2012 December 14, Friday
Angeles National Forest, California
Rescuing, repairing, and raising orphaned wildlife is a very great privilege, undertaken by a rare breed of humans. We've joked before with our fellow dog- and cat-rescuers and admitted that dog rescuers are "wimps" compared to cat rescuers, because cat rescuers tolerate delayed gratification and unrequited love, whereas dog rescuers get immediate thanks and a fan club. (:--)) But wildlife rehabbers -- now these humans are the deepest and most selfless of all. Why? Well, take for example someone who rescues and raises orphan raccoons.
To raise orphan raccoons to the point where they can be released into the wilderness to live on their own takes about nine months, at least. Baby raccoons are very complex developing critters. Unlike baby rabbits who are ready to leave mom at a few weeks of age, or kittens who can are weaned at six weeks, or dogs who are weaned at eight weeks ... baby raccoons will nurse from their moms for up to 16 weeks, and stay with mom and siblings much longer! Young raccoons have many skills to acquire and much to learn about what to eat and what not to eat, how to find safety and shelter, and so on. And they require much social and physical interaction with their moms, their aunts, and their siblings in order to develop properly. Ohhhh they are fun to raise, but such a handful! And it is very, very hard -- no, impossible -- to do for young raccoons all that their mothers do.
Over the past eight years or so, we have had the privilege of raising a few wonderful raccoons ourselves. Many of them we were able to release in a wilderness area close enough to our home that we enjoyed occasional visits from some of them for as many as five years after they had become fully wild. Another privilege, almost as exciting, has been to be able to offer our decades of familiarity with the mountains and wilderness areas of southern California to other wildlife rehabbers, and to help them with their releases.
One of the most dedicated rescuers and rehabbers of raccoons in all of southern California is a soft-spoken woman named Sharon Weeks. Also a professional veterinary technician, she works both out of the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach, CA, and other facilities. On average, Sharon hand-raises upwards of 50-60 raccoons per year -- not to mention various numbers of opossum, foxes, coyotes, and seabirds! But raccoons are her forte. A phone call from Sharon always means there is some exciting mission needed. Sometimes it's an emergency flight somewhere to pick up some sick or injured animals and bring them back for surgery or other care. Often it's a call to find just the right place to bring her latest brood of teen-agers to release them to the first day of their lives as truly wild and free animals. This latest call was the third release of raccoons we've helped her with in the past couple of months. But this was a larger group, and this time we had our video camera with us. So enjoy with us these precious few minutes in which these young, healthy, strong teen-age raccoons experience their first-ever sight, smell, and feel of the forest.
There is almost always one precocious one, usually a male, who charges out of the crate and runs away in a big hurry to climb the first tree he finds. There are always several who hang together and explore with infinite fascination the nearby grass, leaves, fallen log, or rocks. There are typically one or two who wade a bit too far into the nearby stream and get completely soaked, then crawl back to the others looking like plump greased rats with huge grins on their faces. And sometimes there is one, usually a female, who just does not have the courage to embrace the new adventure. She typically moves very cautiously, as if the ground almost hurts her feet. Or she'll just sit close to the crate she was made to exit, and gently start to touch the leaves around her. We always come back to check on a cautious one, and on occasion we've put her back in the crate and taken her to a "softer" release site where she will be more protected and can be observed for a few days by one of us or by another resident human.
These releases are awesome. In a matter of minutes, these animals who came to the rehabbers hairless, eyes closed, and weighing a few ounces, and who spent months and months and months growing and developing under the loving eyes and care of these humans, are suddenly on their own, with no looking back. No matter how familiar they may be to Sharon or whoever else raised them, raccoons like this know who they are, and they are not inclined to look back to us for help or reassurance. They are listening to the drummers inside their own deep souls, who will teach them to find food, protection, friends, and mates. In just a few minutes, they have gone from dependents whose food and water we provided and whose cages we cleaned out daily, to entirely free and independent beings. There is no way to raise and then release a wild animal and watch him or her become what they were meant to be, without silently feeling awe and enormous respect for their self-reliance and intuition by which they will now survive on their own. We humans could learn a lot from these wild ones.
Enjoy these videos! More photos are included below the videos.