Safe Harbor: A Journey

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I was up to my eyeballs in baby raccoons, and like all wildlife rehabilitators in the middle of “baby season,” I was exhausted and frazzled and in no mood to chat. So, when the call came in, I almost didn’t answer. But the caller ID showed that it was a local sheriff who had helped me with animal rescues before, so I reluctantly picked up the phone. 

“I’ve got a raccoon in a cage in the marina,” he told me. 

I silently cursed. 

Yacht owners in the marina frequently put out illegal traps for raccoons and other urban wildlife, who are attracted to the area by easy access to unsecured food on boats and docks. “I think you’d better come down here.”

As I loaded my car with nets and other gear, I reflected on the problem of the urban raccoon. Their great success at adapting to humans has allowed them to live side by side with us, but we have not been able to adapt to living side by side with them. They make their way in a world that was not created for them, and we greet their success not with admiration for their plucky determination but with relentless persecution. (Over 2 million raccoons are reported killed each year in the United States, but many states do not require reporting “pest” killings, so the actual number is much higher.) 

In urban environments, raccoons keep pigeon and rodent populations under control, clean up carrion, keep organic matter out of landfills, and generally make our cities more livable for humans, and in return we call them diseased pests and work tirelessly to eradicate them. We put out food, but expect them not to eat it; we leave our cozy attics and sheds open, but expect them not to move in; we create a perfect environment for them and blame them for living in it. 

The marina was a perfect example—docks were fenced off from human interlopers, but raccoons that scaled the fences found unattended yachts with galleys full of gourmet food and cozy cabins to sleep in. Yacht owners, enraged at their unwelcome guests, would attempt to “get rid of” the interlopers—instead of the simple task of locking up the food and securing the cabin doors to keep them out.

Arriving at the marina, I drove to the far end of the dock, past rows of pristine yachts, where I discovered the sheriff standing next to a dilapidated and filthy boat. Trash overflowed the deck into the water—pizza boxes, paper, empty bottles, and other detritus. He explained that the boat was being impounded as a health hazard and led the way into the dark, cramped, under-deck cabin of the boat. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, I was assaulted by the smell of feces and rotting food. More trash was piled everywhere, high enough to block out the feeble light from the tiny windows. 

The sheriff pointed towards the front of the boat, and at first I couldn’t understand what I was looking at. It wasn’t a trap. A small cupboard in the cabin had a grated, metal, dog-crate door nailed over its front, in place of a regular cupboard door. There was a rustling sound, and a cloudy eye came into view. I stepped closer, and my foot sank into a pile of feces on the floor in front of the grate. It was deep enough to come over the top of my hiking boot and ooze into my sock. Two little paws appeared, gripping the grate, and finally the entire animal was visible.  

A raccoon, so filthy he was brown instead of gray, with a chain around his neck. He was standing on at least six inches of feces and rotting food, and I saw the source of what I had stepped in: he had been pushing the muck out through the grate, trying to give himself enough space to stand. His entire makeshift cage was no larger than three feet square and pitch black, no light, no air. The grate on the front was nailed to the frame, encrusted with dirt and grime. Scraps of food had been shoved in through the grate and still clung to the edges. There were flies everywhere and the white of maggots and intestinal worms could be seen twisting in the feces. 

I stumbled back up onto the deck, gasping for air. I had never seen a raccoon in such terrible circumstances. The sheriff, retching, explained that he had found the raccoon while taking photos as part of the process for impounding the boat. According to owners of neighboring boats, the boat’s owner lived on the boat and survived by dumpster diving and panhandling. They said that he had trapped a baby raccoon several years prior and said he was going to keep him as a pet, but no one had seen the raccoon after the first few days, and everyone assumed the “pet” had escaped or died. The owner suffered from a mental illness and was frequently hostile and paranoid; no one had ever been on the boat or spoken to him about the raccoon. As best as the sheriff could tell, the raccoon had been under the deck for at least three years.

I had to get the raccoon out of there before the boat was impounded, or he would be euthanized by animal control. Equipped with bolt cutters from the sheriff and the carrier I had brought, we went back into the dark. As the sheriff cut through the grate, the raccoon moved as far away as he could, which was not very far. He turned his head away and shifted his weight nervously, but didn’t show the stiff-legged stance of a defensive raccoon. Once the grate was cut away, I held the open carrier up to the door to see how he would react. He hesitated, then crept forward, cautiously touching the edges of the door. When his front paws felt the clean floor of the carrier, he walked calmly into it.

I rushed him home and put the carrier into a small outdoor enclosure where he would have room to move around. When he cautiously ventured out of the carrier, it became apparent that he could not see well. His eyes were cloudy and dim, and he felt his way forward with his paws. I wondered if I had made a mistake. A blind raccoon would not be releasable, and an aggressive or fearful raccoon would not fare well in captivity. Had I rescued him only to have to euthanize him in the end? I cautiously entered the enclosure and sat down at the far end, away from him, speaking softly to him.  

“You’re all right. Everything is going to be okay. You have a safe harbor here. Maybe that’s what I’ll call you—Harbor.”  

Feeling his way along, he crept up to me. He felt my sleeve with his paws, my pants, my shirt. He crawled into my lap, and I could feel that his fur was sticky and stiff with grime. I saw that his paws—a primary sensory organ for a raccoon—were covered with urine burns. He patted my face, gently. He sniffed me carefully, then he put his arms around my neck, leaned his head on my shoulder, and let out a huge, gusty sigh as he relaxed into my arms. 

His health was my most immediate concern. He was filthy and had a respiratory infection, a recurrent skin infection, broken teeth, and every kind of internal and external parasite imaginable. The metal chain was embedded in the skin of his neck and had to be surgically removed. His vision was permanently compromised from eye damage caused by the urine fumes in the cage. Many people told me that his issues warranted euthanasia, and I argued with other wildlife experts over the ethics of keeping a wild animal in captivity. A severely handicapped animal could have a very poor quality of life, especially a wild animal who may suffer extreme stress from being handicapped and confined. My stance had always been that a disabled, traumatized adult animal would be better off being euthanized than living a life in captivity.

But the more time I spent with Harbor, the more I came to realize that, when faced with the individuality of an animal—one with his own interior life, and his own wants and needs—such sweeping ideology breaks down. Because Harbor, despite everything, was the happiest animal that ever lived. He rushed joyfully up to anyone he met for pats and hugs. He played, ecstatically, with his toys, or, if no toys were nearby, with sticks, rocks, or anything else he came across. And every day, at some point, while playing in his pool or walking on the grass, he would break into a gleeful dance that his many admirers came to call “the Harbor hop.” He approached each day with a full-throated joy that most people can only hope to attain.

Harbor passed away last year, at the age of fourteen, after eleven years with me. He was my whole heart, and I will never stop missing him. His YouTube channel (now defunct) had thousands of subscribers, all learning that raccoons are not diseased or vicious, and that they do not need to be removed from urban landscapes. He appeared at anti-fur demonstrations, showing people the face of their fur coats. But what he taught me was deeper than that. He taught me that we can come from a place of unimaginable darkness and still move forward into the light. He taught me that we do not have to carry our pain with us, that joy can be found anywhere, and that a dance of gratitude is the best way to start a day.

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