copyright Alex Snow (1998)
Chapter Eight: Into the Wild
I returned to the nature preserve with a care package for Higgins: boiled eggs, chopped chicken and various fruits, mostly berries. I was apprehensive that after ten days he would not remember me. I had been out of town a lot and it seemed like a century since I'd seen him. I walked into the lodge carrying my bag of food and met him on the stairway.
For half a second he stopped and stared, then ran forward and jumped up to lick my face and shove his nose into my mouth in a raccoon French kiss. He climbed all over me, pushing his hands into my pockets to feel what goodies might be stored there, just as he had always done previously. He looked hale and hearty, having grown a bit and become slightly more grizzled and less gingery in color. Ten days is a relatively long time in the life of a young raccoon.
We went rambling up the stream that runs beside the shelter trail for several hours. Now I let him lead me. When I first brought him to the preserve, I led him along the stream. He knows his way now. He stopped to check out interesting holes and tunnels beside the trail, disappearing for several minutes into muskrat holes and tile stream conduits and emerging with whiskers aquiver. It began to rain, but on we foraged. Higher and higher in the hills we went, into the deep woods, farther than I had led him before.
Higgins did as he had done before, and kept within hearing distance of me during our hike. At one point I crouched down beside the stream, sure that I was ahead of him, focusing my camera on the stream so that I'd have a perfect shot of him approaching me as he paddled and splashed upstream. Then I felt the gentle touch of tiny hands feeling inside my back pocket. Without my noticing, he had sneaked up behind me.
He climbed a score or more trees, sniffing the bark of the trees he passed as though they were old familiar friends, some worth climbing, some not. He still favors the large ones with grooved bark. At one stop along the stream he pounced and caught some riparian creature or other: a salamander? a frog? a fish? I couldn't see. He ate it happily and fast.
In the deep woods he climbed sure-footed over emerald moss and rust brown shelf fungus on rotted logs. He slipped only once, while jumping up a tree trunk, and he looked around as though embarrassed, to see if anyone had noticed. He sniffed every inch of the way, under the Christmas ferns and the ground ivy and myrtle, under the dead logs, under the brambles.
At one point we heard an animal crashing through the undergrowth. Higgins stopped, ears cocked, nose aquiver. The mystery animal crashed and stomped about. I was sure it was an enormous monster, maybe a deer (or could it be a moose making all that noise?) No. It finally emerged onto the trail -- a chipmunk. When your ears are tuned to the sigh of the pines and the splash of a raindrop even small creatures sound huge. If you listen right you can hear tiny spiders drumming to their mates on dead leaves. As we walked on, a wood thrush's song filled the universe.
We returned along the old familiar trail to the lodge and I stopped on a bridge crossing a stream that feeds the lake while he splish-splashed into the swampy marsh that was once an impoundment of the lake, where cattails grow and redwing blackbirds call. I waited for him. Suddenly I felt twigs dropping on my head -- I've felt that before! He was in a buckeye tree above my head. I had not heard him for the sound of splashing raindrops.
It is surprising how little rain reaches the forest floor. When we returned to the lodge Tom said to me, " How come you're not wet?" I was under the trees. The rain had put a stop to Tom's backfill operations on one of the lake's feeder streams.
Tom said that during the week schoolchildren came to the preserve and played with Higgins. He was tame and friendly with them. However, he also broke the aquarium pipes and bit Tom on the beard. The student intern said she was following the trails after a storm to see if trees had blown down on them and Higgins followed her all the way, a couple of miles.
Tom claims Higgins doesn't like the dog chow I brought. It's cheap stuff but nutritious and my local wild raccoons are habituated to it. "Gravy Train" seems to be more to Higgins' taste. I'll bring some on my next visit. Higgins has apparently taken to sleeping up in the ceiling of the front porch at the lodge, where some old planks are stored on the cross timbers. He found a sunflower seed bag there and he snuggles down on it for a kip whenever he feels like it.
He has learned how to let himself in and out of the screen door at will so he can come and go as he pleases. He doesn't use his cage much any more. The tender pink pads of his feet have healed and given way to dark brown, not the shiny black of his baby feet but thicker brown skin.
Tom called this morning to say Higgins had been in a fight and had messed up his right eye. He had taken Higgins to a local vet and obtained oral amoxycillin and some antibacterial eye ointment, but was having a hard time medicating him. Tom's wife is expecting a baby any hour now, and the intern had disappeared off somewhere. So I went down to the preserve to look after Higgins.
Higgins had grown, had little energy, and was wild to see me. He gave the usual performance of jumping all over my head, licking my face, and kissing me. His right eye is swollen almost shut and what I can see of it is bloodshot. The inner corner is swollen and oozy, and both lids have nicks and slivers cut out of them. In the middle of his forehead is a large lump with a small bloody nick in it. He's been in a fight no doubt, but he's OK. I wonder what happened to his combatant?
He's a bit slow. He sits or lies down every so often, easily tired. He began to play "monkey on a branch" but his respiration rate went way up fast, he was panting with exertion. I took him for a short walk outside, but he only climbed one tree and then rested up in the branches for 15 minutes.
He ate well though, as I had brought some of his favorites: chopped chicken breast, boiled egg, cherries, grapes and blueberries. He still eats fast and gets hiccups. He took his medication without any fuss.
At night we settled into the little bedroom under the rafters. While I read the fresh clear stories of Homer's Odyssey, he tickled my toes with his nose and finally purred himself to sleep under the covers. Looking at Higgins' sleeping body lying half covered on the bed, it seems to me that the long hair on a raccoon's legs and the short hairs on its feet are like fleecy leggings reaching down to velvet socks.
As I had arrived in the preserve today, I had met a man fishing in the lake, some local doctor. He said he'd had a raccoon for many years, the finest pet he'd ever had. He went everywhere with it, he claimed. He said that one day some people driving past his house stopped their car to look at the raccoon and when one of them opened the car door the raccoon jumped in and they drove off with it, dog collar and all. Hmmmm.
Last time I was here at the preserve, a lady visitor mentioned that she'd had a 'coon for five years, and when I first brought Higgins here on June 29, some lady at the workshop said she'd raised twin 'coons. If only half the tales I hear of people raising 'coons are true, there are a whole lot of folks in the business!
Higgins had several "panting" bouts during the night. It seemed as though he got too hot. He'd lie on his back with his legs splayed out and I'd blow on his tummy to cool him down. Perhaps he has a fever from the infected eye. In the morning his eye looked better, more open and less swollen, and the lump on his forehead had subsided noticeably. I gave him more amoxycillin and eye ointment.
The intern returned and told me that Higgins had been injured in a fight on Sunday night. She had heard raccoons fighting, screaming, and yelling, and went out to investigate. She found Higgins sitting soaked in the lake, looking very sorry for himself. No sign of his antagonist.
She tried to put him in his cage for protection, but he became aggressive and wouldn't go in, so she let him be. He wandered off, returning on Monday morning with a prizefighter's bloody face. I guess he's finding out that defending his territory is harder than vanquishing pineapples.
Higgins had more energy after his night of rest, and ran around the lodge, climbing up the front porch timbers. He ate well: chicken, dog chow, and pretzels. I left him in the intern's care for the week, as Tom is home with his wife, who had a baby boy on Tuesday night.
I visited Higgins at the preserve today, bearing gifts in a care package of chopped chicken, boiled eggs, grapes, and Gravy Train dog chow. As I approached the lodge, I saw Tom busily regrading the soil between the lodge and the lake where the septic tank had been dug up. I stopped to chat, holding my picnic basket of goodies at my side. Suddenly Higgins came barreling out of nowhere and leaped into the basket. I don't know if he was happy to see me or just smelled the chicken!
Tom now feeds him one meal a day on the back porch and doesn't let him in the lodge. He says Higgins is too boisterous to be around visitors now. Apparently Higgins raided the wild mouse cage that is part of the nature exhibits inside the lodge, and perpetrated murder on on of the occupants.
After Higgins had eaten his fill, the two of us went on a ramble along the shelter trail. He ambles around now more deliberately than before, stopping to examine points of interest instead of scurrying and bouncing along the way he used to.
He is so much bigger and more mature. Another inch and he'll be full grown it seems. He is darker, with far more black guard hairs. His fur is thick and glossy and he looks in fine health. The eye injury is all healed up. One of his premolars is bleeding a little. Is he shedding his deciduous teeth?
He has lost the skittishness of earlier days and climbs more slowly, with the steady ease and practiced grace of a well-paced athlete. He went through all his old tricks: jumping on my head, kissing me, poking his hands into my pockets, even playing "monkey on a branch" briefly. But he has the air of one who is older and wiser than the gamboling kid he once was.
Instead of rushing pell-mell up the stream the way he did before, Higgins takes his time now, spending time paddling and feeling about under logs and stones. In several places in the woods he stopped to eat, though I couldn't see what.
He pays far more attention to his surroundings now, as if he knows every sound. He climbed a tree at a leisurely pace and sat grooming himself in the crotch of two branches. As he looked down at me I noticed how pandalike he had become, more lumbering, more bearlike. The furry kid has grown up.
Tom says Higgins doesn't always sleep in the lodge's front porch. Sometimes he's gone all night and all day too, so one assumes he has a place of his own somewhere. Tom is hoping that within a month Higgins will be out on his own. I wonder.
I drove down to the preserve this fine fall afternoon to see if Higgins had finally taken to the wild. I anticipated wandering all over the preserve, calling to him, and maybe being lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him in the distance. I was pleasantly surprised when Tom motioned airily in the direction of the juniper bushes bordering the entrance road and said, "Oh, he's living down in there." Sure enough, within a few minutes as we stood talking, Higgins came bounding out of the bushes and ran up to us.
He was limping, holding his rear left leg up to his body. I had brought a bag of turkey pieces, mostly drumsticks and wings, and he dove eagerly into it. He is now a big, fat, healthy 'coon with thick, glossy fur. As he munched on the turkey meat, Tom filled me in on the month's activities.
Higgins is still fairly diurnal. I wonder if raccoons learn to be nocturnal? Higgins is used to being around humans, who are active during the day, so he has adjusted his rhythms to ours.
In general, Tom feels that Higgins is an asset to the nature center's programs. Most visitors readily identify with this mischievous and cute furry animal. Children particularly enjoy seeing him around the lake or up in the trees near the lodge. Not all visitors respond favorably, though.
One day, Tom saw three little old ladies approaching the lodge along the entrance road. Then he heard shrieks and squeals from their direction. Next he saw them running as fast as their little old legs would carry them towards the parking lot. He followed in time to hear the vroom and skid of a fast-departing car, and saw Higgins casually clinging to the trunk of a nearby tree, looking around puzzled, as if wondering what all the fuss was about. Apparently the sight of a wild animal bearing down on them had scared the wits out of these old biddies.
On another occasion, Higgins had pounced on a lady's bag at a workshop and made off with her cigarette pack. He can decimate a pack of cigarettes in seconds flat. I guess she wasn't too crazy about the theft.
Tom now feeds Higgins only one meal of dog chow on alternate days. He looks fat and healthy, so he must be finding plenty of food on his own. Tom saw him investigating an outdoor stone barbecue chimney recently. A mouse suddenly shot out from underneath the fireplace. This suggests that Higgins knows full well where the mice live, and keeps tabs on them. He still eats lots of insects, grabbing them out of the grass and undergrowth. He feasts on crabapples.
He had a fight with another raccoon earlier this month, which resulted in a torn nostril. The white scar is still visible. He also had a lump of matted hair under the left front leg as though from a cut that had bled and healed.
The injury to his left rear foot turned out on close inspection to be a painful-looking one. He had a chunk of flesh missing from the ball of the foot and numerous cuts on and between the second, third, and fourth digits. It did not look like an injury caused by another animal, the cuts were slices not claw marks, and the chunk gouged out of the pad had irregular tears around the edges. It looked raw, but was quite clean and not infected. The foot was also swollen on top.
He may have slipped while climbing a rock or some such thing. It did not seem to bother him too much when I examined the foot, and he did put his weight on it when walking on soft mown grass.
Otherwise, he seemed hale and hearty. His teeth looked very white and clean, his eyes bright, his posture perky. The faint seventh black ring at the base of his tail is still apparent.
Higgins and I went for a walk near the lodge. He sniffed the ground every inch of the way. At one point we were down by the junipers bordering the entrance road. This is the general area where Tom says he lives. Two men with fishing poles arrived, chatting as they walked in. Higgins promptly dove into the cattail marsh behind the junipers.
It is a thick tangle of foliage and stems at about three feet and higher above the ground, but at ground level there are plenty of runways for an animal his size. The marsh is fairly dry at present, even around the cattail roots.
Higgins reemerged from the clumps of purple asters around the junipers and cattails when the visitors had passed. He caught and ate a cricket. I noticed him turning to look down several small but distinct runways among the asters, all of which seemed to lead into the cattails. They looked about the right size for raccoons, foxes, and rabbits.
He was just as playful as ever. On our walk he stopped to wrestle with my arm in our old game of "monkey on a branch" in between catching insects and eating berries. When I picked him up, he showered me with raccoon French kisses. This wasn't too tasty, as he'd just been poking his nose into the soil after insects. I got a fair amount of grit in my mouth. He kept poking his paws down my throat as if he thought I were hiding goodies in my esophagus.
As he has now found his own little den in the juniper-cattail thicket and no longer uses his cage with its ideal raccoon log, I brought the log home with me. Who knows who its next inmate will be?
I called Tom today to ask after Higgins. He hasn't been seen since a month ago. Tom checked with all the neighbors living near the preserve in case they had seen any road kills or other sightings. Nothing.
Higgins has gone into the wild.
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