My fascination with the raccoon can be traced back to 1963 with the publication of the book, "Rascal" by Sterling North. In this memoir set in the World War I era, North details his adventures with a mischievous raccoon that he raises from an orphaned cub. I was just around 14 years old when I first pored over the pages of "Rascal" and the nostalgic story of a more innocent time initiated my quest to capture a cute and cuddly raccoon of my very own.
To that end, with the help of my younger brothers and some other neighborhood kids, I assembled the materials to build a homemade raccoon trap - basically a wooden box with a sliding wooden door. An angled piece of wood inside the contraption was baited with sardines. A string ran up from this "trip treadle" through a hole in the top where it was attached to the trip tray of a Victor rat trap. Another string ran from the business end of the set rat trap to a nail that held the sliding door open. When the rat trap was sprung, it yanked the nail out and released the sliding door. Gravity took over and the door slammed shut, trapping the unsuspecting raccoon inside. At least in theory.
It was a very contentious and finicky device, but we were so sure it would work that we went ahead and constructed a raccoon pen out of plywood and chicken wire where we would house our masked hostage and, we hoped, befriend him in the spirit of Rascal and Sterling North.
But there were apparently design flaws in our trap. We would set it in the evening, baited with fresh sardines, only to find the device had misfired and the bait had been stolen the next morning. Being outsmarted by raccoons only made us more determined to succeed. Our failures continued for a week or more.
In the meantime, we modified the trap to minimize the multiple malfunctions until, against all odds, the primitive contraption finally worked. One bright summer morning in the woodlot behind our house in Aston, we were astonished to discover that our invention had outwitted an honest-to-goodness wild raccoon at last. Our mood was proud and jubilant, but our happiness would be short-lived.
Our first order of business was to transfer the captive raccoon to the pen we had built. A neighborhood friend and I picked up the trap and began the short trek to the pen. It was a rather large animal, and its weight combined with that of the heavy wooden trap made for a laborious task. In lifting the trap, I wrapped my fingers through the space above the sliding door in order to get a better grip. Unfortunately, in so doing, I had inadvertently placed my fingers inside the trap with a thoroughly annoyed raccoon. I think I realized my blunder about a nanosecond before the raccoon did.
I snatched my fingers out of the trap at the same moment the animal thrashed around and growled. I peaked through the space. Sure enough, there were the open jaws of the ferocious beast, its canine teeth sharp and gleaming like fangs in the exact spot my tasty and tender fingers had been just a moment before. A chill ran down my 14-year-old spine. That had been a close one. Clearly, this raccoon was no Rascal.
Nonetheless, we somehow managed to transfer it to our pen without incident. The raccoon hissed at us and gave us dirty looks before retreating into the little house we had provided along with ample food and water. We then decided to go fetch our parents and show off our prize. We all raced to our respective houses, leaving our perplexed prisoner unguarded in the process. Since the pen was built at the far end of our backyard, it took me only a few minutes to summon my father and introduce him to my new ring-tailed best friend. But things hadn't gone quite as planned.
It immediately became obvious that our pen had just as many design flaws as the trap. The raccoon had made short work of our shoddy construction and essentially ripped it to shreds in the few short minutes we had been gone and made good his abrupt escape. Lesson almost learned: don't mess with wild raccoons.
My next encounters with raccoons came in college. I moved in with my grandparents where their East Goshen home was convenient to West Chester State College where I aspired to major in English. Their homestead, set on six wooded acres intersected by a little meandering stream, was a raccoon haven.
I invested in a large live trap commercially manufactured by Havahart that had none of the design flaws of my homemade model of earlier years. I had discovered there was a small market for live raccoons - a local hunt club would pay me $5 for each raccoon I could provide. They needed them to train young coonhounds by releasing the raccoon and letting it lay down a scent trail.
After the 'Coon had been given a sufficient head start, they would then release the coonhounds in training - breeds like Redbones, Blueticks, and Black and Tans. The dogs would then give chase to the fleeing raccoon until the varmint invariably took refuge in a tree. Once that was accomplished, the dogs had done their job and learned a lesson in the fine art of "treeing" a raccoon.
Once a raccoon had been treed during these training sessions, the dogs were rounded up and, eventually the raccoon made a safe escape. Hunting raccoons with dogs remains a popular nighttime pursuit in some areas of the country, particularly in the south, and, in season, a treed raccoon will most often be shot and used for its pelt. I'm not sure how many raccoons I captured and sold during those college summers in the late 1960s, but five bucks was a lot of cash back then, and I can still remember the time I caught two raccoons in two nights and turned them over for a cool $10, enough to fill my Volkswagen's gas tank numerous times.
The most comprehensive book published about raccoons back in 1964 was written by Leonard Lee Rue III and entitled "The World of the Raccoon." Like Sterling North, Rue kept numerous raccoons as pets and, in so doing, endured a number of painful encounters.
"Raccoons while young make fascinating pets," reminisced Rue, "but they should not be kept beyond two years of age, especially if they are to be handled. Beyond that age they become sullen and temperamental, and I bear the scars to prove it."
Rue also noted that the raccoon is curious, intelligent, and has astounding manual dexterity, as evidenced by front paws that are shaped and manipulated like little hands.
Raccoons have a home range of about one square mile and it seems that, with very little hunting and trapping pressure in our area, their numbers here in Chester County have proliferated markedly of late. The number of raccoons showing up on our back deck to raid our bird feeder seems to be infinite these days. One night there was a noisy ruckus outside and I flicked on the porch light to reveal four raccoons battling it out for bird feeder dominance. The next night I locked the feeder away in the shed. The following morning I discovered that a raccoon had found a stash of feed in a latched container in our garage, unlatched it, and gorged himself on feed. another had returned to our deck that night and, in the absence of the bird feeder, found our hummingbird feeder, pulled it from its hanger, disassembled it into five separate pieces, and drank all the nectar, proving how resourceful these nocturnal creatures can be.
Sometimes too resourceful. The raccoon is an omnivore with an incredible appetite. As "cute" as these animals are, they can also be very destructive and deadly.
One dark night a few months ago, a tribe of raccoons managed to break into our chicken coop and make off with all of the half dozen hens we owned - leaving nothing behind but a lot of feathers and a few broken eggs. It was clear from the manner of the break in - and the distinctive tracks left at the scene of the crime - that raccoons, not foxes or coyotes, had done the dirty deed.
In his comprehensive book, despite his fondness for these creatures, Rue acknowledges the dark side of the raccoon persona when it comes to their penchant for poultry.
"Once raccoons get into the habit of feeding on poultry, they do not stop until they are killed or the chickens are wiped out. Unlike a fox ... a raccoon seems to indulge in an orgy of killing."
We won't be investing in anymore chickens until I find a way to fortify our poultry compound, but given the strength, persistence, and cleverness of this creature, I'm not sure that, in the long run, a totally raccoon-proof enclosure would ever be possible.