems to be saying. "Would I do a thing like that?"

Haunting episodes of this sort are almost enough to make a serious nature lover give up gin and tonic altogether.

24 June

I squeezed two more drops of wonderdrug down Higgins' throat today. He should be fine now. He ate voraciously, without any Esbilac, as I had run out of it. I cooked barbecued chicken on the grill again tonight and Higgins feasted on roast breast and skin (with ginger). He doused them in his water bowl enthusiastically. He also ate a boiled egg (half at each meal), apple, macaroni and cheese, blueberries, and marshmallows. He chomped down some cherries which had fallen onto the next-door neighbor's back patio from her overloaded cherry tree. His feces contain cherry pits. Evidently he swallows the entire cherry and the pits pass through.

Higgins genitals are developing. Several times during the past week he has squished his body down on a pile of fabric, such as a pair of underpants or a sock or glove, and wiggled around on his penis. The os penis, the baculum, is well developed and can be felt with one's finger. The scrotum is larger than before, a clear ridge under the fur.

He has spent more time than previously grooming his genitals this last few days. I examined him to see if some parasite or infection were causing irritation, but found none. He also showed more interest than previously in my genitals, making sudden sniffing forays between my legs as I lay on my bed. Some hormone must have turned on in his brain.

Tonight he is prancing about in our cherry tree. On one of the lower branches is a wren house, replete with Mom and Dad Wren and babies. I hope his love of bird meat doesn't lead him to take advantage of this cozy menage. This is the first year in six years that Carolina wrens have nested here.

Every night when he goes off adventuring I worry that he won't come back. I think of all the disasters that could befall him, from fatal encounters with big dogs to violent and grotesque crunches under cars. When I find him each morning I sigh with relief. He comes back for the food I guess. I have become so fond of him.

Picture shows raccoon sitting at base of ash tree.

At about 12.45 tonight I was sitting in bed reading, when I heard through the open window Higgins' distinctive yip-whine, which he gives when frightened or when I come home after some hours absence, a sort of "Oh Mother!" response. I let him in the back door and gave him a cuddle and a marshmallow. He seemed content, so I took him to his cage. There in the glow of the lamp on the street I saw a mother raccoon, the same one that feeds on the back porch, and four baby 'coons all clustered under the blue spruce tree.

I purred and trilled at them while the babies milled around. Higgins climbed the ash tree across the street and watched them intently. After a few moments they melted into the darkness at the side of the house. I heard the scrambling of claws going up the wild cherry tree beside the chimney. Moments later I peered out the kitchen window and saw Momma 'Coon dousing chow on the back porch.

I returned to the front porch and purred at Higgins, who was climbing the side limbs of the ash tree and listening to scurrying sounds emanating from the side of the house. A few moments later the unmistakable sounds of feet padding, twigs breaking, and dry leaves crackling proceeded in orderly fashion from the side of the house, along the 'coon path to the street, over the woodlot, and beyond towards the ravine. Higgins continued to watch with interest, then resumed his climbing.

Are these his cousins? It is unlikely that these raccoons are immediate relations. He was found in a section of the ravine to the northwest of the house. This female raccoon and her young 'uns came from the southeast. All the same, the likelihood of their being related by common ancestors in the previous generation is high.

Around 1.45 a.m. I again heard the yip-whine from Higgins penetrating the fog of my dreams. I found him on top of his cage, quite agitated. He came in the house and ate a prodigious quantity of chicken, boiled egg, and blueberries. This surprised me, as he had eaten a ton of chicken only 2 1/2 hours before.

It occurs to me that he may often try to communicate with me at night, but it's been so hot and humid lately that I've had the windows closed and the air conditioner on, so I would not have heard him. This is the first time since I began letting him wander at night that it's been cool enough to shut off the air conditioning and leave the windows open. He played on my bed for a while before I put him out again.

25 June

This morning a horrendous explosion ripped me out of dreamland -- a great BANG as though a bomb had landed in the back alley. I shot out of bed like a bat out of hell and raced out front to see if Higgins was OK. He was placidly tearing small dead twigs off a blue spruce branch as though nothing had happened. By the time my nerves had recovered I remembered that it's the Glorious Fourth next week. That bomb did sound a lot like a Roman Candle. Some neighborhood kid just practicing, no doubt.

Higgins had been active most of the night, particularly at tearing window screens and scratching at the back door. I don't remember how many times I got up to see what his problem was. Mostly he wanted to check on the roast chicken situation in the kitchen. By 11 p.m. he has now eaten two entire large chicken breasts in 1 1/2 days, plus his usual boiled egg (1 per day), buttered macaroni with Parmesan cheese, blueberries, marshmallows, diced beef cat food, and chopped apple. He has had a voracious appetite lately, normal bowel movements, and is extremely energetic.

Last night's furious activity seemed to tire him some; he spent the whole day sleeping like an angel on my bed, which he hasn't done for a couple of weeks. This reminded me of his early days, when as an infant he slept away the days as a little purring lump under the bed linens. Now he's a large lump.

This evening I tried to make plaster casts of his tracks. I was concerned that the plaster would stick to his paws, so I put corn oil on them. This didn't work because he liked the taste of the oil so much he licked it all off. I figured plain water might do. Gently I placed him on the tray of plaster, pressing down on his back so that his feet would make deep impressions. No such luck. He skittered about, slipping and sliding on the plaster until the tracks were blurred and muddled.

I had thought Higgins would just walk across the plaster leaving a clear trail. Nice and easy. But I reckoned without raccoon curiosity. He pawed up the plaster with his front paws and dug in it. When I held his body still, he paddled away with his legs. I tried pressing down on each foot, while he paddled away with the others. The resulting tray of plaster looked as if a dozen raccoons had been re-enacting the battle of Valley Forge on it.

I washed plaster off Higgins, out of my hair and clothes, off the patio, the patio table, the kitchen table, the kitchen floor, and the kitchen countertops. Somehow I don't think I've quite got the hang of it yet. I've seen cleaner tracks in the mud along the 'coon path beside the house after a good rain. Maybe I'll try mud casts tomorrow. I'm beginning to think those nice neat casts you buy from biological supply houses are made from dead animals. How else would you get a raccoon to stand still to make a cast?

About 11.45 p.m. Higgins heard a noise from the back porch as he was eating his supper. He descended from the countertop to investigate. The large female raccoon that we've seen for some weeks was busy dousing chow. With her was one of her four youngsters. Seeing them up close under the porch light, I realize that this young one is smaller than Higgins, about three weeks younger.

The mother paid little attention to Higgins, who slowly descended the steps and walked to within two feet of her. The baby, who was not eating, was afraid of Higgins. It lowered its head and snuffled in submission. Higgins was a little taken aback, and just watched the pair as they ambled out into the yard. Then he walked to the chow bowl, picked up a piece of chow, and doused it. He stood on the side of the water bowl and repeated the actions of the female exactly as he had done once before. He also sniffed around a lot. He normally douses chicken and various other items fairly naturally, but rarely takes much interest in dog chow.

26 June

I had an early appointment this morning, so Higgins had a rushed breakfast of the usual mixture and stayed behind in the house, still eating, when I left. On my return I saw that he'd been having a whale of a time. He'd finally mastered the leap up onto the kitchen table after days of trying, and had scattered pens, pencils, erasers, mail, and magazines, all over the table and the floor.

In the dining room he had pawed and chewed the candles on the table, leaving a shower of waxy slivers scattered all over that floor. But the back bedroom was the piece de resistance. Somehow in my hurry I had left the closet door open. How could I have been so foolish? I had deliberately been keeping that door closed all the time to prevent him from tearing my clothes to pieces by climbing on them. So the inside of the closet was a whole new world of interestingly-textured objects for him to investigate. He had done a thorough job.

Lambswool slippers, leather sandals, and canvas sneakers lay in muddled profusion among pillows scattered on the bed. Shoes, boots, and belts adorned every corner of the floor. Lampshades on the dresser leaned rakishly askance. The bed linens had been pulled and tugged in a dozen directions. The books, magazines, and hot water bottle were all dragged out of the bedside table, and -- the coup de grace -- my pen and notes were in his litterbox.

Since the wonderdrug fixed his bowels, Higgins seems to be a tad more energetic than before. However, he slept until dark in his ideal log in the cage. As is now usual, he ate heartily this p.m., going for the chicken first, boiled egg second, macaroni and cheese third, apple and blueberries last.

He seems to be a fairly carnivorous 'coon really. He ate a spider again this evening, which he caught on the porch. The raccoon I had last year was almost entirely vegetarian, preferring fruits, especially blueberries, to meat.

After supper we played "monkey on a branch" as usual, then explored the yard for a while as we always do. I shall miss these late-night runabouts when he leaves to take up permanent residence at a nature preserve.

27 June

Higgins ate the usual mixture a.m. and p.m., and had a normal bowel movement. He drank some of my ovaltine. I have not given him Esbilac in a couple of days as I couldn't get hold of any. He's been drinking water. He has learned how to knock on the door to be let in. He puts both front paws on the storm door and scratches like hell. He made enough noise at the back door this morning to wake me up.

28 June

Higgins ate well of the usual mixture and had a normal bowel movement.

His pelage now consists of black guard hairs on his back, white ones on his sides and limbs. His underfur is grayish beneath the body, cinnamon brown to ginger between the black rings on his tail, grayish on his back and sides. White hairs cover the rim and inside of his ears, and a black triangular patch covers the base of the ears. His forehead is grizzled, and the black mask over his eyes has white above and below.

A black line runs down the center of his face from above the mask to the end of the nose. His black skin is hairless below the nose to the mouth. The lower lip is black, with white fur below it over his throat. He has white whiskers with about three or four odd brown ones on the right side.

He still often sticks his snout into my mouth, sometimes prying my mouth open with his hands. He looks around inside to see what's there, paws at my tongue, and then licks my face. He is noticeably subdued in his playing this evening, preferring to cuddle up and sit on my shoulder than to wreak havoc around the house. Our "monkey on a branch" wrestling was gentler than usual.

This may or may not be related to the fact that he got his vaccinations at the vet's this morning, ready for going off to the nature preserve. He snoozed in the laundry 'chute after getting back from the vet's.

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