“We just found a baby raccoon down by the pond,”
the voice on the telephone said. “What should we do with it?”
The voice was that of Nancy, my wife. She was
calling me at work late in the afternoon on an early summer day in 1977.
“Leave it right where you found it, I said, dealing
out my stock answer for those who call about finding wildlife babies. “Leave
it alone and the mother will be back to take care of it.”
“It’s just a little thing,” Nancy said. “The girls
and I were walking down to the pond and could hear it whimpering. Its ears
are full of little worms and it’s a mess. I think we’d better try to do
something for it. I think it needs something to eat.”
By now I could see the first question was only
a formality. The decision had been made before her call.
“Well,” I said, “mix some condensed milk with
water and a little Karo syrup and heat it lukewarm. You may be able to
get it started eating by dipping your finger in the milk and rubbing it
on its lips, or it may take it out of a medicine dropper. If it lives until
tomorrow you can take it to the vet.”
Well, that baby coon did indeed take the condensed
milk-water-Karo mixture from a medicine dropper, and it did live until
the next day. As a matter of fact, Cooner, as she became known to our family
and friends, lived for some nine years, as near as we can tell.
The next morning Nancy and the girls took baby
Cooner, already a family pet, to Dr. Everett Fleming and Dr. James T. Ward
at the Allisonville Animal Hospital. When they brought her back home she
was the rage of the sage.
She wasn’t really old enough yet to play with
the girls—Donna, Joan and Patty—but they vied for chances to feed her and
do other things that would make her comfortable. I even got into the act.
With the girls helping I used some old lumber
to make the frame for a cage some seven feet long, four feet wide and four
feet high. It had a solid wood floor and sides of baby chicken wire. Before
we finished there was a hollow cardboard den suspended from the top—eventually
to be replaced by a real hollow beech limb, because even treated cardboard
was not strong enough to hold Cooner.
Cooner grew as fast as the weeds of summer. When
it became obvious that she would make it, there were more trips to the
vets’ office for all kinds of shots, and we soon realized that we would
not be far down the road before it would be time to make some decisions
about Cooner’s future.
Everyone in our family knew the story of Elsa
the lion, and we all wanted Cooner to have a shot at life in the wild.
We agreed to keep her until she made this decision for herself.
In a few weeks she was eating almost anything
we gave her—though she was not fond of raw meat—and liked nothing better
than to play with the girls. Late in the summer we started training her
for her reentry into the wild by turning her loose to climb the trees and
explore the pond. But she always came back to her cage in the garage late
in the afternoon, and if she seemed reluctant to return we needed only
to peck on the bottom of a pie pan with our knuckles. That would bring
her helter-skelter from the top of the big tulip poplar—at times I feared
she might fall.
Although Cooner spent most days during the ensuing
school year in her garage cage, the return of the girls from school in
the afternoon meant the beginning of playtime, and it almost always continued
until the adults’ bedtime.
Cooner never drew blood, but she would growl at
times and bite lightly or kick with those back legs. Still, we could do
just about as we pleased with her. My favorite way to play with her was
to grasp both front legs with one hand, both back legs with the other,
and wear her like a fluffy scarf around the back of my neck. She loved
it, and when I would not take the time to hold her in this manner, she
would sit on my back behind my head and sift through my hair with her front
When the kids raked leaves, Cooner raked leaves;
when the kids rode bikes, Cooner was on their backs with front paws around
their necks, and she often got to go to bed with them. They even climbed
trees together. Little wonder that she became the star of the show at our
I wrote the Department of Natural Resources to
get an application for a permit to keep Cooner and filled it out. But each
time I started to send it in Cooner appeared to be ready to make the transition
back to the wild. So the application remained on my desk through a very
mean winter. That was the winter of the blizzard.
There was more than a foot of snow in our side
yard for at least six weeks after the heavy snow on the night of January
25, 1978. During that time many wild animals and birds perished for lack
of food and because of the extremely cold air temperatures. But Cooner,
while getting a little restless, was safe in our garage and house.
I don’t remember the date of the big thaw that
year, but one Sunday the temperature skyrocketed well above freezing and
the little creek behind the house was filled with water.
I was working around the yard most of that afternoon.
Cooner followed me around when she wasn’t probing holes in the banks and
otherwise exploring the creek.
All was going well, but when I tried to lure Cooner
back into the garage she wouldn’t go. Neither would she be tempted by a
pie pan of food, and when I tried to pick her up she resisted violently.
Cooner was more than just ready for a return to
the wild. She was also feeling the urge to mate for the first time.
It was a bittersweet night at our house. But this
was what we had wanted from the start. Now it had happened.
We saw no more of her for several days. Finally
I spotted a raccoon high in a poplar tree in the woodlot behind our stretch
of the old Indiana Railway right-of-way and figured it had to be Cooner.
When she did not respond to my calls, I banged on the bottom of a pie pan
with my knuckles. She ignored me.
Thinking she might be having trouble finding food,
I filled a half-gallon milk carton with chunks of raw carrots, apples and
cheese and threw in a liberal scoop of dry dog food before tacking the
container to the trunk of the poplar tree out of the reach of dogs.
The food was gone the next day and Cooner was
still high in the tree, so I filled the container again. This went on for
several days, but then Cooner disappeared completely.
For several weeks we saw and heard nothing from
Cooner. Secretly we all were upset.
Late one June evening while we were watching television
in the living room our little dog, Sugar, went berserk and we found the
brick ledge outside the picture window infested with coons.
Cooner, at last, had returned. That little white
patch of whiskers in the otherwise black cheek and that big black tip at
the end of the tail left no doubt. But there was more. She had brought
her three babies for us to see. They were cuter than speckled bird-dog
From that time on the big beech tree, which had
been opened up as a coon den when the big leaning tree on the south side
of the pond went down, was Cooner’s home. We watched her babies grow up,
and they in turn became so tame that they would play around the lawn chairs
as we relaxed in the front yard in the afternoons.
As a matter of fact, we strongly suspect that
we will find Cooner’s remains when we have the old tree cut some day to
keep it from falling onto other trees. But as this is written a descendant
of Cooner lives in the tree and brings her four babies out late in the
afternoon for our amusement. There can be little doubt that this sow is
of Cooner’s lineage—the brown spot between the shoulders on the back, not
to mention the mannerisms, being our proof.
After Cooner’s successful reentry into the wild
she still would come in the house now and the, but she was never at ease
there. It seemed like she knew she belonged outdoors just as well as we
Cooner spent nearly all of each of the nine years
of her life in that tree, and she produced young in all but tow of them.
Each year we would see a lot of Cooner and her young, but at times on hot
summer afternoons she would come alone—especially if I were working outside—and
would follow me around. Of course, I always stopped what I was doing to
get her something to eat, but at times she would snub the food. I had to
conclude that our relationship went considerably further than a piece of
Cooner was always willing to share her tree and
home grounds with her young, but in late summer or early fall each year
she would disappear with her babies and come back alone two or three weeks
later. We always assumed she was taking her young out to find territories
of their own, but most of the time they came back, even if it took a while.
Like other raccoons, Cooner more or less hibernated
when deep snow and extremely low temperatures hit in winter. When this
happened we would implement our big airlift, and the coons that shared
the big beech den at that time of year would eat like kings.
I would tape two cane poles together to get added
length, tie a cardboard half-gallon milk container to the small end of
the makeshift pole and swing the container gently like the pendulum on
a clock. When the container disappeared into the hole I would drop the
tip of the pole. This would shower the inhabitants with all kinds of goodies,
often including pieces of cookies and other preferred items.
One winter late in Cooner’s life she disappeared
during an extremely cold and snowy period. When she did not respond to
the airlift we assumed she was in trouble.
The entire household fretted over Cooner’s absence
for two or three weeks.
As the coldest day of the year prepared to turn
into darkness I went out to open the garage door so Donna could drive in
without stopping on the snow-covered driveway when she got home from work.
Soon I heard her car coming up the driveway and
the car door slam in the garage. Then Donna burst into the house shouting
“Daddy! Daddy! There’s a coon in the garage!”
Indeed there was. And it was Cooner. She was skinny
as a rail and hungry as a lumberjack. But she was eating high on the hog
in a matter of minutes.
I left the garage door cracked as darkness came
on and the bottom dropped out of the thermometer. Cooner could have left
at any time. But she was still there well after dark, so I closed the door.
I opened the door every day thereafter, but Cooner
was no dummy. She slept in a bushel basket of burlap bags next to a heated
wall and ate when she felt like it. When the weather broke, she went back
to her tree.
One summer night we returned home to find a raccoon
that had been hit by a car at the end of our driveway. The head was damaged
so badly that I could not find the little cluster of white hairs in the
black spot of the cheek, but I was sure it was Cooner.
I gathered up the body with the idea of giving
Cooner a decent burial the next morning. By bedtime I—like all the other
members of the family—was a wreck. At 2:00 A.M. I had not been able to
sleep, so I went to the kitchen, poured myself a stiff bit of brandy (which
I seldom touch) and sat in the dark of the living room, sipping and thinking
I must have been there half an hour or more when
something told me to turn on the porch light.
When I flipped the switch, I saw and old sow coon
standing on her back legs looking up at the door glass, probably wondering
whether she would get her supper.
I couldn’t believe it, but there it was—the little
clump of white hairs in the black cheek patch.
My world had taken a change for the better.