Some people hate raccoons. They consider them pests, or worse. Some will kill them on sight.
I have never had anything against raccoons. I was neither pro- nor anti-raccoon as a kid. They were just a part of life growing up in the countryside of Napa.
Raccoons, opossum, deer, skunks — they were always around outside our house, particularly at night.
But it wasn’t until I got the chance to see raccoons up close — when they’re really young — that I came to appreciate their masked charm.
My weekend began with being introduced to four 1-month-old raccoons. They didn’t have names. For the purposes of this column, I referred to them by color, such as Blue.
That’s because they had blue, pink, green and orange nail polish on their back claws.
No, raccoons don’t get pedicures.
The nail polish had been applied by Shelly Ross who — when she’s not being my fabulous girlfriend — serves as a trained and licensed volunteer for WildCare, Marin County’s wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center.
Shelly and others like her who help WildCare are forbidden from giving the raccoons names, according to a host of regulations from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that WildCare must follow.
Shelly’s job is to foster baby raccoons until they’re old enough to be released back into the wild. The task involves feeding and caring for the animals without domesticating them so they’re able to make the transition to being on their own once they’re freed.
Although painting nail polish on raccoons might seem domesticating, it has a very practical purpose for wildlife rehab. The black and white stripes on baby raccoons’ faces are almost always identical to one another.
Still, Shelly needed a way to distinguish each of the four raccoons while documenting information for WildCare, such as how much their weight changes.
That was the first fact I learned about the raccoons. The second fact I learned was they don’t lick their feet, like cats do.
“It won’t hurt them,” Shelly said of the nail polish.
The baby raccoons were kept in a small pet carrier, situated inside a playpen. That way they had some room to move around in.
Mostly they just slept while inside the carrier, she said.
But now it was feeding time. Shelly pulled the little raccoons out, one by one. Before food could be served, they had to go to the bathroom. It was mandatory.
Fact No. 3: Newborn raccoons don’t know how to urinate or defecate after they’re born. Their mother, like many animal moms, has to stimulate them, so to speak, by licking them in the proper place.
“I don’t do that,” said Shelly, with emphasis.
Instead of tongue, Shelly employed tissues that she gently rubbed against Blue’s genitals. The tissue gradually turned yellow.
The raccoon did not struggle or fight Shelly. If anything Blue appeared stoic and resigned, with his little front arms hunched up near his head from Shelly gently holding him in one hand while the other provided bladder, then bowel stimulation.
Out dropped a tiny splotch of yellow. “It’s a little runny, but that’s OK,” she said of the raccoon poop.
Shelly explained that their diet at this age — consisting at first of Pedialyte only, then a specially designed raccoon formula — could produce soft stool until their digestive system got used to it.
“It’s not like what mom gives them,” referring to what their raccoon mother provided by way of her nipples.
The baby raccoons had lost their mother after someone may have killed her. Sometimes it’s an accident, like a car striking a raccoon crossing a road. Sometimes it’s intentional.
“It happens. People kill the mom, then they find the babies,” she said. “They don’t kill the babies. They call us,” meaning WildCare.
After cleaning up Blue, Shelly pulled out a small baby bottle — complete with a blue nipple. This bottle was specifically for Blue. The other bottles sported pink, green and orange nipples.
Each raccoon received a slightly different amount of formula, depending on their weight and how they were reacting to the food.
It took Blue less than a minute to down his 32 cc’s (cubic centimeters) of lunch. That’s just over 1 fluid ounce of liquid.
Shelly repeated this entire process, of peeing and pooping and feeding, for all four of the baby raccoons.
By the next day, she had five she was fostering.
Shelly got a call from WildCare about a young raccoon someone had found, and that needed immediate care.
This one was even younger than the others. It was perhaps only a day or two old. It was small enough to fit in the palm of someone’s hand.
Shelly rushed to Marin County with her incubator. She was under the impression they needed the equipment to help keep the little one warm.
Instead, Shelly was asked if she would take the tiny raccoon back to her place. She took one look at the frail, thinly haired baby, and didn’t hesitate to answer.
“I’ll take her.”
Shelly has spent years fostering and caring for baby raccoons, including handling ones this young and fragile.
The effort is a labor of love. It comes with its joys as well as its heartbreaks. Even with the best of care, some baby raccoons don’t make it. They arrive in bad shape, or can easily develop pneumonia.
Shelly has had little ones die in her arms.
The baby she had just picked up was given a lilac “pedicure.”
In the case of Lilac, she required more TLC than the other raccoons in Shelly’s care. Her eyes hadn’t opened yet, nor had her ears. Those events don’t occur until they’re usually about three weeks old.
It was just as well Lilac couldn’t see or hear yet, Shelly explained. Lilac’s first days on this earth had been marred by violence and death.
Someone found the orphaned raccoon in an attic. The scene up there was grisly. Her mother and siblings had all been killed.
An adult male raccoon was the suspect. They sometimes will kill the babies, then try to mate with the female, according to Shelly.
“Raccoons are good moms. They don’t abandon their young,” said Shelly. “The mom died trying to protect her babies.”
How Lilac survived was unknown.
After getting her home, Shelly weighed Lilac. She was a whopping 92 grams, or 3.3 ounces — the same weight as a deck of cards.
“Smallest baby I’ve ever had.”
The tiny raccoon had plenty of life left in her. Her spindly legs kicked madly in the air while Shelly gently held her in her hand.
Lilac’s mouth emitted soft, throaty grunts of protest.
Her mouth was surprisingly large. Lilac was able to wrap her jaws around the tip of Shelly’s gloved ring finger, sucking on it like a pacifier. She quickly settled down.
Lilac was kept in the incubator where it was a balmy 100 degrees, plus humidity, thanks to the water Shelly added to a special compartment that helped turn the incubator into a humidifier.
She would remain there until she was old enough to stay in a carrier, like the other raccoons. But Lilac would never join the others Shelly was caring for, due to their age difference. Eventually, she’d be paired with another group of raccoons closer to her age that other volunteers had.
As for the “big kids,” the month-old raccoons’ eyes and ears were working. Their legs were still a little wobbly while walking around the hardwood floor.
Climbing, though, was quick and easy. The foursome scampered up and down a “tree,” similar to those sold at pet stores for cats, in their enclosure.
Even at this age, their tiny claws are very sharp. Their back feet are able to rotate 180 degrees to facilitate climbing.
An avid and accomplished nature photographer, Shelly enjoys photographing the raccoons she fosters as they grow and learn the skills they’ll need to survive outdoors.
The photographs revealed the innocence of infancy. Their black eyes and bandit markings resonated a rascally sweetness.
The only thing the lens couldn’t capture was their sounds.
A crackling kind of cooing, or trilling, could often be heard from the raccoons. This sound would change if they were startled or frightened. Then, they would screech, a sort of high pitch “Eep!” It was nature’s way of giving them a distress call to help their mother find them and come to their rescue.
Shelly had done just that, coming to their rescue for that weekend, and many more to come. She can’t imagine a time when she won’t want to help these young animals.