Raccoons: Masked Bandits, Not Pets

A juvenile raccoon takes in his new surroundings upon release by a nearby lake.  As protocol, animals were always released close to a water source.
A juvenile raccoon takes in his new surroundings upon release by a nearby lake. As protocol, animals were always released close to a water source.

I’ve mentioned before how Good Samaritans can unintentionally be bad.  Sprinkled among these Good Samaritans is a smattering of people I would consider mentally unstable.  (Honestly, who would think a lion makes a good pet?  And why would someone ever continuously feed an animal Three Musketeers chocolate bars?)

Sometime in May, a woman brought in a pair of juvenile raccoons, two of six that survived since she “rescued” the litter at birth.  Perhaps not knowing it is illegal to rehabilitate animals without a license, this woman thought she’d help the cute, cuddly, furry critters.  Not only would her coddling ultimately deem them non-releasable, but the mixture of dog and cat milk she was feeding the babies caused their skin to turn white and their fur gray, to the point that they didn’t look like raccoons.  In an effort to save the last two, she dropped them off at WRR–hugging the rabies vector species to her chest–hoping we could keep the last of the litter alive.  It was too late; they died after a week due to heart failure from malnourishment.

It’s one thing to have the mindset that infant raccoons are harmless, but it’s another to think nothing wrong with keeping an adult raccoon as a pet.  Some of the animals brought to WRR were confiscated by Animal Control, while others were turned over to us as “ex-pets” from the “owners”.  Ex-pets are the most trivial cases for release because they are often so accustomed to human presence and so dependent on human care that there is little chance of survival in the wild.  Nevertheless, this does not stop us from attempting to distance their reliance on humans and work toward an eventual release.

People must have a soft spot for raccoons because we had a number of these ex-pet masked bandits.  A particular case with which I became quite familiar was an adult female who had been living off of dog food and Cheez-Its.  Cheez-Its?  Really?  The minute that coon came through our doors, she was on a weaning plan.  Normally, weaning plans are designed for mammals graduating from formula to solids.  In this instance, we had to wean a raccoon off of Cheez-Its, which meant someone from WRR went to the store to pick up bags of livestock feed, bird seed and monkey chow, and a box of Cheez-Its.  When I left Texas three months later, the raccoon was off the cheese crackers and had been upgraded to a large outdoor enclosure.

Since I seem to be engrossed in the topic of raccoons at the moment, it might be fitting to share my raccoon enrichment story now.  All animals need enrichment, whether wild, captive or pet.  Forms of enrichment differ greatly depending on the animal’s environment.  For example, a wild dolphin can enrich himself by creating and shaping his own bubbles in the open ocean or by using echolocation to hunt.  A captive primate, such as an ex-research Rhesus macaque in permanent residency at WRR, might have his dexterity and mind enriched by having to open up a box to get to his food, instead of receiving it on a silver platter.  And you can be assured that my guinea pig has ample enrichment in the form of human contact (snuggling), exercise (free roam of the bedroom) and hiding (an oatmeal container for every occasion).

At only 3 weeks old, this orphaned raccoon was still getting used to his arms and legs and was still being bottle fed.  It's easy to forget these animals don't make good pets when you see how cute they are, but important to remember they belong in the wild.
At only 3 weeks old, this orphaned raccoon was still getting used to his arms and legs and was still being bottle fed. It’s easy to forget these animals don’t make good pets when you see how cute they are, but important to remember they belong in the wild.

Any free time in the animal rehab world–a rarity–I put my creativity to work designing enrichment for animals.  One time I pieced together pennies and a broken mirror (seven years bad luck for me, oops) for the exotic birds, hanging it out of pecking reach, of course, so that no shiny objects would be ingested.  Another time I put mini fields of wheat grass in with the juvenile skunks and opossums, watching them stomp their feet on the soft blades instead of pillowcases and wire cages, the only surfaces to which they had heretofore been introduced.  For eleven ducklings, I brought the outside inside, spreading leaves and sticks around their net cage.

My favorite self-assigned enrichment creation was for an ever-curious group of juvenile sibling raccoons.  Rescued from their hit-by-car mother, the orphans already had grown from closed-eye newborns to wide-eyed fluff balls under our care.  In the laundry room storage, I discovered a series of wooden blocks hanging from a horizontal wooden rod.  The donated toy was constructed so that the blocks could rotate 360 degrees or just swing back and forth in the same manner as a pendulum.  Raccoons love peanut butter, so I slathered some creamy Jif on the front and back of all five blocks.  Then, to make the toy even more interesting, I dropped pieces of chicken, fruits, vegetables and dog food onto the peanut butter.

Similar to almost all animals, but especially true of raccoons, they are incredibly food motivated and have the attention span of a two-year-old.  Knowing this, I engineered a device that was nutrition-oriented but would take time to be defeated.  I watched enthusiastically as their paws repeatedly batted at the blocks, their brains working on problem solving how to get food off the block when it just kept spinning.  The reason I was so proud of this environmental enrichment device (EED) was the fact that I miraculously succeeded in holding the raccoons’ attention.  I could visualize their cognitive thought processes; I was witnessing an animal learning.

And to clarify, “EED” really is the zoological term for a peanut butter covered shoe or egg carton or ball of yarn presented to an animal, mainly because it sounds smarter than “toy.”

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