Higgins' Journal

The life and times of a young raccoon

copyright Alex Snow (1998)

Chapter Seven: Higgins Discovers a Raccoon's Paradise

Picture shows large raccoon edging into a lily-pad-covered lake.

29 June

We left the city around 3.30 in the afternoon. Higgins sat inside a grill-front pet-carrier on the passenger seat in my car. His cage traveled in the back of the truck Tom the Natureman, manager of the nature preserve, drove with his student intern. We left the city in brilliant sunny weather, the car steamy. Higgins was initially disturbed by the movement and noise, but after chittering and trilling for the first 15 minutes or so, he settled down resignedly and lay on the floor of the carrier for the rest of the way, looking up now and then at the sounds of traffic.

As we drove into the southern hills, the sky darkened with leaden, lowering clouds. Wooded hills rose on either side of the road and clouds descended to the ground. We penetrated the mist and were enveloped in darkness and rain. Higgins looked up worriedly from his carrying box as splotches of water smashed into the windshield and the wipers fought to clear them. As we reached the edge of the preserve around 4.45 p.m., the rain lightened, the ground steamed, and a couple of black-capped chickadees sounded a welcome.

The preserve is tucked away in the hills, a peaceful spot. Lying on the unglaciated Allegheny Plateau, it is hilly. A flora typical of cool climates persists from pre-glacial times alongside southern plants long since eliminated from the glaciated part of the state.

Slopes facing south and southwest are warmed by the sun and dried by the winds; they yield an abundance of oaks and hickories. Slopes facing north and northeast are blanketed in the thick mixed mesophytic forest typical of the plateau. Here are tulip poplar, red maple, white oak, and plants found only in unglaciated areas: sourwood, mountain laurel, and great rhododendron. In the preserve's cool, moist valleys the eastern hemlock grows.

Outcrops of rock intersperse the trees. The Black Hand sandstone forms ancient cliffs. This coarse, massive stone is usually yellow orange in color with red, yellow, and brown stains caused by iron oxide. The stone's weathering has produced sandy, well drained, slightly acid soil suitable for luxuriant growth of rhododendron, mountain laurel and chestnut oaks.

Over the trees kestrels and buzzards spy out the meadow voles and garter snakes below. Beneath the woodland canopy big brown bats and flying squirrels swoop from branch to branch. Longtail weasels and hairytail moles scurry through grass and leaf litter. Streams coursing through the valleys into ponds provide homes for salamanders, crayfish, frogs, and muskrats.

Rounding a bend in the road, we glimpsed a lake's serene surface, afloat with lily pads. Through the trees the shrub-shrouded island in the lake appeared. White rhododendron blossoms flanked the entrance road, with pinkish orange trumpet vine, orange lilies, and the startling purple of cultivated irises. Pink wild roses perfumed the air.

Bass splashed in the lake's cool water. A symphony of birds sang: song sparrows, goldfinches, mourning doves, tufted titmice, vireos, ovenbirds, wrens, warblers, wood thrushes. Walking down the entrance road from the parking lot we saw in the middle distance over the expanse of the lake, the lodge's red-tiled roof, its rough-hewn log timbers and local sandstone foundation.

Higgins looked around in bewilderment as we unloaded his rain-soaked cage. He had arrived in raccoon paradise.

We set his cage on the lodge's back porch and fed him his usual mixture, which he seemed to enjoy. He wandered in to explore the lodge. A rustic, cozy place, redolent of wood, it has sturdy oak beams and a great stone fireplace. It contains a large display area/meeting room, kitchen, bathroom, office, and two bedrooms. Painted antique tables and a fireside settle decorate the main bedroom. The droning of bees fills the air from a demonstration beehive in the meeting room.

Tom the Natureman, who has a lively sense of humor, produced a raccoon puppet and with his hand inside it, waddled the puppet up to Higgins, who sniffed it and promptly grabbed its tail and shook it violently from side to side. Then he ran all around it and eventually got on top of it and shook its head about. He didn't show any fear of it and one had the distinct impression that he knew all along that it wasn't a real raccoon.

In his peregrinations around the meeting room, Higgins discovered a stuffed opossum. He sniffed under its tail and at its mouth. Tom pushed a stuffed skunk towards him. He sniffed its nose with interest. He soon discovered the stairway to the upstairs loft and bedrooms, which he explored thoroughly. Then he took a bath in the toilet.

The student intern put on a glove and wrestled with him for a short time, but he seemed rather aggressive, nipping and biting at her arms and face. Perhaps he was stressed by the journey and unfamiliar surroundings.

I moved his litterbox up to the little loft bedroom high in the rafters. Dogwood, juniper, and hemlock trees shaded the chintz-curtained gable window in whose light the room's knotty pine paneling glowed orange. A red and white country gingham spread covered our bed and a red and beige braided rug lay on the floor under tiny corner knick-knack shelves. He and I spent a comfy night. He cuddled up and licked my face a lot.

30 June

After eating his usual mixture for breakfast, Higgins explored the lodge extensively, climbing up the log structure of its walls with ease and clambering along the rough log rafters. He seemed to take pleasure in peeling off old dry bark from the rafters and dropping it onto the floor.

During the afternoon, which was sunny, we went off exploring that part of the preserve near the lodge. We made little forays along the trails then back to his cage on the back porch before going off in a different direction. He bounced and leaped and galloped and danced and jumped and tumbled and ran his raccoon's humpbacked run. He climbed dozens of trees, mostly pines and hemlocks in a grove near the lodge. He rummaged in the undergrowth.

The best part for him was the lake. He paddled around the shallows at the edge of the water among the lizard's tail, lilies, and Marsilia quadrifolia (water clover), dragging up debris from the mud and sniffing it. He chased birds out of their nests, mostly catbirds as far as I could see. He explored the stream leading into the lake, splashing about in the current until he was soaked.

Rounding the edge of the lake we came on a mulberry tree beside the lodge's entrance road, where he sat and feasted on the berries for twenty minutes or so. Close to the lodge, he found a bird feeder on a stout, smooth, wooden pole and expended some effort trying to climb it. Then, smart as he is, he climbed a dogwood tree right beside it and came down its branches over the feeder. It had neither birds nor seeds in it at the time, but apparently smelled inviting to him.

He caught a moth, and lost interest in sniffing the feeder. We explored for about 3 hours altogether. He stayed within hearing range of me and most of the time I could see him or the moving vegetation around him.

A workshop was in progress at the lodge and I attempted to keep him out of the participants' way. They took a break from their studies and I decided to put my camera indoors. When I went inside Higgins was splashing about in the stream. Within minutes I heard folks milling about in the meeting room exclaiming over Higgins' presence.

He had followed me without my realizing it, or found his own way back to the lodge, and let himself in the back door. This was a good sign. He clearly knew how to locate the back porch where his cage was with its supply of food.

Higgins will need to rely on the folks at the lodge for a while. Who knows how long it will be before he can survive on his own? I left in the late afternoon, having fed him and left him in his cage playing with his beloved blue cloth mouse.

1 July

I returned to the preserve in the early evening to find out that Tom had taken Higgins out of his cage and let him have the run of the lodge, then took him outside where he rediscovered the mulberry tree and feasted on its berries again. Higgins had discovered some interesting items around the lodge.

A long-dead bat, for example, had been dragged out of the fireplace. It was a dried-out, dusty thing, which he gnawed on until Tom grabbed it from him. Higgins got even for the loss of the bat, however. While Tom was eating his lunch Higgins waltzed up and grabbed at Tom's bologna and cheese sandwich. Tom naturally hung on to it, only to find himself holding two pieces of bread while Higgins made off with the bologna and cheese.

When I took Higgins out for a walk from about 5 -7 p.m. he took off on a path parallel to the shelter trail towards the large lower frog pond, then angled up the hill through the jewelweed and lilies to the upper frog pond, and thence to the salamander stream. He explored the cliff, finding a way up and around it and onto its top, from where he surveyed his surroundings like the king of the mountain.

Picture shows raccoon in frog pond.

Back at the lake, he rediscovered his now favorite mulberry tree. Then -- O Joy! -- he discovered another mulberry tree on the other side of the entrance road. I was intrigued to note Higgins' reaction when he found mulberries on the ground under this tree.

He walked towards the base of the tree and found himself confronted with two tree trunks. A red bud was growing right next to the mulberry. Aloft, their branches intertwined. Higgins sniffed the bark of each twice, then chose to climb the mulberry. Apparently he can recognize a mulberry tree by the smell of its bark.

A gray squirrel was already eating berries high in this tree's branches. It's hard to say who was more startled, Higgins or the squirrel, when they saw each other. The squirrel leaped precipitously into the red bud and fled.

Even after stuffing himself with mulberries, Higgins managed to swallow a bowlful of chicken and boiled egg at 7 p.m. He licked my face and pushed his snout into my mouth several times. Then we wrestled with the gloves on, and I put him back in his cage 'till after dark.

From about 9.30 'till midnight, we went on our now accustomed forays beyond the lodge. He knows the routes now and precedes me as I blunder along with my flashlight. We have developed a habitual route around the area in the immediate vicinity of the lodge. When I deviated temporarily from it to head back from the lake to the lodge, Higgins jumped about, bewildered, heading off toward the mulberry tree and then doubling back to join me. He is getting to know the area on the basis of a definite pathway from one point to another.

He was curious about the frogs belching among the lily-pads in the lake and gave a yip of fright when one of them jumped into the water near him with a loud splash. He did not climb nearly so many trees as he has done during the day, preferring to catch insects in the leaf litter and grass.

On one of our return visits to the lodge's back porch to check on his cage, we discovered that two enormous cockroaches had taken up residence in his food bowl among the boiled egg and cat chow.

One of the roaches jumped into the back of the cage, the other Higgins caught and ate, apparently having fun feeling it wriggle in his hands. He later spent 20 minutes or so feeling about in the frog pond, but he splashed around so much I couldn't see if he caught any tadpoles. We had a midnight snack of macaroni and cheese and retired to the loft's tiny bedroom to sleep.

2 July

I had thought that Higgins would want to go out exploring again during the night, but he slept contentedly on the bed with me until after it grew light, moving around only when I got up to fetch a warmer cover for the bed. Surprisingly for July, it is quite cool, days in the 60s and 70s and nights in the 50s. The air is sodden and the ground damp. My muddy canvas sneakers squelch when I walk in the dewy grass.

He showed little inclination to explore the lodge or its exterior in the morning, preferring to sit and paw at the bed linens. I put him out in his cage when Tom and two smartly-uniformed men from a local septic-tank cleaning company arrived to clean out the lodge's tank, which had overflowed.

The problem looked like major trouble: the lake was overflowing into the septic tank. The tile pipe from the lodge, not being buried deeply enough, had frozen at some earlier time and burst between the lake and the lodge. Sewage was not getting to the tank as the pipe was silted up. The sewage system appeared to have been installed during the 20s or 30s, before the cornfields were flooded to create the lake. The relative levels of the tank outlet and the rising lake had apparently not been considered.

Tom questions the raccoon's sense of sight. He had noticed that both a raccoon he raised two years ago and also Higgins seemed to lose food when it was given to them and then paddled about until their hands felt it again.

I suspect, however, that this is the "dousing" behavior raccoons have inherited from their early evolution as riparian foragers. Raccoons often paddle around in water with their heads up and a blank stare in their eyes. I suspect that they can concentrate on their tactile sensations better that way.

I tried feeling some strongly-textured surfaces, a caned chair seat and the stone outer wall of the lodge's chimney, with my eyes closed. I found that this provided me with a strangely different sense of these objects. For a nocturnal animal a highly-developed tactile sense is a great advantage. Perhaps the sense of sight has to be partly cut off for the sense of touch to process information efficiently in the brain.

This afternoon as Tom was trying to get the trouble with the sewage system sorted out, a thundering storm broke overhead. I was outside with Higgins. Lightening cracked and flashed right beside the lodge and the heavens opened. It pelted down. Higgins blithely climbed the mulberry tree between the lake and the roadway and munched on berries while I got soaked underneath waiting for him to come down.

When he finally did, I picked him up and we made a mad dash for the lodge. To my surprise, he wanted to go back out again. He climbed a dogwood tree and then paddled about in the rapidly-forming puddles of rain. So much for his erstwhile fear of rain and storms.

Higgins has peeled a lot of bark off trees and logs, including the old bark on the ceiling struts in the lodge. Perhaps raccoons find insects this way. He has shown quite an interest in insects in general. He jumps up to grab moths near lights, pounces on ants, and scrunches spiders. This evening, Tom held him up to the light outside the back porch door and Higgins caught and ate moths and a dragonfly.

The night was misty, with clouds rising eerily from the lake and fogging the blurred outlines of the pines and hemlocks. As all my clothes had gotten soaked during the day and I ached all over, I decided not to take him out tonight.

3 July

This morning was sunny but humid, so Higgins and I went out for another photography session. We traveled the entrance road beside the lake, then sallied forth on the shelter trail and followed the stream up its course aways.

He follows me in the sense that he keeps going in the general direction in which I am headed, but he bounces off into the undergrowth or or climbs up a tree when he feels like it. Then I wait for him to explore the area until he's happy that he's seen it all, and then he bounces back onto the trail and follows me farther along it. Higgins splashed methodically upstream and only reluctantly followed me back to the lodge when it was time for me to leave.

4 July

I returned to the preserve in the evening to feed Higgins. Tom had suspected that his intern would not be back until tomorrow, having taken Monday and Tuesday as her days off and today being a national holiday. But she was back, sleeping upstairs in the main bedroom when I arrived. She had thought the doors were closed and Higgins in the lodge, but he met me on the main road as I drove up in my car. I fed him the usual mixture of chicken, boiled egg, chow, fruit, and so forth, and literally showed him the door to go outside for the night; but he turned and headed upstairs.

Sometimes, it seems that he wants to be where I am, or where he expects me to be. The intern said he was sleeping this afternoon on the bed in the little bedroom where I've been sleeping recently. He slept there with me all night. He was very friendly to me on my return, licking my face and poking his snout into my mouth in his "raccoon French kisses" and playing "monkey on a branch" for ages.

I gave him his second dose of anti-worm medication today, two days late, but it should work OK. There's no evidence of his having worms, but nothing wrong with preventive medicine.

5 July

Higgins ate well of the usual mixture, and we went for a walk in the pouring rain. He doesn't seem to be the least bit bothered by rain now. We splashed upstream and then back downstream again along the shelter trail and round the lake. He is so bouncy and sassy, full of energy and the joy of living.

He doesn't seem to find much food outside, though, a few insects at night and lots of mulberries by day. He hasn't caught a crawdad yet, although he has wiggled his arm down a few crayfish chimneys.

At about noon, Tom's intern returned from a trip and the three of us went on another wet walk, shorter this time. Unfortunately, Higgins seems rather hostile towards her, nips her and goes into an arms-wide, head-down, aggressive posture towards her occasionally. It worries me that they don't seem to get along, for she has little interest in him.

My original agreement with Tom months ago when Higgins first arrived on my doorstep was for him to be rehabilitated at the preserve in part by the resident intern. When Tom first interviewed prospects for the position, the job of rehabilitating a raccoon was clearly indicated as part of the internship. So far this is not working out. I had to leave today and Tom says he'll look after Higgins' welfare.

6 July

O Higgins, I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.

Picture shows raccoon sitting on stones in forest clearing.

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