As a photographer’s wife, I’m used to having to entertain myself and the 85-pound (or 39-kilogram) dog we travel with while Mr. Jones searches for the perfect angle, pines for just the right lighting or waits for that bird to hurry up already and face him.
This day was no different.
We were in rural Quebec, at the site of a covered bridge built in the 1800s with sunbursts glistening off the river that flowed gently beneath it. Dog and I had already waded in the water and admired the historic structure, and we were now ready to take a little walk along the road beyond the bridge. We would meet up with Mr. Jones at the truck at some undetermined time.
I wasn’t sure where the road would lead Dog and
Led by Dog’s curiosity
Just a few steps past the bridge where we had parked the truck, Dog started pulling with all his might on the leash—that very leash that I was at the other end of. There was something absolutely mesmerizing on the opposite side of the road.
Now, I don’t outweigh Dog by too much, and when he wants something, there can be no stopping him. But despite my size, I can be just as determined as he. I dug in my heels and put the brakes on the beast to prevent myself from being dragged across the road like a rag doll.
Realizing he couldn’t get what he wanted, Dog conceded his loss and simply stared across the road in the direction of the dry-leaved base of a tree. With my senses heightened to that location, I began to tune in to the sound of something that resembled a cross between a bird’s squawk and a bleating lamb. The repetition was relentless, and carried with it something that seemed to me a note of desperation.
I wanted to go over and investigate, but I knew that my curious companion might not have the delicate touch that might be needed in this situation. So I relegated him to the back of the truck, leaving the back window open so he could still feel somewhat close to the action. I then took his curiosity, rolled it into my own and crossed the street in a controlled and deliberate manner.
A wild dilemma
Localizing the source of the shrieks, I found at the base of the tree something that looked to be the size of a squirrel, and yet was distinctly not. As I came in a little closer, the markings around its eyes were unmistakable. It was a baby raccoon.
A thousand thoughts ran through my head. Where was the mother? Was she coming back? What should I do? I didn’t want to intervene if she was coming back, but what if she wasn’t? I couldn’t just walk away from those gut-wrenching cries.
I felt the need well up in me to protect this defenseless creature, yet I also knew I needed to respect its wildness.
I watched for a while as the little creature cried and cried, stretching out one wobbly foot in front of the other until it had made a full circle around the tree. Not finding what it was looking for, it started for the road.
I felt the need well up in me to protect this defenseless creature, yet I also knew I needed to respect its wildness. I used my voice to encourage it to come back towards the tree. Without breaking its rhythmic call, it simply turned and stumbled toward my words.
A pickup truck passed by. And then another. The driver of the third leaned out the window to find out what was going on.
“It’s a baby raccoon,” I said.
“That’s too bad. Well, it’ll end up as roadkill like so many others.” There was perhaps a touch of pity in his voice. He drove off, and I was again left alone with a dilemma I couldn’t walk away from.
The choice to act
My propensity to take action kicked in. I ran back to Mr. Jones, quickly explained what was happening and took the cell phone right out of his pocket. While he was still processing what I had told him, I ran back towards the scene of the drama.
I searched the web for a wildlife office I could contact, and only found numbers for government agencies that had already closed for the day.
My next thought was to find a veterinarian in the area. The closest one was about 20 minutes
A soft-spoken man answered the phone and assured me, in perfect English, that language wasn’t going to be a problem. I explained the situation. “I don’t deal with wildlife,” he told me.
Realizing I was speaking directly with the vet and not an assistant, I knew he was the only hope for help. I wasn’t going to let him off the line. And I told him as much. There didn’t seem to be much resistance to my insistence.
Dr. John asked some questions: Was the raccoon acting strangely? Was there anything coming out of its mouth? A check for rabies. How big was it? Was it alone? At that size, walking around by itself, mama wasn’t coming back.
He asked if I had some sugar water I could give the little guy. I ran back to the truck and grabbed the jar of Nutella I kept around (you never know when there’ll be a serious need for Nutella!). I found a stick on the ground to use as a spoon and held it in front of the small creature. It walked right into the stick and just kept on crawling, a little brown smear hanging off its chin.
Dr. John explained that once, when he had first started his practice, he had rescued a raccoon. It had grown up in his clinic. But there came a point when it started wreaking havoc, unlocking kennels and getting into mischief. He finally had to give it to an animal rescue centre. There was a note of melancholy in his voice.
“OK. Bring it in.” I was ecstatic to hear this come through on the other end of the line. Perhaps the affection he’d once felt for the raccoon he had cared for was swaying his decision.
Dr. John’s prognosis
By this point, Mr. Jones had made his way over to the excitement, and I enlisted his help with collecting the small ball of fur into a towel. Once it was neatly gathered, it went into a plastic shopping bin we had in our truck, with a piece of cardboard covering the top.
I was worried about the little crawler trying to make an escape. But once it had the comfort and warmth of the towel that must have felt like its mother, it immediately stopped crying and promptly fell asleep.
Dog was very interested in knowing what was in the bin on my lap in the front seat. It was, after all, Dog who had found the unfortunate creature, so I let him take a sniff to satisfy his curiosity.
During the 20-minute ride to Dr. John’s, there was no movement in the bin aside from a brief stirring when the raccoon repositioned itself. When we arrived at the clinic, there was no need to introduce ourselves. We were the only clients and Dr. John was ready to meet us.
Just as he’d bumped into the stick I’d held in front of him without any reaction, the raccoon crashed right into the vet’s sandals. “He’s blind,” Dr. John announced.
I was eager to talk about the raccoon that so desperately needed help, but Dr. John took the time to ask Mr. Jones and me some questions about who we were, what we were doing in these parts and how our adventures had been.
And then, with great care, Dr. John picked up the baby raccoon and declared that it was a male. He had been out of the nest for a while and was dehydrated. Another little check showed that his reflexes were intact. And then Dr. John flicked his fingers in front of the raccoon’s eyes. No response. He put the raccoon on the ground. The little guy started crawling and crying out again. Just as he’d bumped into the stick I’d held in front of him without any reaction, the raccoon crashed right into the vet’s sandals.
“He’s blind,” Dr. John announced.
“He was either born blind and his mother abandoned him for his atypical reactions, or he fell out of the nest and became blind,” he continued. “Regardless, he doesn’t stand any chance of surviving in the wild. He can’t be rehabilitated. I’ve already taken in a raccoon once and I won’t do it again. I’ll have to euthanize him.”
He was matter-of-fact, Dr. John as
My heart was heavy and my eyes a little moist, but I understood what needed to be done.
Dr. John would notify the authorities of our contact with this wild creature. He took down our cell number before we left, saying it was proper procedure. There needed to be a way to get a hold of us in the rare case that rabies was detected.
“You did the right thing by bringing him in,” Dr. John consoled. “At least he won’t suffer through injury from a vehicle or starvation.” I knew he was right, but longed for a better outcome.
Hope against all hope
In the days that followed, I wondered aloud to Mr. Jones if somehow, Dr. John had changed his mind and the raccoon was still alive. I wanted to believe that there was hope for a creature with all the odds stacked against it. What a story of triumph that would be!
“What if…” I would ask Mr. Jones. What if Dr. John had decided to keep the little fellow—what with it being blind, he wouldn’t get into as much trouble. After all, this was the vet who had initially said he didn’t deal with wild animals. He’d changed his mind on that, so maybe…
I knew it was just one of my flights of fantasy. In the real world, practical and rational decisions must be made, and that’s that.
A tiny miracle
And then, it actually happened. The world I hoped for, yet knew was an impossibility, had crash-landed into the plane of existence that everyone else inhabits.
There was a voicemail left on our cell phone: “This is Dr. John. I thought you would want to know that my assistant came in the next morning and did some research on the internet. She found an animal refuge that would take the blind raccoon and keep him. She drove him there and that’s all I know. I’m not going to keep in touch with them, but I just thought you’d want to know. It was my assistant, not me.”
It struck me that he made sure to point out that it was only the assistant who had been instrumental in giving the baby raccoon a chance. Yet, it must have been Dr. John’s decision to keep the animal alive until the next morning. He was an enigmatic mixture of kindness, humility and a feigned resistance to opening up his heart.
I couldn’t believe that the helpless, abandoned blind baby raccoon that Dog had discovered on the side of the road was going to make it! He had found strangers that would spend the time and energy and make the commitment to raise him and take care of him. I imagined him as a wildlife ambassador, going on trips to schools and community events and raising awareness for animal conservation.
Never forget to say thank you
A few days later, a Hallmark card arrived at Dr. John’s office. It read, “When I grow up, I want to be just like you, kind, caring and smart.” As if scrawled by a small child’s hand, a few words had been added, “Thank you for giving me the chance to grow up.”
It was signed with my best drawing of tiny raccoon paw prints.