One of my favorite movies as a child was “Born Free,” the 1966 film about a husband and wife in Kenya who helped raise a lion cub in Africa until it was old enough to be set free in the wild.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to witness similar born-free moments, though they didn’t involve African lions.
A couple months ago I wrote a column about my girlfriend Shelly and her work caring for orphaned baby raccoons as part of being a trained and licensed volunteer for WildCare, Marin County’s wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center.
Over the past four months, Shelly has taken care of 24 baby raccoons.
Some she had only for a few days. Others were in her care for as long as 10 weeks.
The work has one purpose in mind: prepare them for release back into nature.
I tagged along on two raccoon releases, one far out in the countryside, and another closer to civilization. Each group of raccoons is released in a different location, depending on where they were first found.
The two releases were quite different from each other, and not just because of their settings. They also revealed how people who own valuable property can have diametrical attitudes when it comes to wildlife living near or on their land.
The first group of raccoons — four in all — required a long drive that took us past the Russian River. We eventually wound up on a rocky, narrow road accessible only by a four-wheel drive truck.
We ended up in the middle of 500 acres that’s been owned by the same family for more than a century.
The family was kind enough to allow the raccoons to be released on their land.
In fact, the family — a mother and her two adult children — drove us to the release point and helped lug the carriers used to transport the raccoons to a large, remote pond, where the animals were set free.
The family, like the rest of us, enjoyed watching the raccoons get reacquainted with the outdoors.
One raccoon wasted no time after his carrier door was opened, as he methodically walked past us and disappeared into some thick brush.
The other three mingled around and on top of the carriers for a bit, before getting brave enough to disappear into the tall reeds surrounding the pond.
The worse thing I can say about this release were the swarms of mosquitoes living off the pond. I later counted 11 bug bites on me from head to toe.
The mosquitoes, however, weren’t nearly as annoying as the property owner we encountered on the second raccoon release.
On Sunday, Shelly and I drove another group of four raccoons up into some hills dotted with homes. This release did not require a four-wheel drive vehicle, so we took my car.
The road was narrow and winding, but also paved. We passed dozens of expensive houses that had been built high up to take advantage of the splendid views of Marin County.
We kept going until we ran out of road, and parked a little ways past a gated, luxury estate.
Beyond the dead end were acres of open space, which we accessed on foot by way of a fire road. We hauled the carriers down the dirt road, and then up a small trail leading into some woods.
Shelly opened the carriers and stepped back. Similar to the first release, the raccoons mingled around the carriers briefly until they noticed the small trees nearby.
Up they went, scampering the trunks with ease and excitement.
We stuck around a short while so Shelly could take some photos of the raccoons exploring their new home. Then, we headed back to my car.
After loading the empty carriers into the backseat, a man emerged from behind the nearby gated residence — a house worth more than $3 million, we later determined through a simple Google search.
He asked us why we were parked at the end of the road. Shelly explained to him we had just done a wildlife release into the adjoining open space.
The man was taken aback by the news. From the look on his face, you would have thought Shelly had just informed him we were there to rob his home and sell his children into slavery.
He didn’t bother to ask us what kind of animals we had released. It was clear he wasn’t happy at all with the idea of wild animals being set free anywhere in proximity of his home — a home situated high up in the hills, surrounded by natural habitat supporting all kinds of species.
He insisted we were on a private road, and had no right being there.
At that we got into my car to leave. But he wasn’t done with us.
He came over and knocked on my car window. “If I see this car here again, I’m calling the police,” he warned.
I was tempted to challenge his bluster, but didn’t know for certain if the road we were on was private or public.
In hindsight I wish I had called his bluff.
The street was not a private road — a fact I confirmed on Tuesday after speaking with public works officials for Marin County and the city of San Rafael.
As we drove away, Shelly shook her head at the man’s attitude.
“Why do you live here if you don’t want wildlife around?” she said.
I ventured to guess that some people don’t live high up in the hills to enjoy nature. For them it is more about seclusion, if not the status of being able to afford a home that most people can’t.
As for the raccoons we had released, they were back home where they had been born in the wild, and were again free to roam the natural world.