NATURE (HUMAN AND OTHERWISE)
by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
Early one January morning, as the sun was beginning to rise, I opened my back door and was about to step outside when I noticed something unusual in the spot where I would normally place my foot. It was round, furry, brownish-gray, and about the size of a basketball. And it was breathing. Yikes!
I quietly closed the door, and then rapped on the slider to see if the creature would startle. It didn’t. It remained rolled up in a tight little ball, and appeared not to hear me. If it was sleeping, it was a very sound sleep. More likely, it was sick.
I was pretty sure it was a wild animal, and not a confused housecat. I couldn’t see its head or tail, but it seemed to be the right size for a raccoon. I didn’t want to take any chances – it seems to me that disturbing any sort of slumbering animal is a bad idea – so I chose a different exit. An hour later, the ball of fur was still there, still apparently snoozing.
When half of the day had passed and the creature had not stirred, I contacted Marshfield’s Animal Control Officer, Alyssa Ryan. I described the situation, and she said she would come check it out. “No matter how cute it may be,” Ryan warned, “do not try to pet it.”
I wasn’t at home when Animal Control stopped by. After assessing the situation, Ryan reported to me that the breathing ball of fur on the doorstep was indeed a raccoon, and it was definitely ill, probably with distemper, which is epidemic in our area right now. Sadly, the animal had to be put down.
Raccoons are not an uncommon sight on our back deck. Our property borders the woods and a freshwater wetland, so there is ample land nearby for wild animals to roam. In the mornings, we put out seed for the birds. Sometimes after the sun has set, a family of raccoons will come by and brazenly scarf down whatever bits remain. It’s amusing, if not unnerving, to turn on the light and see a masked critter look up and stare directly at you, with an expression on its face that seems to ask, “So what are you going to do about it?”
Raccoons are a common sight on the South Shore, especially at dusk and dawn – and the hours in between. Mostly they are active at night, but if you see one during the day, there is no cause for alarm, unless it behaves strangely – appearing disoriented or partially paralyzed, or perhaps wandering in a circle. Raccoons can exist comfortably in all sorts of habitats – farms, forests, suburban neighborhoods, and even cities – and typically make their dens in trees or in burrows abandoned by other creatures. Unfortunately for us, this can sometimes lead to raccoon dens in chimneys, sheds, attics, and the close-in areas under decks and porches.
Raccoons are easy to distinguish from other mammals of their size, due to the mask-like black and white color patterns on their face, and their striped black, gray and white tails. Their mating season runs from January to March. After a gestation period of just over two months, new cubs are born – most often in the mid-spring – with anywhere from 3 to 7 per litter. After another five months or so, they become independent, but usually remain with their family for much of the first year. They can grow in size to anywhere between 12 and 36 pounds, and range from 2-3 feet in length (tail included).
Raccoons are omnivores. If animal sources of sustenance are readily available – things like crabs, young birds and muskrats, turtles and their eggs – they’ll happily chow down. They may already be plotting to raid your chicken coop! Raccoons also consume nuts, berries and seeds, whether procured in the wild or in the backyard. Birdseed and suet are tempting, of course, but whatever food you’ve left in your unsecured trash barrels could also make a nice feast.
Outdoors is probably okay, but you don’t want raccoons taking up residence in your home. Some ways to prevent this are: securing your trash and compost against looters; keeping pet food indoors to decrease temptation; and capping or closing off chimneys, attics and the dark areas under porches and decks.
The creature on my back doorstep was probably suffering from distemper, which is the second most common cause of death for raccoons. There are actually two types of distemper – canine and feline – stemming from two separate viruses. Both are highly contagious, and begin with cold or flu-like symptoms that eventually lead to more debilitating conditions such as pneumonia, anorexia and brain damage. Neither virus has a cure, so when a raccoon with distemper is discovered, the standard treatment is euthanasia. Most sick raccoons don’t make contact with humans, however, so of greater concern is the spread of disease among animals. Humans are not susceptible to the virus, but our pets are, if they do not receive regular vaccines against the disease. Another good reason to go for that annual round of shots!
You can learn lots more about raccoons via the following two links, which I found very helpful while writing this article.
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 20 years of nature columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com