“Conquering Nature” (Tracy Anderson)

My husband stood outside, staring up into one of the huge old maple trees in the yard, brandishing a tennis racket as if it was his last defense against a ferocious predator. The fading light of dusk forced him to squint, but he wouldn’t let down his guard for fear that the raccoon he held hostage high up in the branches of the tree might escape. He gripped the racket with both hands, his knees bent like a professional tennis player waiting for the next serve. From where we stood inside the house we could hear him yelling at the raccoon over the buzzing chant of the locusts, which usually drowned everything else out on late summer evenings.

He shouted up into the tree, “Come on down here! What do you think you’re going to do, wait until it’s too dark for me to see you?”

Holding our breath, we watched him so intently that our noses almost pressed against the living room picture window. My three boys stared out into the front yard, mouths hanging open, shooting quick, nervous glances in my direction. Unwilling to take his eyes off of the tree for even one moment, Jim called for me to come out and help him. Groaning, I told the boys to stay put, and was immediately trampled in their rush to get out the front door for a better look at what was up in that tree.

I let the screen door slam in my haste to keep any of them from climbing up the trunk. Hobbling barefoot over twigs that littered the front yard, I hurried out to where they all stood. The four of them circled around the base of the tree, looking straight up as if watching for a bird or an airplane. Excited, the kids shouted out questions, stumbling over one another in their eagerness to be helpful. Did he want them to get out their slingshot? Why was he holding a tennis racket? Was he going to climb the tree, or better yet, could they climb up and try to catch the raccoon for him?

A pickup truck slowly rumbled down the dirt road in front of our house, kicking up a cloud of dust, and I was glad for the cover of twilight in case it was one of our neighbors. I stood a few feet away, half-heartedly listening to the debate going on about catching the raccoon, but mostly enjoying the cool September air.

Dusk was rapidly becoming dark. It was just possible to see the blurry shape of the raccoon, and the tiny pair of glowing eyes that calmly stared down at us from about ten feet over our heads. Just above those eyes was a large, hollowed out knot in the trunk. As I watched, the fat body silently shimmied up and disappeared head first into the knot. The bushy tail trailed behind, swishing back and forth before curling down into the hollow.

Relieved to see it disappear, I announced that the raccoon had surrendered, and that it was time for bed. It had become too dark to do anything, and I secretly didn’t think any of my men, young or old, stood a chance against the raccoon anyway. Firmly denying the chorus of pleas to catch lightning bugs, I began to usher the boys towards the front door with one syllable commands like “GO!” and “Now!” and “Inside!” Reluctant to admit defeat, Jim was the hardest to convince to leave his post at the base of the tree, but he finally did.

Normally, he would never dream of threatening a raccoon in a tree. Tonight’s fury was the final show down of a full fledged territorial war. It had started out with the discovery that some critter had invaded and taken up residence in the cellar of our old farm house. The ancient stone walls and the dirt floor made it damp and cold, so we didn’t use the cellar for anything except storing canned foods. Living in a rural area, we were accustomed to four legged creatures, but our experiences had always proven the animals to be more afraid of us than we were of them.

Late one evening we heard a loud crash, the shattering sound of glass breaking, and then the scratching of little claws frantically scrambling along the heat ducts under the living room floor. We shot up out of our chairs and raced to the cellar door, throwing it open and turning on the light. The strong smell of vinegar and dill hit me as I charged down the steps, suddenly realizing that the pile of glass and sliced cucumbers I saw on the floor used to be my homemade pickles. Half a dozen jars lay smashed and scattered at the base of the sagging, plywood shelves where we lined up our preserves. I was so focused on the mess that it took several moments for me to really see what my husband pointed at. Calmly watching us from the top shelf, its head near the cobwebbed rafters, sat the fattest raccoon I had ever seen.

The raccoon looked very plump and soft, like one of the kid’s stuffed animals. In the harsh light coming from a bare bulb its perfectly round black eyes looked like glass marbles. Appearing unconcerned with our presence, the raccoon began to lick its front paws and then use them to scrub its face. I grudgingly thought that the pickle juice must have made its face feel pretty sticky. As the initial shock wore off, Jim and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows and smiled. We couldn’t help it. Although we were angry about the mess, we were amused by the raccoon’s human mannerisms as we watched the little paws scrub the masked face.

After a moment Jim took a few cautious steps towards the shelves, causing the raccoon to stop cleaning its face. As he advanced another step or two, the raccoon decided that he had gotten close enough and stood up to retreat, knocking over more mason jars. It began to try to climb over the remaining jars on the top shelf, clumsily losing its footing, and sending more jars over the edge to smash on the floor. I grabbed Jim’s arm and whispered urgently for him to stay back, fearing that more of the jars would be broken. We eased back, retreating carefully all the way to the top of the stairwell. As we left the cellar I decided to leave the light on for our new houseguest, hoping to spare a few jars of pickles.

After that night a campaign began. We tried everything we could think of to either persuade the raccoon to move out of the cellar, or to move it out by force. We bought a live trap and baited it with open tuna cans, peanut butter, cheese, and other foods, but the raccoon was too smart for us. The food containers were always mysteriously licked clean, but still sitting down inside the live trap. We left a radio on in the cellar for a week, tuned to a news station, hoping that the sound of human voices would scare the raccoon away. The craziest thing we tried was recommended to us by our neighbor, an elderly farmer with a handlebar mustache. Offering advice from the seat of his tractor, he told us to set out poison mixed in a cup of Coca-Cola because he knew for a fact that raccoons could not resist the smell of Coca-Cola. Apparently, this raccoon preferred Pepsi.

With every failed attempt at removal, Jim grew more and more determined to force the raccoon to leave. Friends and neighbors fueled his urgency by warning us to get her out as quickly as we could, in case she was looking for a place to have babies. Once she had babies in our cellar, we were told that she would always return for future litters.

The raccoon was smart though, and having found a dry place to live where the people left food out for her, she decided to stick around. We heard the dragging and bumping sounds of her roaming around under the floors after the boys went to bed in the evenings. Every sound she made amplified and echoed in the hollow ductwork of the furnace, and then drifted out of the vent to where we sat in the living room. Jim always grumbled and cursed, renewing his vow to, “Get that thing out of there!”

One evening as we sat listening to the scratching, shuffling noises that drove Jim crazy, a sudden cracking, followed by the sound of rushing water made us jump up. Jim unlatched and threw open the basement door, starting down the steps before his hand had even found the light switch in the dark. He made it to the third or fourth step before he could even see where he was going. Hurrying down behind him, I almost crashed right into his back before I realized that he had suddenly stopped and cried out in surprise. There on the landing of the stairwell sat our resident raccoon, blinking rapidly at us with the dazed look of someone trying to see who is aiming the flashlight directly at their face.

Stumbling over each other, we retreated back up those three or four steps even more quickly than we had descended, crowding sideways into the open doorway and looking down at her in disbelief. She had grown huge. She was so fat that even walking was a struggle for her. Her abdomen dragged on the floor, and each step she took looked awkward and painful. It was obvious that she was going to have babies soon.

We watched as the raccoon slowly descended into the dark beyond the landing light, then we hesitantly crept down the cellar steps behind her. Following her down the stairs felt risky. We knew that she could turn mean and territorial if she felt threatened, but we still heard water running. It hissed, reminding me of the sound the garden hose makes when you squeeze down hard on the sprayer. Following Jim, I put my hand out and braced myself against the stone wall for balance, then immediately pulled my hand back from the cold dampness that permeated it. Somewhere in the darkness below me I heard the clicking of the light bulb as Jim pulled the cord, filling the entire cellar with moving light as the bulb swung from side to side. The raccoon had disappeared, but we both saw that one of the white plastic pipes coming out of the top of the hot water heater was shattered and stuck out at a funny angle. Water spurted out of this pipe, bubbling and streaming down the white metal sides of the tank and flooding the floor like a fountain.

Voicing his anger, Jim punched out words in loud, slow syllables, “Oh, that’s great! That is just great!”

We didn’t know how she had gotten up there, but it was obvious that the raccoon had broken one of the pipes when she climbed over the top of the water heater. Now Jim would have a weekend’s worth of work in the cellar, and the cost of the new pipes and fittings to feed his growing urgency to, “Clear that raccoon out!”

A week or so later the raccoon did finally leave, but not because any of our eviction attempts worked. The day she left we knew that something was going on when we heard her moving around much earlier than usual, and in the chimney. Her presence in the cellar was so established by then that everyone knew exactly whom I was talking about when I asked, “Now what is she doing up and about so early?”

“If that raccoon thinks she is going to have babies in our chimney, she’s got another thing coming!” Jim yelled as he stomped outside to look at the top of the house. I was about to leave the room, more than a little fed up with the whole thing, when Jim pulled open the door and thrust the top half of his body back inside.

“You’ll never believe who’s climbing down the outside of the chimney, and guess what? She’s carrying a baby!” He laughed and then ran back outside, reminding me of hearing the kids laugh with relief on Christmas mornings, bursting with joy when they discovered that they had been included on Santa’s good list after all.

The activity of this mother raccoon had become an obsession in our house, and we watched for the next hour as she haltingly carried her babies out. She made five journeys from the top of the chimney, over the roof, on to a tree limb, and down into the hollowed out knot in the big maple tree that shaded the front of the house. We could barely see what she carried. Their fuzzy necks gripped in her mouth, the babies stayed curled up into baseball size balls of fur. Watching her slow procession down the steep roof, I sympathized with her plight, and was thankful that I only had one baby at a time to haul around. My husband, on the other hand, speculated on the odds of hitting her if he got out his rifle. We decided that shooting her seemed too cruel now that she was leaving, and she was awfully close to the house anyway.

Later that night, thinking that the fight was finally over, Jim went outside to give the tree, the roof, and the chimney one last look before dark. He immediately rushed back through the house, taking a short cut to the garage, and yelling, “She’s bringing them back in!” as he ran past.

“She’s what?” I asked, but he was already out in the garage, kicking toys and tools out of his way as he frantically searched for something. He burst back through the living room carrying an old tennis racket and looking like he wanted to kill something. In a defensive stance, he stood under the tree with the tennis racket held ready, yelling up at the mother raccoon. There was no way he was going to let her bring those babies back into the house.

As I said before, that night ended in a truce. The mother raccoon disappeared down into the hollow of the tree with her babies, and we disappeared into the house. After a few days we were convinced that our problem was solved. We even began to think of her with some humor, now that we could assume that she was gone. As the winning team, we had convinced her to leave. Man conquers nature, hurray!

We were wrong. One morning I heard a squeaking, animal noise from under the fireplace. I knelt down and put my ear to the glass doors, afraid to open them, yet already suspecting what the noise was. I heard the mewling sound again. Eerily, it reminded me of a human baby’s cry. I knew what the noise was. It had to be the baby raccoons, calling to their mother. So much for conquering nature! I listened to them cry on and off all day. Sometimes just one voice would call out, a mix between a cat’s meow and a baby’s throaty wail. Knowing that raccoons were active at night and slept during the day, I assumed that something had happened to keep the mother away from her young.

As soon as I told Jim about the crying sounds he went down into the cellar to investigate. Under the fireplace there was an old ash clean out. It was an empty chamber, bricked on all sides and barely large enough to hold a basketball. Covering it was a small, cast iron door that was so rusted and old it fell apart when we forced it open. Inside the chamber, nestled in yellow fiberglass insulation were five baby raccoons, abandoned by their mother. I marveled at their clean soft fur and bedding amidst the damp and grime of the cellar. Although missing now, their mother had done well for them.

We waited another twenty-four hours, periodically checking to see if their mother had returned, but the babies were always alone. They cried more and more frequently now and my heart broke as I listened to their calls most of the next day. The crying caused me more anguish and frustration than any broken water pipe or pickle jar ever could. Giving in to my emotions, I made some phone calls, did some research, and decided to try to rescue the baby raccoons.

When Jim came home at suppertime I proudly showed him the cardboard box in the utility room closet where I had put the baby raccoons, snuggled down into an old Sesame Street sheet. So young that their eyes hadn’t opened yet, I couldn’t tell if they were sleeping or not. The fuzzy down that covered their bodies didn’t seem to be keeping them warm, and even cuddled together they shivered. Tiny tails curled up under them, not like the bushy tail their mother had, but their faces already wore the bandit masks that raccoons are most known for. I picked a tiny raccoon up for Jim to look at more closely, and suddenly realized that he was looking at me as if I had grown horns.

“We spent all that time trying to get rid of one raccoon, and now you want to keep five of them? Are you crazy?” He asked.

As Jim stormed off, slamming the door on his way out of the room, I wondered why he was so upset. I couldn’t just sit around and let the babies die! I’ll work on him, I thought. Maybe he’ll let me put them in a cage down in the cellar when they get a little bit older.


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