MY HUSBAND AND OTHER ANIMALS

Shortly after we arrived at the home of the Clamps in Edisto Island, South Carolina, I went into the guest room. I was about to open my bag but stopped abruptly. It was already open and a raccoon was seated comfortably in the middle, cushioned amongst clothes. I ought not to have been surprised since Sharon was known to adopt orphaned little animals, especially raccoons.

This masked ransacker was busily “washing” something, by rubbing its hands together. It looked up at me as if to ask, “Did you want something?” The raccoon had found a bag of peanuts, and flakes of the nuts’ brown skin lay sprinkled over all my belongings. I carried the creature to the living room where its cage stood empty and set it on the carpeted floor.

It had a funny gait and was ungainly on the ground. Sharon said the raccoon’s mum had been run over while crossing a busy highway, and the cub was too young to fend for itself. Its curiosity, intelligence, and fearlessness reminded me of mongooses moving in slow motion. I had never seen a live raccoon before and this was a delightful introduction.

Sharon said almost all her raccoons were quick to take to the wild. They eat almost anything and live anywhere. This lack of fussiness has stood the animals good stead. The time we spent with the Clamps didn’t prepare me for another raccoon experience. A few days later, we were visiting a friend in West Virginia. It was late night when we returned to his home in the suburbs. JM slowed down to swing into the driveway and startled a raccoon that had been rummaging in the garbage bin. JM swore and cursed. They were disease-infested pests, he ranted.

In cities, garbage and pet food are plentiful year-round. Out in the American countryside, however, the animals forage for insects, fruits, nuts, and birds’ eggs. Life is much harder. Unsurprisingly, there are more raccoons compressed into urban areas than in rural farmlands.

Urban parks, such as Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., hold dense populations of raccoons, a couple of hundred plus per square kilometre. In comparison, the countryside has between four to 400 times fewer raccoons. As if the plentiful garbage available on every street were not enough, some people, like JM’s neighbour, just can’t resist feeding these animals. This drives our friend apoplectic with rage. Unperturbed by the acrimonious neighbourly relations, one raccoon made a den in another resident’s attic. Looking at that leafy suburb, I imagined raccoons enjoyed a better standard of living in cities than in the country.

However, life is not all hunky dory for these freeloaders. Living off garbage has its price. Biologists have found plastic, rubber bands and other indigestible objects in raccoon scat. Instead of fearsome predators and hunters, disease and road accidents kill a good percentage of citified raccoons.

With help from humans, raccoons have even crossed the Atlantic and colonised Europe. During the World War II, some American soldiers kept raccoons as pets. When the men’s tour of duty ended, a few released their captives. In addition, raccoon fur farms were established in Eastern Europe from where a few escaped. In a misguided attempt to “enrich” the native fauna, some were deliberately released in a German forest during the Nazi era. Now there are breeding populations in many European countries.

In southeastern United States, raccoons wander along beaches feasting on sea turtle eggs, while in Europe, birds are especially vulnerable to their depredations. I found it hard to think of these cute creatures as pests, and I imagine the work of conservationists who have to control raccoon numbers must be tough. If only all animals were as cute and capable of exploiting humans, we needn’t worry about their conservation.